Modern Information Warfare Requires a New Intelligence Discipline

Story Stream
recent articles

The United States has been under attack from foreign entities for years, and the national security enterprise has failed to adapt its outdated practices to new threats, particularly those below the threshold of war. Since Russian interference in the U.S. Presidential Election was suspected, much has been made of the threat posed by information warfare. While the threat has been widely discussed, little has been done to prevent foreign influence from disrupting U.S. interests. This essay examines the concept of information warfare and proposes that a new intelligence discipline, public intelligence, is needed to counter rising threats to U.S. national interests.

The proliferation of personal computers, networked connectivity, and smart technology enabled new ways to conduct hostile actions against a foreign state. This new environment inspired security experts to develop concepts to describe new forms of warfare.  For example, the U.S. military developed the concepts of net-centric warfare, cyber warfare, information operations, network warfare, and a host of other associated terms beginning in the 1990s. The conflation of these terms obfuscates the characteristics and nuances of each concept, thus making effective counter-tactics difficult.

Cyber warfare and information warfare are separate challenges, with some overlap, which require different countermeasures.  In a 1997 paper prepared at the Air University, U.S. Air Force Colonel Richard Szafranski offers a working theory of information warfare to help prepare for the complex environment that he envisioned occurring in 2020. This prescient theory provides a useful lens through which to view the current threats facing the nation today.

His theory holds that information warfare is a form of conflict that targets an adversary’s knowledge or beliefs, with the aim of subduing the hostile will of leaders and decision makers. The target of information warfare includes every element of an adversary’s epistemology (the organization, structure, methods, and validity of knowledge) and the desired effect is to influence and change what the adversary believes or what the adversary knows.

It can be argued this view of information warfare is not new at all, as this theory is based largely on the centuries-old concepts of deception, propaganda, and psychological operations.  To borrow from Clausewitz, modern technology may have changed the grammar of information warfare, but the logic remains the same.

Before proceeding, it is worth briefly noting how advances in technology have changed how individuals and organizations learn today. We, humans, create mental models and form ideas about our perceptions of reality.  Through socializing, we share and refine our ideas by interactions with others in our social networks. Modern technology requires us to process continuous streams of information, often designed to influence the way we think. An artificial environment now exists where individuals interact and share ideas and beliefs without establishing a sense of trust and without validating the quality of information being exchanged.  While technology provides unprecedented access to people and information, it also creates vulnerability.

At the same time, information systems were proliferating in modern society, the neoliberal ideals that emerged after the end of the Cold War promoted the spread of international institutions.  These institutions are often well-meaning, attempting to raise awareness of trans-global issues such as human rights, climate change, and the inequities in the international economic system. These institutions, by design, offer a venue for foreign influence on domestic audiences.

Today, the epistemology of the U.S. public is under attack from foreign entities. When members of the public conceptualize foreign attacks, they likely conjure up visions of invading armies, warships on the horizon, or bombs falling from aircraft. These types of attacks are viewed as a “military problem,” and the public has little role in countering them.  The information age offers a much subtler form of attack that is difficult to detect and counter before the damage is done.

Newly released information on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election describes a new form of “combined arms” in information warfare, where online social media operations were used in conjunction with humans, who allegedly were duped into actions intended to undermine the integrity of the electoral process.

Russia is not alone in practicing this type of warfare. As China asserts itself in the South China Sea and into Africa, through its ambitious One Belt, One Road Strategy, it is also attempting to influence U.S. knowledge and beliefs.  China employs its own “troll army”; has permeated U.S. educational institutions through a massive influx of government-funded students and propaganda machines, such as the Confucius Institute; and by investing in U.S. media companies.

While the threat of foreign influence is great today, the problem is likely to get even worse in the future.  Emerging technology is making it difficult for the public to make the distinction between fact and fiction.  For example, a 2017 Discover Magazine article noted how advances in audio and video-editing technology could make it nearly impossible to distinguish artificial reproductions of events from what actually occurred in reality.

The U.S. Government must recognize its national interests are under attack from foreign states and take measures to assist its citizens in identifying foreign influence.  This assistance must come from the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it can repurpose a portion of its resources and personnel into a new discipline: public intelligence (PUBINT).  PUBINT would detect, analyze, expose, and inform the U.S. public of hostile foreign activity intended to change beliefs or knowledge to the benefit of a foreign state.

PUBINT would require a new intelligence paradigm, one that embraces transparency and spreading non-politicized information to a broad audience, rather than the arcane notion of secrecy, which produces exceptional knowledge for a handful of elite policymakers.  Several examples of how PUBINT would help inform the U.S. public without compromising “sources and methods” follows.

Monitor. Surveillance technology is becoming available to the public at a lower cost, and it should be assumed that any activity occurring in the open environment is subject to some form of electronic surveillance. As China exerts its influence in the South China Sea, real-time satellite imagery must be shared with the public.  This information could be used to counter China’s message of peaceful “reef reclamation” efforts and demonstrate the militarization of key terrain features to a global audience.  These images could also be used to identify non-Chinese firms supporting these extensive construction efforts and subject them to pressure from the international community. The following image is available from the CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.


Expose. The expertise of the intelligence community must counter the message of foreign institutions operating in the U.S.  For example, families, students, and faculty associated with U.S. colleges and universities hosting a Confucius Institute must be notified that there is an active Chinese government propaganda effort taking place and provide a factual message to counter its propagandized narrative targeting an impressionable audience.

Alert.  Any form of media originating from an organization owned or partially owned by a foreign entity targeting an American audience should include a warning message that alerts the consumer of the information as to the origins of the product. This type of notification is already done in practice for various trade unions involved in product development and would not inhibit content in any way.

Detect.  Online websites and social media platforms must be monitored for foreign activities with hostile intent.  This is an area where government technology could greatly assist the public.  For example, when examining the influence of Russian “Trolls,” the following graphics depict how academics were able to reconstruct the origins and targets of information attacks and the vocabulary most frequently used by the assailants.

Cyprus University of Technology, University College London & University of Alabama at Birmingham

Real-time information on the origins of online comments and common linguistic patterns of foreign agents or computer bots would raise awareness of dangerous foreign influence operations. This information should be provided to the public in an easily readable format, which can be used while viewing content on the web.

In recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Wray described information warfare as a whole-of-society problem that demanded a whole-of-society response.  To this end, the U.S. Government must provide its citizens with the appropriate tools to mount a proper defense. PUBINT would provide great benefit in countering the attacks on the learning processes and institutions that underpin American democracy.

The United States is under attack from foreign entities practicing information warfare. The target of these attacks is the epistemology of U.S. citizens and institutions that create knowledge and beliefs.  To counter the effects of these measures, the U.S. intelligence community must develop a new discipline to adapt to this new form of warfare. PUBINT would provide fact-based, non-politicized information to help distinguish fact from fiction and to raise awareness of hostile foreign influence in the United States. This new discipline, like all forms of intelligence, would require effective Congressional oversight to prevent any misuses or abuses while executing this critical responsibility.

Mr. Robert Kozloski is a senior program analyst with the Department of the Navy. The views expressed here are his alone.

Show comments Hide Comments