Cyber a ‘tool to knock down fake news,’ says former top DoD official

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Following the alleged influence operation attributed to Russia during the presidential election, many are asking how the U.S. and allies can combat these efforts that string together propaganda, misinformation and social media “trolls,” to name a few. The questions come in the wake of the official announcement of a Russian information operations division within the Russian military.

There is consensus the U.S. can stand up an architecture to swat down these efforts, but the “how” will be difficult given the bureaucratic structure of the government.

The government needs to say this is how it’s going to defend the nation from these types of attacks be it information warfare, destroying data or stealing data, former director of the NSA and commander of Cyber Command Keith Alexander told the Senate Armed Services committee March 2.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), noted that cyber can be closely related to information warfare in that so much of cyber attacks is to suck out personal information and with that “target false information to people and it’s part of a propaganda campaign.” He pointed to testimony given to the committee in January by the former director of national intelligence James Clapper, who said “we need a U.S. information agency on steroids to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than we’re doing right now” … one that deals with the “totality of the information realm in all forms to include social media.”

Alexander added that there should be a process to go through the roles and responsibilities of various governmental organizations in crafting an architecture for combating these types of tactics.

“If it is a nation state and there’s a probability that [retaliation] it will lead to war, it is my belief it should be the Defense Department,” he said drawing parallels to the ongoing debate that the private sector be allowed to “hack back” – a policy Alexander does not support.

If it’s a law enforcement issue, then FBI and Justice Department should be involved, he added, explained he had a great relationship with the FBI director during his time in government describing it as a great division of effort with no seams between the two officials.

The U.S. can get there, he said, but there is no architecture today and that is what is needed.

Suggesting that the U.S. is in a competition of government models with other nations such as Russia and China, James Miller, a member of the Defense Science Board and the former undersecretary of defense for policy, speaking for himself and not the board, noted the U.S. must build upon its strengths within the framework of its government structure. This, he said, includes a free press.

He offered that a fundamental goal should be to knock down fake news, adding that cyber is a tool to knock down fake news and take down fake websites. Having a set of rules of engagements and polices associated with that could be valuable, he said, but offered no specifics in the way the government could or would evaluate what constitutes as fake news.

He also explained that the U.S. should not get involved in the propaganda business as Russia has. “We want to counter [information operations] but in accord with our values,” Kaine affirmed.

Some of these propaganda efforts have included foreign powers buying television stations to make their point of view known because television is so influential, or making campaign contributions to particular political candidates, Craig Fields, chairman of the Defense Science Board told the committee.

The Intelligence Community’s report on the alleged Russian influence operation pointed out the great effect RT, a Russian-owned, media-television organization central to disseminating information.

Fields said last summer, the board spent significant resources on this issue, with 80 people working nine months to come up with a set of actionable recommendations of how to both conduct and counter such operations. It starts with good intelligence collection, he said, to know they’re happening and it goes beyond that to both defense and deterrence.

“This is something we can do, we just aren’t doing it,” he said.