Has the U.S. Lost the Information War?

L’Association des Jeunes Internationalistes publishes an article written by Dusan Bozalka, current masters student in International Relations at Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas and Université Paris-Sorbonne. 

Information wars are nothing if not an old phenomenon as their goals and modalities take a form rather similar to that of military deception. According to Conrad Crane, former Director of the US Army Military History Institute, the very essence of information warfare (IW) implies ‘gathering, providing, and denying information’ in order to gain a decisive advantage ‘over a country’s or government’s decision-making’ while to sabotage that of the adversary (Crane, 2018). Its operations toolbox is not only broad but includes different types of operations, which are listed in the ‘Cornerstones of Information Warfare’ issued in 1997, such as Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), media manipulation, disinformation, Electronic Warfare and Destruction (Hard Kill).[1] The Cornerstones recommend using the terms ‘Information wars’ when an entity seeks to ‘deny, compromise, degrade and destroy the enemy’s sources of information’ (Fogleman and Widnall, 1997). Although Crane’s definition shares a current and more modern take on IW by somewhat recognizing the importance of IW on homeland security, both documents show how closely intertwined IW and modern technologies are. Needless to say, that the beginning of the 1990 digital revolution has tremendously altered the way information wars are led. Cyberspace, for one, is not only far from immune to the traditional logics of war, but by opening new kinds of battlefields, it has bestowed the multiplication of attack vectors. Consequently, new opportunities arise for states to develop new first-mover advantages, and yet, as to be expected in return, weaknesses already present within the borders of a state may well render it even more vulnerable to IW involving the cyber realm and create new asymmetries.

The history of the United States and its use of IW coupled with new technologies dates back to the Second World War, when then-President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of War Information in 1942, responsible for supervising American propaganda before its dissolution in 1945. However, it also marked the beginning of a long and tangible lack of unity between U.S. agencies competing with one another. Among those wartime competitors are the Office of Strategic Services which was in charge of jamming both radar and radio communications, meanwhile the Psychological Operations Cell of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces developed Operation Fortitude[2] – designed to make Nazi Germany believe that the landing would take place on the beaches of the Pas-de-Calais (Donovan, 2002). Paradoxically, during the Cold War years, U.S. military interagency strategies continued to further differ as the golden age of American soft power worked its charms on Europe. In the 1990s, however, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs[3] were subsequently transferred to the newly created U.S. Special Operations Command, in opposition to the recommendations of the Department of Defense, which defended its position by insisting that such operations are nothing but special and are as equally important in both peace- and wartime (Crane, 2018). Simultaneously, in spite of a confused and fragmented field of operation, the United States managed to pull off a masterstroke during Operation Desert Storm, when a French printer equipped with a virus-laden chip ended up damaging the Iraqi command and control system. These events contributed to asserting that the U.S. was not hesitant to reinvent its ways of carrying out offensive operations while showcasing its advantageous aptitude to rely on modern technologies to fight its enemies.

Nevertheless, the ongoing multiplication of IW-related governmental agencies further divided and diminished any hopes of a powerful inter-agency front against foreign IW operations. Additionally, this strategic mismanagement catalyzed the weaknesses within the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) as defensive strategies were hard to elaborate due to the multitude of actors refusing to collaborate. Although these threats had not caused any major concerns within the American Command and Control system, the growing rise of Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe has forced the United States to learn from its mistakes. Later, suspicions of Russian interference during the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 revealed the extent to which the United States has so blatantly obliterated the importance of Psychological Operation (Jones, 2018). After its first use of information warfare on Estonia in 2007 and during the Donbass War following the annexation of the Crimea, Putin unveiled Russia’s mastery of IW as part of its sharp power strategy, relying on the use of subversive policies to specifically target democratic countries whilst creating division among them (Ludwig and Walker, 2017). This strategy would ultimately backfire on Russia’s historical enemy. 

