Insightful article by Brett Bruen, former Director of Global Engagement for the Obama Administration before and during the Crimea invasion by Russia and later.
I agree with almost everything he did, but as I’ve been saying for years, the Obama White House did almost nothing that the public knows to counter Russian Information Warfare. Taking what he has written here, the White House had a narrative but I’ll be damned if I ever heard, read, or felt it – never mind smell or taste. If the White House did, it was in stealth mode and that didn’t work well at all.
A huge indicator that we were doing the wrong thing(s) is in the title: “Combating Russia in cyberspace requires a change in tactics”. First, the White House does not engage in combat, only the Pentagon does. Neither does State. It’s called “countering”. Russia was our primary adversary, but do not forget ISIS, China, now the Philippines, and everybody else attacking the US in the information world. Cyberspace… damn, that’s just plain ignorant. Cyber is a medium, a means of communication. Cyber attacks can break into a system and download files, but the information is the weapon. Information changes opinions, public and otherwise. Cyber attacks can destroy information, but the information will flow by telephone, couriers, messengers, and other forms of word of mouth. Cyber may be a domain in the military, but nobody can win a war without using information, and only soldiers can hold terrain. Last, but certainly not least, the White House never does tactics. The White House is the strategic center for the President of the United States. Everything they say, do, or deal with is strategic in nature, there is nothing tactical about it. I’m starting to wonder what they taught these ninjas working in the White House. Think small?
I’ve submitted a working draft of what we should be doing to both the Global Engagement Center and the new administration, at their request. It is clear the White House and the State Department were working at odds, not mutually supporting at all. Not reinforcing. Everything written in the below article indicates there was no leadership at work or in place. There was and is no national information strategy. There is no overall plan. It is not coordinated, not synchronized, and certainly not cohesive. The Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications was busy running Twitter Town Halls and writing speeches. Thinking small.
When Putin, Surkhov, Panarin, and Dugin were busy making strategic plans with global implications and getting things done, our information professionals were frittering away.
ps. While at the White House, Brett did some great things. Read through his bio, he was truly busy. This article, however, does not reflect that reality. Redo and resubmit, Brett. You can do better.
BY BRETT BRUEN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 01/09/17 05:20 PM EST
Feelings are foremost. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his former KGB colleagues are masters at manipulating them. It’s how they deftly recruited assets during the Cold War. Play to someone’s insecurities, desires, and of course their flaws. This is the strategy Russia continues to use in their operations in the United States and around the world. I know better than most. I coordinated America’s response to the first major battle in this modern era of information warfare.
It’s a different ballgame. At the White House, we recognized that this propaganda campaign was far different from those we had previously faced. First, the scale and intensity were on a whole new level. Second, the sophistication of the obfuscation and misinformation was far greater than Russian operations elsewhere. Finally, there was an astonishing integration between their intelligence collection and information dissemination. We were witnessing the emergence of an era in which fake news and fabricated facts would have very real results. Lesson two: propaganda is now central, not secondary in its importance.
It’s not about numbers. Many may ask who even watches or follows Russia Today, Sputnick, or other Kremlin-backed “news” outlets? The truth is that they don’t need a big audience to be successful. Their role is to inject a negative narrative or salacious story about their enemies into the public discourse. It’s then amplified by bots, paid allies, and especially those at our political extremities. The latter are overly inclined to buy a bill of goods, even if they seem far too good to be true. The process is inverted if it’s information the Russians stole, say John Podesta’s emails or in the case of Ukraine, a phone call between U.S. officials. That information gets funneled to a third party and then Moscow magnifies and maximizes its exposure. Lesson three: they will ferociously form and feed a false frame about their adversaries.
Forget about fighting with facts. In Ukraine, many at the State Department wanted to do battle with every lie that was churned out by Putin’s propagandists. It’s easy to show how you, “countered 101 lies today.” That’s exactly what Russia wanted us to do. They say the sky’s purple. We say it’s not. In either case, the debate is about a purple sky. We needed to construct a conversation on our terms. This requires us to spend less time putting out fact sheets in response to their misinformation. Instead, we needed to shape a more personal, positive, and persuasive narrative. Lesson four: emphasizing emotion lets you control the context.
Russia’s goal isn’t to prove they’re right. They want to sow doubt, distrust, and division. It’s a playbook they’ve used many times before. I saw it play out in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. Their brand of asymmetric warfare has now arrived in full force to our shores. Their real goal is to diminish America’s standing and muddy the waters of moral clarity. This doesn’t stop with Trump’s election. If anything, their information operations will intensify. They will spread beyond politics to other segments of society, as our technology, entertainment, and finance industries feed our global strength. This existential threat requires more than investigation.
Intelligence agencies dislike two things above all else: Exposure and being exposed to their own methods. Putin is one of the most secretive leaders in the world. Yet, I wouldn’t even bother hacking his email. His weakness is that he’s built up a public image of such surreal strength. Send in the sarcasm. A few of those viral videos spread around Russian social media sites and the Kremlin will start to get the message. Add to the mix a campaign contrasting the economic hardships of average Russians with the luxurious lifestyles of their corrupt leaders and you’ll really hit a chord.
The increasing power of information warfare requires us to change tactics. We need more than defensive capabilities. We need to develop and deploy our own offensive communications weapons. They may well serve as our most effective deterrent in an age where global conflicts play out more online than on the ground.
Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He also served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.