Expert panel to Congress: Can’t ‘bomb our way to success’ in info warfare

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Associate Fellow at King’s Center for Strategic Communications, King’s College London, Matthew Armstrong spoke at a March 15 hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. (Photo Credit: U.S. House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities)

On Wednesday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities held its first public and open hearing on the topic of “Crafting an Information Warfare and Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment.”

The hearing highlighted the ways in which information warfare and propaganda campaigns — as well as effective methods for combating them — often involve an element of cyber operations.

The most prominent U.S. adversaries in information warfare form a cast of the usual suspects — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State group.

The hearing comes at a time when public dialogue is abuzz with terms such as “weaponized narrative,” “meme warfare” and “fake news.” Experts claim terrorist propaganda capabilities are improving, and nation-states increasingly hurl public allegations of interference in each other’s domestic media and political affairs.

Just this week, the Russian Embassy in the U.K. announced the launch of its Russian Diplomatic Online Club, which is using dubious third-party app Tweetsquad to sign up U.K. Twitter accounts in what many see as a concerted influence campaign to sway U.K. public opinion.

Also this week, third-party analytics tool Twitter Counter was used to hijack Twitter accounts — many belonging to celebrities and business “brands” — to tweet Nazi slogans and symbolism, as well as propaganda supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Committee Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., set out a broader theme of the hearing in opening remarks, in which she noted that too often the U.S. focuses on the digital and technical aspects of cyberwarfare and influence campaigns, but she argued the U.S. must “keep in mind that information warfare is about information, including psychological and cultural aspects.”

Ranking Member James Langevin, D-R.I., agreed with Stefanik and the expert panel that — as in cyber policy and strategy overall — the U.S. approach to effectively countering information warfare and propaganda requires a “whole of government” approach.

In opening remarks, Associate Fellow at King’s Center for Strategic Communications, King’s College London, Matthew Armstrong stressed the strategic nature of the task, quoting a 1918 report by U.S. Army General Staff that said, “In the strategic equation of war, there are four factors: Combat, economic, political and psychologic. The last of these is coequal with the others.”

Armstrong outlined a pragmatic approach to overcoming three primary challenges. The first is correcting the current “disunity” between U.S. words and actions. The second is to move from merely reacting to adversaries’ propaganda to taking a more proactive approach. The third is changing what Armstrong described as, “The militarization of foreign policy.”

He observed that that the Department of Defense has taken the lead on U.S. foreign policy, which “promotes a perception that we are an insecure nation.” Armstrong advocated throughout the hearing for better coordination and communication across government entities charged with countering propaganda.

“We must set the narrative that must be displaced by our adversaries,” Armstrong argued, adding, “We must accept that we cannot bomb our way to success.”

Armstrong described what he called a “marketplace for loyalty,” which opens the U.S. to what security professionals call “insider threats” — individuals within the U.S. who are liable to empathize with adversaries and carry out “lone wolf” attacks.

Michael Lumpkin, a former assistant security of defense for special operations and special envoy/coordinator at the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, in opening remarks noted that the end of the Cold War was the last time the U.S. has “successfully engaged in sustained information warfare.”

Since then, he said, the U.S. government has not adapted to modern communications and technology. Lumpkin said the U.S. is currently “cognitively hamstrung” by a lack of accountability and oversight, bureaucracy resulting in insufficient resources, and limited access to highly skilled personnel.

Timothy Thomas, a senior analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth and an expert on Russia, discussed Russian concepts and capabilities of information warfare. Thomas explained that Russia’s information warfare is “holistic” and “focused not only on media and propaganda, but on information technologies that fit weaponry as well.”

Russia divides its information warfare concept into two categories, Thomas said, which include information technical and information psychological. Cyber and social media have “tended to blend the two and caused a significant changed in how Russia views emerging trends and character of warfare.” These changes include the increased use of nonmilitary activities, such as media or information deterrence capabilities, over military activities and increased engagements — ranging from infiltration to influence — with adversaries at a distance.

Thomas outlined Russia’s methodical approach and multi-pronged tactics to “New Type Warfare,” which he also laid out in written testimony.

Russia remained a focus of the hearing into the questions and answers segment. In opening remarks, Lumpkin noted that many U.S. adversaries are not constrained by “ethics, the law or even truth” in their information warfare. This stands in stark contrast to U.S. approaches, which must comply with law and maintain truth, Langevin said.

