Laying Bare the Enemy’s Aims: Defending Public Opinion in the 21st Century
“Back of the firing-line, back of armies and navies, back of the great supply-depots, another struggled waged with the same intensity and with almost equal significance attaching to its victories and defeats. It was the fight for the minds of men, for the conquest of their convictions, and the battle-line ran through every home in every country.” – George Creel, How We Advertised America, 1920
America’s strategic center of gravity is public opinion, so why is it left undefended against foreign influence? As pressure builds in Congress to investigate Russia’s meddling in presidential politics, lawmakers must look to arm a new generation of information warriors with Silicon Valley tech and Cold War political acumen. Edward Bernays, the father of American advertising, believed that the essence of democratic society is the engineering of consent. If America wants the engineering of consent to be an exclusively homegrown activity, then Congress needs to establish a new agency with the mission to confront, expose, and challenge unlawful foreign influence both at home and abroad.
Why Counter Influence Is Important
The U.S. failure to counter foreign influence operations has damaged national security. Already, revelations that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election have caused some observers to question the legitimacy of President-elect Donald Trump’s mandate. Although the founders of the American republic anticipated the risks of foreign meddling, many are still surprised by the republic’s vulnerabilities to the dark arts of covert influence and propaganda.
History is rife with examples of foreign influence operations against Americans. A secret British propaganda outfit helped to persuade America to join the allies in World War I. The Vietcong neutralized U.S. military superiority by targeting American political will. The Soviet Union used active measures to weaken American civil society and divide it against itself. Friends and foes alike have used these activities to alter the course of American policy and history.
The Congressional Response to Russia
It seems that Congress is preparing to take action. In a positive step toward defending public opinion from foreign manipulation, Congress is considering a bill to fund a Department of State-led effort to counter Russian disinformation. This approach is based on the 1981 Active Measures Working Group, which implemented President Reagan’s policy to expose Soviet disinformation.
As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer lead the investigation into Russia’s activities, they should also examine whether an Active Measures Working Group-like approach is appropriate for the 21st century.
What Has Changed Since 1981?
Congressional action is important, but its current plan fails to account for the 2017 strategic environment. The present situation is vastly different than 1981, when the Active Measures Working Group waged its information war. First and most notably, the United States no longer fields the U.S. Information Agency, which was the Group’s most important member. This agency brought a vast array of experience and technical capability to bear against the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, Congress cashed out of the information war business and dismantled the U.S. Information Agency. Although some of its missions are now carried out by the Department of State, those activities are subordinate to the conduct of foreign policy, which many officials view as primarily a function of government-to-government diplomacy.
A second key difference today is that, unlike during the Cold War period, the United States does not enjoy bipartisan consensus with regard to America’s role in the world and foreign policy. Political divisiveness creates significant distrust and leaves a portion of the public susceptible or even eager to absorb foreign influence that attacks the opposition party. This partisan distrust undermines the credibility of a U.S. government action to expose foreign influence because segments of the public would simply dismiss the information as partisan propaganda.
Lastly, unlike in 1981, the digital age and cyberspace have made the notion of “foreign” and “domestic” obsolete. Information travels without regard to borders, but U.S. agencies operate either abroad or domestically. There is no U.S. national security agency that operates fully without regard to borders, which is where the information war is waged.
A Better Approach to Lay Bare the Enemy’s Aims
America needs a credible domestic counter-propaganda capability and improved U.S. public and cultural diplomacy abroad. Instead of funding a Department of State-led effort modeled on Cold War efforts, Congress should use 21st-century policy means to wage the 21st-century information war. America needs a Strategic Information Agency.
The Strategic Information Agency’s primary mission would be to engage the global forum, wielding truth and American culture as tools. It would need a small staff of cyber experts, cultural and political analysts, filmmakers, writers, comedians, and social media specialists. These experts would identify and neutralize foreign propaganda and disinformation, seeking to defend U.S. public opinion and improve people-to-people ties between Americans and foreign populations.
To be effective, Congress must shield the new agency from partisan politics. It could look to the Federal Reserve as model. The Federal Reserve performs the vital technocratic task of managing U.S. monetary policy. Congress set forth its primary objectives in law. The Federal Reserve is led by a Board of Governors appointed by the President, and its operations include a range of private and public entities. Because U.S. monetary policy can have significant impacts on the global economy, Congress insulated its activities from politics. Its decisions do not have to be approved by Congress or the president.
Many people today do not trust government or mainstream media information. An executive branch agency’s assessments are immediately tainted by assumptions of partisan aims. Foreign adversaries exploit this distrust, for an agency to successfully defend against foreign influence operations, it would need to be independent. Even still, establishing a new information agency would likely elicit concerns in the implementation phase.