From hacking the Pentagon to the American society

It was not until 2008 that the United States began to understand the extent of Russian sharp power as abandoned USB sticks, that had been found on the parking lots of American bases in the Middle East, were used to breach the Pentagon’s Intranet system. Remembering Operation Desert Storm, one could cleverly say that the Pentagon had a taste of its own medicine. According to Ellen Nakashima, thousands of confidential exchanges as well as information were compromised in just a few hours (Nakashima, 2011).[4] Following these events, American national security officials realized that their own know-how on IW had backfired on them, owning that cyber-intelligence issues could no longer be the sole prerogative of American intelligence agencies and of the NSA. This paved the way for the creation of the Cyber Command, which was regrettably belatedly activated by May 2010, more than 3 years after the 2007 Russian cyberattacks on Estonia.

As other cases of cyberattacks were starting to be increasingly witnessed all over the world, the election of President Obama in 2008 had to meet the complex challenge of increasing the U.S’ Capability to identify who were the perpetrators of those IW-related attacks as well as its ability to retaliate properly. It was at this moment that the United States entered the so-called ‘gray zone’. In his book “Mastering the Gray Zone”, Dr. Michael Mazarr describes this new phenomenon as ‘striving to remain under key escalatory thresholds to avoid outright conventional conflict’ (Mazarr, 2016). Understanding how to adapt the U.S. strategies to IW in the wake of entering the gray zone was all the more important since new actors were also developing their IW tactics by mimicking those employed by the United States. North Korea, China, Iran and Russia all proved to be somewhat capable of using IW tactics to disrupt not only the United States[5], but also other European countries as the 2015 TV5-Monde shutdown and the 2016 cyberattacks on the German Bundestag have shown. Clearly indicating that the United States lacked resilience with regards to Russian IW attacks, its strategy consisted above all in observing the methods of the adversary and forming special units dedicated to the cyber realm whose expertise would come to strengthen the cyber resilience of the Land, Air and Navy army corps (Gagnon, 2020).

However, the lack of inter-agency communication and collaboration was still dangerously jeopardizing U.S. homeland security. It eventually did so, as the Russian interference in the Presidential election of that same year marked a point of no return for both U.S. agencies and U.S. commands. Although some Russian psychological operations had already been uncovered as early as in September 2016, the infamous Mueller Report[6], publicly released by the Department of Justice in 2019, shows the complete extent of Russian IW and sharp power. According to the Mueller report, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St. Petersburg and allegedly affiliated with the Kremlin has relied on various proxies, cyber hacking operations and psychological operations to foster unprecedented levels of division among the American society. Using social media platforms and accounts displaying opposing beliefs and political affiliations such as ‘Blacktivist’, ‘Secured Borders’ or ‘United Muslims of America’, the IRA was reported to have reached an audience of more than 126 million people. Beyond simply exploiting those American cyber platforms, the IRA is responsible for retrieving data and emails belonging to then-candidate Hillary Clinton and other members of the Democratic party to undermine their credibility while simultaneously organizing anti-Clinton rallies all over the country through Facebook ads. According to Alina Polyakova, Professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, the Mueller report also revealed that the IRA was a key player in the interference scheme “Project Lakhta”, which was reportedly funded the Russian Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (Polkyakova, 2019).

Such a failure was deemed to be predictable as shown in the Joint Publication 3-15® of February 2013 (“Joint Publication”, 2013). Indeed, before General Nakasone became head of the U.S. Cyber Command in 2016 and again 2018, no real coordination nor any information sharing procedure was established between the Armed Forces working on operations related to IW, namely those conducting Cyber Offensive Operations (COO) and Cyber Defensive Operations (CDA). In addition, American political and military decision-makers have also experienced difficulties familiarizing themselves with the role of the various actors implicated in the Cyber Mission Force (CMF). High decentralization of cyber operations has proven to lead to some degree of contradiction between the strategies adopted by each of the Armed forces and agencies involved. Irremediably, the bureaucratic barriers and misconceptions plaguing the Cyber Command have allowed Russia and its newly developed and highly efficient IW to backfire at the United States by hacking the Oval Office as well as the American society as a whole.