This theme continued in discussions of Russia, in particular. Thomas observed frankly, “Russians don’t believe in objective truth.”

Thomas quoted Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian journalist who Vladimir Putin handpicked in 2013 to lead Rossiya Segodnya, a then-new official Russian government-owned international news agency. Thomas quoted Kiselyov as saying, “Objective truth is a myth being imposed upon us.” Of course, Thomas noted, this stands in direct contrast to Western approaches to truth.

Armstrong cited the example of Flight MH17, referring to a Malaysian Airlines crash over Ukraine airspace in 2014. Russia created no less than eight different storylines around what happened in that incident, Armstrong said, which is typical. Armstrong described an environment within Russia in which “fake experts and fake groups push messaging.” This practice is what Thomas called a process of “creating an alternate reality” to fit Russian goals.

Thomas said the Chinese, being communist Marxists like Russians, “probably” do not believe in objective truth either. The definition of strategy for Marxists, Thomas noted, is to look at objective reality and ask how it can be bent through subjective means to achieve goals. The Chinese have openly stated the need to take over a cultural environment in countries, but unlike the Russians, they are more “gradual,” Thomas said.

Armstrong said Chinese information warfare, particularly media such as Chinese Central Television, differ in key ways from Russian propaganda outlets such as RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik.

“Chinese [propaganda] is more sophisticated,” Armstrong said. Unlike RT, which doesn’t want the audience to find the truth, Chinese controlled outlets are “much more intellectual, although pushing the Chinese view,” Armstrong observed.

As to countering adversaries’ information operations, the consensus among panelists and many committee members formed around establishing U.S. credibility and its narratives and messages. For Armstrong, this means the U.S. must “change our mindset and change our language.” This begins, Armstrong said, by understanding the local environments in which the U.S. is trying to communicate.

In addition, most agreed tailored responses to each adversary would be required. Langevin characterized it as “fine-tuning capabilities,” while Lumpkin referred to “scalpel-like messages.” All panelists agreed it would require, at minimum, a state-by-state and terrorist group-by-terrorist group approach. “All politics is local. All messaging is local also,” Lumpkin observed.

Lumpkin also advocated for “fast tracking” contemporary data analytics tools to use in shaping messages and measuring their effectiveness.

As to who should lead U.S. information operations and counter-propaganda efforts, many possibilities were discussed. Lumpkin stressed the need to not increase government bureaucracy, but rather find a way to effectively structure and “harness” what the U.S. government already has.

Lumpkin said he was “loath” to add more bureaucracy in the form of a U.S. Information Agency 2.0, which as proposed would combine cyber and technology with information capabilities.

“I thought I had seen bureaucracy at DoD — until I arrived at State,” Lumpkin said. He characterized the U.S. State Department today as, “a 19th century bureaucracy using 20th century tools to fight 21st century adversaries,” while commending the intellect and talent of State Department employees.

Asked the role of U.S. Cyber Command, Lumpkin said, “CYBERCOM is a key player in this space.” However, the lines dictating CYBERCOM’s response to foreign actions with domestic impacts are “very gray and very blurred” right now, Lumpkin said, because it’s difficult to see where information starts and stops. There is “no passport with an IP address,” Lumpkin observed.

Despite State Department bureaucracy, Lumpkin advocated “elevating” GEC within the government and giving GEC its own budget line. On the Trump administration’s rumored budget cuts to the State Department, Lumpkin said the reduced funding would have “devastating consequences.” Echoing earlier comments by Armstrong, Lumpkin said, “We’re not going to kill our way to victory.”

Wednesday’s hearing preceded next Monday’s highly anticipated hearing by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s first public hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Asked what message the expert panel would convey to that House Intelligence Committee about Russian information operations and its potential implications in the U.S., Armstrong said, “It’s severe, we’re underestimating it, and there’s no cost to them to continue doing it.”

Thomas added that it’s important recognize here, in the U.S., “just how insidious the effort is overseas.” Thomas relayed the perspective of someone in a Baltic country, who has been fighting the continuous information warfare of its Russian neighbor for decades and who likened propaganda to carbon dioxide: “It’s colorless, it’s odorless, and it comes in and does its job.”