Identifying the Implementation Challenges
The nuts and bolts of implementing a new information agency empowered to operate domestically would raise questions about the potential for a sitting president to abuse an agency for domestic propaganda and partisan purposes, the agency’s interactions with the law enforcement and intelligence communities, and the conditions under which Agency operations are authorized. Especially in today’s partisan environment, many Americans would also be concerned that a president could divert the agency to pursue domestic political opponents or bolster its political agenda.
To address these concerns, Congress could specify in law the criteria that would trigger agency action domestically, giving the public full visibility into the agency’s strategic governance and plans. These criteria could include the degree to which a foreign power is hiding its hand, an assessment of risks to national security, the strategic objective of the foreign influence campaign, the truthfulness of the information, and the methods employed. This level of transparency would give foreign actors a sense of Congressional red lines and assure the public that the agency would not be abused for domestic political gain.
Another implementation challenge would be establishing the principles governing the new agency’s interaction with U.S. national security agencies, especially the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities. These national security agencies are indispensable for helping to assess the ends, ways, and means of foreign covert influence operations, but they are under the direct control of the president. Therefore, the public would need assurances that there is a transparent process by which the Strategic Information Agency receives information from these agencies.
One final implementation challenge would be the question of “gray” propaganda, in which the source of the information is neither advertised nor hidden. Public speeches, paid lobbyists, foreign sponsorship of major think tanks, and public relations campaigns are all examples of lawful foreign influence operations. Does the American public deserve to know that those entities and activities have foreign sponsors? Some of American’s most capable adversaries and best allies have recruited American politicians, pundits, journalists, media personalities, professors and businessmen to serve as agents of influence. Current U.S. law prohibits espionage, but serving as an agent of influence for a foreign government is a legal gray area.
American public opinion is an undefended strategic center of gravity. Because U.S. society is open and free, adversaries will continue to view influence operations as a cost-effective way to achieve their strategic ends. The controversy over an alleged meeting between U.S. leaders and Palestinians ahead of a key United Nations vote and the White House’s vehement denials shows that information war and counter-propaganda are only becoming more important.
The digital revolution is only just beginning. As communications technologies improve, public opinion will grow more vulnerable to manipulation by hostile foreign actors, both terrorist groups and nation-states. Congress should not rely on outdated measures to confront the threat of foreign influence operations.
Although Congress is starting to take action, it should learn from the mistake of dismantling of the U.S. Information Agency. In today’s partisan environment, Congress should isolate its information warriors from partisan politics, not more closely align them. This action would give the newly revamped information agency the imprimatur to counter foreign influence in a manner that reduces public concern over partisan abuse, thereby boosting its credibility and its effectiveness.
Critics will continue to express concern over First Amendment issues and U.S. use of propaganda against its own people. Some may even may point out that the United States has done this in the past with the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. However, unlike these activities, a new information agency would seek to drag forcefully foreign influence operations from the shadows and lay bare their origins and aims. It would counter foreign propaganda by preserving the intellectual and emotional integrity of a target audience, boosting freedom of speech and debate. No new authorities should be given to the law enforcement and intelligence communities, but those Americans supporting foreign influence operations should be made susceptible to public scrutiny, especially when foreign countries spend lavishly on “non-profit” think-tanks.
In the meantime, citizens of a strong republic cannot rely on government to solve their problems. Critical thinking and civic understanding remain staples of liberty. Americans must embrace the challenge and work together across partisan lines, despite the decades of identity politics, a balkanization of news media, and forces that seek to compel ideological purity in politics.
This is not to say Congress should fixate on foreign influence to such a degree that it is used as a scapegoat to distract and divert from legitimate concerns or as an excuse to avoid real issues. On the contrary, government intervention is required only to counter the hostile actions of a foreign power and only by exposing the origin of the attacker.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides observed that most people are inclined to believe the first story they hear. Even in the internet age, this remains true today. However, Americans are still leaders of the free world. To stay that way, they must think for themselves, and more information is better than less.
Mark Beall is a policy professional whose assignments include a range of regional and functional positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and intelligence community. He holds a B.S. from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and a Master of Arts in National Security Affairs from the Institute of World Politics, where he specialized in Soviet “active measures” and U.S. efforts to counter adversary propaganda. The views in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any part of the U.S. government.
This article is dedicated to Tony Botto, whose 30 years of service to the American people as a filmmaker in the United States Information Agency is an example of the most powerful tool of national power: our people.
Image: Aaron Escobar, CC