U.S. Losing Global Information War

Congress told reforms needed to counter foreign disinformation from Russia, China

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March 16, 2017

Foreign nations including China and Russia along with the Islamic State are conducting information warfare against the United States and the federal government is ill prepared to counter it, information warfare experts told Congress on Wednesday.

"To date, there is not a single individual in the U.S. government below the president of the United States who is responsible and capable of managing U.S. information dissemination and how we address our adversaries in the information environment," said Michael Lumpkin, until recently the director of the State Department's Global Engagement Center that seeks to counter online terrorist propaganda.

Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL and former Pentagon special operations policymaker, said bureaucracy, conflicting and unclear legal authorities, and lack of resources are major impediments to U.S. information warfare programs.

Matthew Armstrong, a former government broadcasting official and specialist in propaganda, said the failure of U.S. news media have helped Russia's propaganda reach deep into the U.S. public.

Armstrong said he was informed by a Russian official that Moscow's state-run RT propaganda cable network would have no market in the United States if U.S. news media were doing its job. "I think there's some legitimacy to that," he said.

"Today, Russia, China, and the so-called Islamic State lead prominent efforts to 'subvert, to confuse, and to divide' their opposition while the West, and the United States in particular, remains largely unarmed in this struggle for minds and wills," Armstrong said.

Armstrong said Russia and Chinese propaganda outlets freely operate in the United States while U.S. media and official broadcasts are blocked in those countries. Reciprocity is needed, he said.

U.S. information warfare shortcomings were the topic of a hearing the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats.

Examples of information warfare include Russia’s hacking and influence operation targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Chinses information warfare in seeking the covert takeover of the South China Sea, and Iran’s deception operations regarding the international nuclear agreement that led to the release of billions of dollars in frozen funds to Tehran.

Information warfare "is a conflict we have largely ignored," Subcommittee Chairman Elise Stefanik said.

"What remains clear is that the cyber warfare and influence campaigns being waged against our country represent a national security challenge of generational proportions," she said.

"Today’s hearing brought to the fore the need to consider national-level strategies to counter state-sponsored propaganda efforts, and we should look to examples from the past, including the United States Information Agency and the Active Measures Working Groups, as just two examples, that provided strategic guidance that I feel is lacking today," she said.

Stefanik said "information warfare is being waged in an aggressive ongoing competition over territory, resources, and people; in the Crimea; in the South China Sea; in Iraq, and in Syria."

Stefanik said the Pentagon can play an important role in information warfare but broader efforts are needed.

"Countering adversarial propaganda requires a whole-of-government strategy using all instruments of national power, to harness the authorities, tools, and resources required to mitigate and marginalize its harmful effects," she said.

Discussion during the hearing also focused on the need to create a digital age U.S. Information Agency, the government's main Cold War-era propaganda and information institution that was disbanded in 1999.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recently that the United States needs a new "U.S.I.A. on steroids" to wage information warfare, an idea supported by many at the hearing.

"Much of the U.S. government thinking on shaping and responding in the information environment has remained unchanged, to include how we manage U.S. government information dissemination and how we respond to the information of our adversaries," Lumpkin said.

"We are cognitively hamstrung for a myriad of reasons to include: lack of accountability and oversight, bureaucracy resulting in insufficient levels of resourcing and inability to absorb cutting-edge information and analytic tools, and access to highly skilled personnel," he said.

Lumpkin said U.S. information warfare and counter propaganda efforts have increased but "still pale to the resources applied to kinetic efforts."

A drone strike on a terrorist leader could cost up to $250 million when intelligence and operations are factored in and have only a short-term impact, Lumpkin said. By contrast, less than $10 million is spent on counter terrorism messaging.

Funding for the Global Engagement Center was below $40 million, he said.

Also, U.S. information operations remain "mired in the bowels of the bureaucracy," Lumpkin said. He said he would favor a new entity similar to the director of national intelligence that could direct, coordinate, and resource information warfare and counter disinformation efforts.

"We are making progress just not fast enough to turn the tide in our favor any time soon as many of our adversaries are putting significantly more resources into information operations than we are," he said.

Another problem for current U.S. information operations is that they are hamstrung by risk-averse lawyers. Efforts to reduce risks have produced strategic messaging that has not been effective.

Armstrong said there is a lack of understanding of the information warfare threat and a lack of strategy throughout government and military.

"There's an acceptance of the threat that's absent," Mr. Armstrong said. "There is a prioritization that's absent, and there's a strategy that's absent."

Military combat commanders are more concerned about the law of armed conflict during an operation rather than the effect of an information or psychological effect of an activity, he noted.

"Which means in this transparent environment, the psychological effect of an action may be more narrow than what the law allows, yet they'll have the lawyer there rather than the psyop or information officer there," he said.

On China, Armstrong said the Chinese are a much more sophisticated information warfare actor.

China state television, CCTV, is available on many American cable television providers.

"CCTV is more intellectual; it is trying to push the Chinese view but is a more professional operation" than Russia's RT, Armstrong said.

Timothy L. Thomas, senior analyst in foreign military studies at the Army's Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said Russia is using information warfare along with conventional military operations, known as hybrid warfare.

Russia has set up "science companies" that utilize younger military officers steeped in electronic warfare. Russia also has robust technological education programs that is churning out experts, he said.

On China, Thomas said Chinese writings have stated that Beijing "needs to take over the cultural environment in other countries."

"So there is an effort underway more gradually than the Russian version," Thomas said.

Bill Gertz is the author of iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age that highlights information warfare threats. It is available at