WASHINGTON — The United States is losing an ongoing information war because it’s failing to pivot from the counterterrorism fight of the last decade, according to former top government officials.
Nation state actors are waging a persistent information war against the United States and its allies as a means to undermine democratic institutions and sow discord among citizenry.
“I think the United States is being strategically defeated in the information environment. We’re not even holding our own. We’re being defeated. We’re being outmaneuvered, we’re being outflanked, we’re being out persuaded,” Michael Nagata, a retired three-star general who spent most of his career in the special operations community and served as director of strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center, said Oct. 2 during a virtual presentation at a National Defense Industrial Association conference.
The stakes for this information war are much greater than those in the war on terror, former officials contend.
“A lot of guys on [Capitol] Hill, they like to pass bills that … are buying lots of guns and not much butter. This [information warfare capability] is the butter, this is not flashy, it’s not something that you can put in a parade, but it’s as important and in this day and age maybe even more so,” Karen Monaghan, former department chief for Russia at the CIA, said at the same event.
The Defense Department has traditionally viewed information operations as supporting kinetic activities, but Nagata believes it’s time for the government to flip this paradigm in today’s global competition.
“Perhaps military physical action … or any other form of physical action by the U.S. government now should be increasingly seen as things that support information operations,” he said. “I have occasionally seen examples of this where we used kinetic action by [counterterror] elements to do shaping activities so that an information operation could succeed, but they’re rare. I think we need to make them much more commonplace.”
Some nonstate groups have proved this to great effect.
In a paper published in 2017, academic Alex Crowther outlined how the Islamic State group conducted military operations in support of information operations; on the other hand, the U.S. military historically conducts information operations in support of traditional operations. ISIS militants would scout an objective prior to an attack and determine the best place from which to capture footage to later post online for a variety of purposes.
Nagata noted that if the United States cannot flip this paradigm, it will risk losing without even fighting.
Tactical vs. strategic
Former officials also noted the gross differences in scale between the counterterrorism fights of the past to the current information war involving advanced nations.
“In the CT [counterterror] realm, it was a much different task. Information operations in the CT world were designed more to be tactical. Information operations against our near-peer competitors must be much more strategic, involve a lot more critical thinking about what are our goals, what are we really trying to do,” Monaghan said.
“In the CT world, we’re looking to dissuade people to becoming radicalized. What are we trying to do here? Who are we targeting? … Are we countering the narratives of our near-peer competitors, are we correcting them? Are we trying to dispel conspiracy theories and mis- and disinformation? I think we really need to come to grips with that before we’re even able to develop a successful or comprehensive [information operation].”
The United States was here before. During the Cold War, there was an ongoing tit for tat in the information sphere against the Soviets. However, while American shifted its focus and objectives during its global war on terror, Russia has not.
“The United States does have a natural competitive advantage in the realm of information operations against our near-peer competitors. That’s particularly true of Russia that’s been doing it for years and years,” Monaghan said. “[Russia] has a whole infrastructure to deliver information operations. Not only an infrastructure but it also has a realm of players from their intelligence services to their state media to their media spokespeople, their diplomats, through the media spaces that they own overseas.”
Nagata emphasized there are ways for a powerful nation like the United States to correct itself, but “we’re letting it get eaten away because we’re not taking this seriously enough across the United States government.”
Top state adversaries can hide behind sovereignty — something terrorist groups do not enjoy — and rich resources while also benefiting from internationally recognized institutions such as the United Nations.
But some experts say it’s possible the United States is more active in this space than it appears. If these operations are taking place in foreign media, they likely would be unknown to an English-speaking, American audience trying to track the activity.
For example, U.S. Cyber Command worked to disrupt and confuse ISIS online and its operations by sending tailored messages to individual members of Russia’s military intelligence, who were allegedly involved in attempts to sow discord among the American public and disrupt recent elections.
However, some are skeptical of the overall effectiveness. Herb Lin, senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, asserts that cyberspace operators are likely not the best choice for conducting such operations.
In an article published over the summer in the Cyber Defense Review, he wrote that the expertise needed to conduct psychological or information operations goes beyond the skill set of cyber operators, who are really experts on the ones and zeros of computers. Rather, he suggested, there should be an entity that can integrate specialists in psychological operations and cyber operations as co-equals.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.