IO: From Describing Bark on Trees to Impacting the Forest

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Written by Mike Williams

I’ve been actively involved in this ‘IO thing’ for just a tad under 20 years. Most of my military career was spent as an Army intel officer doing a lot of very un-intelligence-like things. While working in Military Intelligence, I became deeply convinced that much of our intel work at the time was of the Describing Bark on the Trees variety rather than the much more important Impact of the Forest on the Success of Our Operations variety. Information Operations seemed to offer a way out. IO, as I observed it in the Balkans, was a combination of intelligence and operations. The IO staff, as small as it was, seemed to be churning out intelligence of more relevance than a 100-person intelligence staff. More impressively, they would then present their plan for acting upon their analysis and, working with the Division operations staff, develop a plan to go out and act upon it! IO was still in its entrepreneurial phase. The Army, in particular, took notice and built a career field. Entrepreneurs no more, the IO field stepped into a post-911 world with all the right ideas but now saddled with the bureaucracy of a career-field.

Sadly, in the early phases of Operation Enduring Freedom (including during my 2002 tour in Afghanistan) too many senior leaders had come to believe IO was an important component of Peace Enforcement Operations and not an important component of what they believed was a ‘kinetic’ fight. Of course, most of them did come around…eventually…and here we are 16 years later.

We have been in a fight for nearly 16 years that largely falls within the Information Environment. Terrorism is exactly that – a fight to gain an advantage through the threat of violence to change the behavior of nations and societies. Yet we remain largely unarmed for this fight.

Many have noticed, many have attempted to do something about it, many have had limited successes yet in a strategic sense we remain on the defensive in the IE. A recent Rand report highlights our difficulty in merely monitoring social media. Social media and the power it has given to extremist groups on the margin has been highlighted by Dr Waltzman on this blog and elsewhere for several years yet the US Government struggles. This is not just a DoD or State Dept fight. Through study after study, we’ve identified the weaknesses in our information-related activities and often identified clear shortfalls – most recently here:

I’ve joined the Information Professionals Association because it’s worth keeping up the fight. Other organizations have come before IPA with some of the same goals but for a multitude of good and bad reasons they have all lost their initial energy. Hopefully the IPA will build on those foundations and bring together those that have toiled on this important topic and advance our nation’s abilities to counter our foes and go on the offensive in the information environment.

The purpose of this organization and this website is to act as a voice for government, academia, industry, think tanks, public interest groups and the general pubic to highlight problems and solutions. Regardless of your background as an Information-related capability specialist or as someone with an understanding for better integrating the IE into strategic, operational and tactical planning, we want to hear from you!