A Response to “An American National Information Security Strategy”

Thou Shall Stop! is not a strategy 
Matt Armstrong, March 18th, 2019, https://mountainrunner.us/2019/03/thou-shall-stop-is-not-a-strategy/

Articles appear periodically on how the United States, or its allies, could improve its game in today’s decentralized information environment. So many that it is often hard to keep up, so if I criticize one here — like I’m about to do — it may be no more than happenstance that another didn’t appear in its place.

An American National Information Security Strategy” showed up last week at the Georgetown Security Studies Review website and made the rounds, including a particular discussion group I’m a member of. Though there is no bio for the author, I hear he’s a student. So if he’s reading this, I hope he takes it as constructive criticism as the article is well-thought-out and written even as it suffers from some critical and fundamental errors, each of which is commonly repeated from much more senior and widely read analysts and practitioners than the student author. That these errors continue is why I’m commenting on this particular article, hence the “happenstance” above. If you’re reading this, Mr. Truitte, sorry to single you out. The list below is not in any particular order nor a complete list nor a comprehensive analysis of each point.

To start off, the first sentence is closer to the mark than most but still misleading. First, the matter under discussion is not a facet strictly of the “Digital Age” but has been a recognized issue in the U.S. for a century, plus a couple of years. A 1915 report by the Army War College, produced at the request of the Secretary of War, acknowledged the importance of information in the psychological defense of the nation. It asserted that the “press, powerful in peace, may become more so in war.” Three years later, and as part of ongoing research from the 1915 report, the War College declared “that in the ‘strategic equation’ of war there are four factors — combat, economic, political, and psychologic — and that the last of these is coequal with the others.” Readers may recognize this as the DIME model today (which states there are four pillars of national power: Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economic).

(It is unclear whether the emergence of DIME was the product of original thinking or if someone cribbed the 1918 work without given credit to the past. The CEPP model — combat, economic, political, and psychologic — was used to organize Military Intelligence in World War I and its analysis of foreign nations. See this tweet thread for more and relevant images, which at some point I’ll post here to the site and are discussed, with context, in the first chapter of my forthcoming book. I may also write up something longer on the CEPP-DIME evolution & differences as a kind of literature review. In the meantime, the reader should consider the genuine difference between 1918’s “psychologic” and today’s “information” and how it affects planning. And I wrote this “has been a recognized issue” above when I should have written “we recognized this issue before but forgot.”)

The second issue is that information is a munition. Describing it as a “weapon” is also okay. However, the author slides past “information is a potent weapon” and into “information warfare” rather quickly and seamlessly. The former (“weapon” or “munition”) is accurate, the latter (“warfare”) is common but misleading and incorrect. For equivalence, if we’re to write about “information warfare” we should also write about “bullet warfare.” The focus on “information” and its flow shifts the conversation from effects while also narrowing, or separating, the discussion from complementary methods. (A lengthy twitter conversation about this is here.)

Thirdly, the author misspelled “centralized operational control” as “strategy.” I understand where the author went where he did and why, but that does not excuse the common misappropriation of “strategy” to mean “tactics” or “tactical control” in this case. A meaningful strategy requires more than the current administration has been willing to commit to. A strategy requires an end state more than “Thou shall stop!” and must encompass policies beyond the “information domain,” which is more than social media even if the author suggests, by omission, otherwise. The problem with developing a strategy in our government is most agencies are not incentivized to produce a strategy they can, and should, be held accountable for. The same is historically true of the White House.

Fourthly, and last, the author starts his last paragraph boldly: “Ultimately, the United States needs to strengthen the defenses of its information domain in the face of adversaries that factor it heavily in their counter-U.S. strategies.” True, but as the author acknowledges in the rest of the paragraph, a whole-of-society approach is required (“longer-term education-focused campaign to strengthen the American people’s resilience”). However, the current administration has no interest in doing so, arguably because it does not want to acknowledge whether foreign agents are influencing domestic politics and(/or) because it perceives an advantage from the resulting dissent. Regardless of the accuracy of the preceding sentence, what the author reveals in his closing paragraph is the nature of the conflict.

It is not information warfare but political warfare. The adversaries — yes, plural, and they do not share the same methods or objectives — use information as part of a more extensive power play against us. The purpose of political warfare is always to increase one’s power in some definite way or to decrease the power of the opponent. The aim is to alter the power equilibrium in their favor through whatever means possible, especially those that are less expensive, more confusing to the target as they do not fit into escalation ladders taught in the schoolhouse or gamed in political science or international relations courses, deniable, and longer lasting than traditional military combat operations.

Articles like this one are helpful to further dialogue, but hopefully, at some point, this dialogue will mature. Until then, our adversaries will continue to set the time, place, manner, method, and tempo of engagement and we will remain in a reactive stance for lack of anything else, save a few tactical operations because the right people happen to be in the right place at the right time.