Pressure increases on U.S. to combat disinformation

Members of Congress, former U.S. military commanders, and a private sector coalition are urging President Biden and the U.S. intelligence community to step up their efforts to combat disinformation and foreign malign influence that threatens U.S. democracy.

Independent clarion calls from stakeholders appear to be prompting action, with the following reported in just the last week:

  1. Leaders of U.S. intelligence community agencies are seeking to declassify and release more intelligence about adversaries’ behavior in response to an unprecedented memo last January from nine regional four-star military commanders asking for more evidence they could use to combat Russia and China on the information battlefield. As reported in Politico on April 26, 2021, the commanders stressed that U.S. efforts to compete in the battle of ideas are “hamstrung by overly stringent secrecy practices.” In what is now known as a 36-star memo from the commanders who oversee U.S. military forces in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, U.S. Space Command, Special Operations, and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to then-acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire, the commanders requested help “to better enable the US, and by extension its allies and partners, to win without fighting, to fight now in so-called gray zones, and to supply ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives. Unfortunately, we continue to miss opportunities to clarify truth, counter distortions, puncture false narratives, and influence events in time to make a difference.” ODNI has started to review existing procedures to shorten timelines and create efficiencies in declassification and disclosure; and is creating education and training programs for intelligence officers and analysts on identifying misinformation from adversaries. Read more of Politico’s exclusive story here.
  2. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced it will establish the Foreign Malign Influence Center to focus on “coordinating and integrating intelligence pertaining to malign influence, drawing together relevant and diverse expertise to better understand and monitor the challenge,” according to a story April 26, 2021 by CBS NewsDNI Avril Haines told Congress during hearings that countering foreign malign influence was an increasing priority for the Intelligence Community, and the Intelligence Community’s recently released worldwide threat assessment and the National Intelligence Council’s long-term threat forecast both noted that foreign disinformation threats were likely to increase and be exacerbated by new technologies, such as cyber capabilities and synthetic media (or deepfakes). Read more from CBS News on the new center here.
  3. A coalition of groups including Writers group’ Pen America, Voto Latino, Common Cause, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Access Now, SimplySecure, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and Free Press sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging the creation of the Disinformation Defense and Free Expression Task Force, which should be chaired by the Executive Director of the Domestic Policy Council. The coalition said the Task Force should be mandated to deliver, within the first year of Biden’s administration, a comprehensive set of principles and overall policy, funding, and legislative recommendations for addressing disinformation and protection of free expression. It should also be mandated to provide periodic updates to these recommendations in recognition of the rapidly shifting cultural, political, regulatory, and technological environment. Read the full letter and Axios’ analysis here.
  4. The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems (CITI) held a hearing April 30, 2021 on Technology and Information Warfare. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), ranking member of the CITI subcommittee, said she is still awaiting the response to a Congressionally-directed review of the Department of Defense information operations strategy included in legislation two years ago. Stefanik also lamented that the Department’s Principal Information Operations Advisor was created under the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, adding layers of bureaucracy that don’t align with congressional intent to provide agile support to the military Services on information warfare. Watch a video of the hearing on the House Armed Services Committee website here.

The combination of efforts across Congress, the Intelligence Community, from within the Department’s warfighting community, and from the private sector, seem to indicate a tipping point in the U.S. recognition of the role of disinformation and foreign influence in eroding the national security environment, and America’s democratic principles. It remains to be seen if the Biden Administration will prioritize not only efforts to assess current capabilities to combat disinformation but also to invest in the technical and cognitive security needed to stay ahead of the adversaries. IPA will be watching these developments closely and we welcome continued discussion on these topics.