Former CYBERCOM director: Distinguish between cyber, info warfare [Commentary]

snagfilms-a.akamaihd.netsoldier-airman-cloud-9782f0d267b941b33d50a45ff064d1c2fe1d186c-1.jpg

It’s information warfare, not cyberwarfare, and that is an important distinction.

I continue to be frustrated by commentators who label the Russian activity to influence the election as a cyberattack. It was, in fact, information warfare, and it was conducted in the same way the Russians conducted information warfare well before everyone was on the internet and connected on social media.

It is important to make this distinction to ensure that we are getting to the root cause of the problem. It is unhelpful to conflate information warfare with cyberwarfare, a term I am not fond of, by the way. War is war. The fact that we can exercise the elements of national power in and through cyberspace does not constitute a new definition of war. The fact the Russians conduct information operations leveraging cyberspace does not change the fact it is information warfare.

This issue becomes particularly significant when you look at some of the statements made recently by members of Congress who appeared to be less concerned with Russian capability to attack critical infrastructure and more concerned with their ability to “hack” the election process. Both issues are important and need to be addressed, but it is important to identify the attack mechanism in order to employ the appropriate countermeasures.

Looking to Department of Defense, Cyber Command or the National Security Agency to counter what the Russians did during the election is the wrong approach. We need to acknowledge that the Russians simply leveraged the domain of cyberspace to conduct information operations more effectively than they could before cyberspace was a thing. No government agency is going to stop the Russians from compromising email accounts, posting on social media, trolling at scale or any other activities designed to sway the thinking of the (gullible?) American public.

We have to acknowledge that a very large proportion of our citizenry would never read an article of substance discussing the nuance I raise here. I would hope, however, that our national security leadership would be thoughtful and consider other options than looking to Cyber Command for a magic solution to keep the Russians from influencing our next election or those of our friends and allies. On the other hand, Cyber Command in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, law enforcement and the private sector should be after a way to keep the Russians and others from attacking critical infrastructure through cyberspace.

It seems that Finland and other countries in close geographic proximity to Russia have figured it out. Our focus should be on our story. It is about our message, not countering Russian propaganda. And we have a huge advantage over a country like Finland in that we do not have a large Russian-speaking population, much less an 830-mile border with Russia.

That said, we have a population that is increasingly reliant on social media and other sources for news and information. We are not going to wean people off those sources, so the question is: How can we conduct information operations inside our own country to effectively tell the narrative of the United States? And just to make sure there is no confusion, this work is not the mission of the DoD.

We have struggled to be successful with social media in the war on terrorism, and there are aspects of culture and ethno-centricity that make that a tough problem. But we should understand enough about our own country and its values to tell a persuasive story to Americans. Understanding the difference between a cyberattack and an information campaign is fundamental to getting focused on the correct problem and generating potential solutions.

Maj. Gen. Brett T. Williams (ret.) is the president, operations, training and security at IronNet Cybersecurity Inc. He is the former director of operations U.S. Cyber Command.