Wake-up call: recent developments under the Trump administration

As time went by, the United States was able to considerably increase its resilience against cyberattacks involving foreign IW as well as psychological operations. While doing so by sensibly improving cooperation between defense agencies, it also demonstrated that it was now able to retaliate as well as to act preemptively in order to deter any malicious actors from disrupting  U.S. society. In February 2019, The Washington Post revealed that the U.S. military was successful in “unplugging” the IRA so as to send Russia a clear warning not to interfere in the 2018 Midterms (Nakashima, 2019). Thanks to the return of General Paul Nakasone as Direct of the U.S. Cyber Command in 2018 and solid doctrinal improvements, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Justice and the FBI all cooperated to launch a series of attacks which, aside from unplugging the IRA, also targeted black-hat hackers affiliated with the Kremlin. This latest showdown not only bears witness to the fact that IW and Cyber Warfare (CW) have now become one and constitute an integral part of Psychological Operations in the American playbook, but also testifies that both concepts of intimidation and dissuasion are now fully applicable onto the information battlefield (“Consolidated Report”, 2010).

In reality, the use of intimidation and dissuasion applied to Electronic Warfare was first developed by the American special forces “Defend Forward” in the war against terrorism and aimed to deter any sudden attack by carrying out preventive actions while being present in foreign computer systems on a permanent basis (Sanger, 2019). The 2018 Department of Defense Cyber Strategy (“Cyber Strategy”, 2018), without directly acknowledging it, is a clear testimony of the transposition of this strategy onto the Information Operations forefront (Borghard, 2020). Moreover, this transposition was further confirmed through John Bolton’s recent warning clearly stating that “anybody that is engaged in cyberoperations against us will pay a price” (Perlroth, 2017). Meanwhile, David Sanger as well as Nicole Perlroth revealed in The New York Times that U.S. hackers were able to deploy a computer virus (Perloth, Sanger, 2019). While the debate between President Trump and Dmitry Peskov rages on over the truthfulness of these allegations, one thing has become clear: the American STRATCOM has not only built up its resilience, but it is now capable of retaliating effectively against any potential Russian IW. 

This new-found efficiency also bears the fruit of the recently added prerogatives of the U.S. Cyber Command conferred by the 2018 National Security Presidential Memoranda 13 on United States Cyber Operations Policy (Nakashima, 2018). From now on, the Cyber Command speed of response will be consequently increased, now being allowed to conduct targeted cyber-preventive operations on strategic foreign sites without any sort of prior approval by the White House. Today, the goal of digitally infiltrating hostile systems before they can even attack still remains, but it has now fully correlated modern cyber information warfare with traditional military concepts such as the balance of forces and deterrence (Borghard, 2020). Regarding the latter, the Cyber Command will now be tasked to shield not only American citizens from any potential damage in order to avoid any form of escalation, but also deter other revisionist nations from using information warfare to attain any middle power allied with the United States.

The aftermath: the end of U.S. soft power?

Although the United States has increased its resilience against foreign IW and is now taking significant preemptive measures to protect itself, important damage in terms of American soft power can be witnessed today as a result of Russia’s abrasive sharp power. If the United States is to succeed in remedying this dire situation, it needs not only to improve its management of information on social networks but also its ability to influence its allies to work in its favor as well. Regarding the latter, recent reports attest the dramatic decrease of what Joseph Nye defined as ‘the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion’ (Nye, 2004). According to the British index “Soft Power 30”, the United States has now been downgraded to fifth place as opposed to it being third in 2017, as President Trump’s numerous political controversies and aggressive Twitter diplomacy have made the overall score go down.[7] Furthermore, President Trump has also instigated mistrust upon the world stage by being considered to be a puppet elected by the Kremlin as well as for his hatred of multilateralism (Nye, 2020). Whether or not the IRA and Russia played a significant role in the election of Donald Trump, the repercussions of the political and societal divisions brought by the 2016 Russian interference have escalated all throughout Trump’s presidency. Internal disruptions on issues related to racism, terrorism, Trump’s impeachment, bipartisanism and the Covid-19 pandemic called into question the legitimacy of the world’s hegemon both domestically and abroad. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that this current year’s international trust in the United States has reached one of its lowest levels in its history as only 31% of French citizens and 26% of Germans see the U.S. favorably (Wike, 2020). The perception of Trump’s presidency within the United States is even worse : according to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in Washington is at one of its lowest levels as only 20% of them are said to think of the federal government as trustworthy (“Americans”, 2020).

