Smith-Mundt as Counter-Political Warfare

Glad to see Matt Armstrong on a recent Cognitive Crucible podcast – this one on his passion project, the much-misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act.”

If you’ve been around the “information operations” space, the Smith-Mundt act is usually taught during a class on “authorities.” There will be a slide that usually includes some text lifted from the act and then a “bottom line” that the US government is prohibited from informing/influencing/targeting/propagandizing/etc domestic American audiences.

Next slide, please.

Once that nugget buries itself into someone’s head, it gets carted out usually as a bulwark to doing anything in the info-space.

“Yes, but don’t forget the Smith-Mundt act…”

The history of the actual legislation is much more nuanced. Instead of “prohibiting” domestic dissemination, it was actually intended to “allow” dissemination abroad (by the State Department) as a direct counter to burgeoning Soviet political warfare.

“…we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds.”

1947 European CODEL (MountainRunner)

If we’re going to conduct political warfare effectively, we have to understand this history. This is wonky territory, but that’s ok, because as Matt states in the episode, this stuff starts with President of the United States. It should be wonky – it’s incredibly important.

Anyway, the episode is worth your time – especially if you are an information warfare practicioner, or more importantly, if you are (or will be) in a position to make command decisions in an operational environment. You, more than anyone else, can make a huge impact if you understand what you can do – which is a lot.

Some interesting tidbits in this episode:

  • Opening: Defining “public diplomacy” and why that even matters
  • ~18:00: Smith-Mundt as a way to counter Russian political warfare
  • ~19:00: “We feed stomachs, the Russians feed minds…”
  • ~19:30: The importance of strategic vision – “We used to have an idea of where we were going…”
  • ~23:00: Our system is obsessed with bueracractic responsibility as opposed to methods, means, and outcomes – and this is bad
  • ~28:00: On the “terminal limits” of PSYOP leadership – if PSYOP officers terminate at the O6 level, can we really make a difference?
  • ~28:30: It is an unfortunate truth that the person who is most likely to influence an operational commander’s decision making is not the PSYOP officer giving advice on the psychological impacts of activities and operations, but the PAO, or worse, the JAG
  • ~37:00: “Stop it policy” – we are too reactive. Instead of seizing or defining the narrative, we are constantly reacting to nonsense in an attempt to “make it stop”
  • ~41:00: We need to get way more comfortable making mistakes – let subordinates fail in the IE – it’s ok – our adversaries are doing it every day
  • ~45:00: What even is “propaganda?”

Also, towards the end Matt references the fascinating topic of a PSYOP officer who wrote a book shortly after WWII arguing that influence operations should be banned via treaty. I’m now officially on the hunt for it.

It’s a great episode. Check it out.

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Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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A Cold War, fought with information and espionage

As we move further and further into this new thing – great power competition – I’m struck by how much more difficult this is going to be than anything we’ve done before.

Counter-insurgency was supposed to be the “graduate level of war.

If that’s the case, then great power competition and political warfare must be the doctorate level of war.

We are going to have to do more planning, more work, and more activity just to slightly move the dial.

And that is what winning looks like.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

A deep-dive on where we’ve been and where we are in regards to big-picture political warfare/public diplomacy.

I appreciate Matt’s insistence that it’s not about pulling the right “info-ops” lever or restructuring organizations, but having a clear strategic vision of where we’re going – a “commander’s intent.” With that, everyone can move in the right direction. We have the tools and we have the talent – we just need to know where to go.

If there is a strategy or something resembling a strategic vision, in other words, the president knows what we want tomorrow to look like and has a baseline understanding of the costs we are willing to pay and the costs we are willing to extract from adversaries (and allies), then there is a “page” for everyone to get on to (ie “commander’s intent”). Centralized orchestration breaks down quickly as the buck is passed and sign-offs are required. Along with a commonly understood goal (or goals), we need to tolerate risk so risk avoidance does not continue to have the priority. These are all products of leadership, or lack of leadership.

Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion – MountainRunner.us

The post features an extended question and answer portion at the bottom. Worth reading if you are confused (and you are – I know I am) about the Smith-Mundt Act, the US Agency for Global Media (formerly BBG), and what the heck we’re even doing anymore.

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