The wave of misinformation spread by both Donald Trump and by Russian, Iranian and Chinese botnets did little to improve the situation. As is the case for most democracies, the United States is struggling to regain any form of sovereignty over social networks. Trapped between its constitutional freedom of expression and the ever growing lobbying-power of Big tech companies, there are many challenges on the road to cybersecurity in the context of IW. Although the Global Engagement Center created by President Obama in 2016 aimed to coordinate efforts between both state and private actors in the fight against IW and disinformation, its lack of funding, foreign personnel, and its deprivation of a proper mandate to tackle disinformation attacks have rendered it inoperable of carrying out its mission (Weed).[8] Unfortunately, Facebook and Instagram’s efforts in “informing users” by relying on fact-checking technology has proven to be a failure, as both companies are now resorting to more direct means by deleting posts that are identified as blatantly spreading fake news (Lerman, 2020). The new administration of President-elect Biden offers new perspectives as many counselors of the former Obama administration are now working for Big Tech companies (Fiegerman, 2016). Time will only tell whether the United States will succeed in improving its soft power. But to do so, the new administration will not only have to reconcile the nation as whole, but also to further enlarge the U.S Cyber Strategy by closely collaborating with its Tech companies to find democratic and sustainable measures to tackle Russian IW.

            In conclusion, even though the United States had been repeatedly defeated for several years  in the information environment because they were being outmaneuvered, they are now regaining the lead. However, Russia still has a clear advantage over the United States and has managed to constantly challenge American soft power, leaving American hegemony vulnerable. It is now crucial for the U.S. security stakeholders to expect disinformation from abroad to be a permanent feature of political and economic life throughout and after the pandemic. In many ways, the aforementioned events all paved the way to today’s global information war where revisionist powers seek to disrupt democracies. Russia has succeeded in fiercely defying the U.S. not only using tools it had first developed, but also by relying on today’s extremely divided American society.

[1] The Cornerstones of Information Warfare was published on the 17th of April 1997 and approved by both Ronald R. Fogleman, 15th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, as well as Sheila E. Widnall, former Secretary of the Air Force. It is one of the USAF’s first attempts at understanding how modern technologies will play an increasing role in IW.

[2] Operation Fortitude was comprised of Fortitude North, intending to convince Hitler and his advisors that D-Day would take place in Norway, as well as Fortitude South, pretending through fake diplomatic leaks, bombings, double agents and troops displacements that D-Day would take place on the beaches of the Pas-de-Calais. The latter was more commonly perceived as probable and widely believed.

[3] Both methods became increasingly linked to each other as they both feature working closely with the civil society of a state in order to either favor support for U.S. policies in the case of Psy Ops or improve the living conditions of said state in the case of Civil Affairs (Scribner, 2018).

[4] Ellen Nakashima reported on multiple occasions in the Washington Post that approximately 24.000 documents were compromised after a flash drive containing a malicious code was used to transfer documents through a computer connected to the Intranet system. Since then, the Pentagon has prohibited the use of any external flash drives, including USB sticks.

[5] As a concrete example one could think of Operation Newscaster, allegedly led by Iran, where hackers used a fake identity to infiltrate the cyber espionage firm iSight Partners database, compromising the data of more than 2,000 people, some of them featuring hick ranks in the U.S. military and U.S. diplomacy. Another example is the allegedly Chinese-led data breach in the United States Office of Personnel Management during which the data of approximately 22 million people was stolen (Finkle, Sommerville, 2016).

[6] The official name of the 448-page long report is the Report On the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election and is available at http://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf.

[7] Available at https://softpower30.com/

[8] Also underlined in the “Hearing Before the Subcommittee on State Department and Usaid Management, International Operations, and Bilateral International Development of the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate”. U.S. Government publishing office, March 5, 2020. Available at https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/03%2005%2020%20–%20The%20Global%20Engagement%20Center%20Leading%20the%20United%20States%20Governments%20Fight%20Against%20Global%20Disinformation%20Threat.pdf

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