There are “substantial gaps” in the ability of the Department of Defense to counter Islamic State propaganda and messaging, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) informed Congress earlier this year.
But now Congress has moved to narrow some of those gaps.
Until recently, the Pentagon’s authority to act in this area had been deliberately curtailed by Congress in order to preserve a civilian lead role for the State Department’s public diplomacy program.
“Congress has expressed concern with DOD engaging violent extremist propaganda on the Internet, except in limited ways,” wrote General Joseph L. Votel, the SOCOM Commander, in newly published responses to questions for the record from a March 18, 2015 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (at page 69).
“They [Congress] tend to view… efforts to influence civilians outside an area of conflict as Public Diplomacy, the responsibility of the Department of State or Broadcasting Board of Governors.”
By contrast, “We [at US Special Operations Command] believe there is a complementary role for the Department of Defense in this space which acknowledges the need for a civilian lead, but allows DOD to pursue appropriate missions, such as counter-recruitment and reducing the flow of foreign fighters,” he wrote.
General Votel suggested that “An explicit directive from Congress outlining the necessity of DOD to engage in this space would greatly enhance our ability to respond.”
Now he has it.
Without much fanfare, something like the directive from Congress that General Votel requested was included in the FY2016 defense authorization bill that was signed into law by President Obama on November 25:
“The Secretary of Defense should develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media to most effectively reach target audiences, to counter and degrade the ability of adversaries and potential adversaries to persuade, inspire, and recruit inside areas of hostilities or in other areas in direct support of the objectives of commanders.”
That statement was incorporated in Section 1056 of the 2016 Defense Authorization Act, which also directed DOD to perform a series of technology demonstrations to advance its ability “to shape the informational environment.”
Even with the requested authority, however, DOD is poorly equipped to respond to Islamic State propaganda online, General Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.
“Another gap exists in [DOD’s] ability to operate on social media and the Internet, due to a lack of organic capability” in relevant languages and culture, not to mention a compelling alternative vision that would appeal to Islamic State recruits. The Department will be forced to rely on contractors, even as it pursues efforts to “improve the Department’s ability to effectively operate in the social media and broader online information space.”
And even with a mature capacity to act, DOD’s role in counter-propaganda would still be hampered by current policy when it comes to offensive cyber operations, for which high-level permission is required, he said.
“The ability to rapidly respond to adversarial messaging and propaganda, particularly with offensive cyberspace operations to deny, disrupt, degrade or corrupt those messages, requires an Execute Order (EXORD) and is limited by current U.S. government policies.”
“The review and approval process for conducting offensive cyberspace operations is lengthy, time consuming and held at the highest levels of government,” Gen. Votel wrote. “However, a rapid response is frequently required in order to effectively counter the message because cyber targets can be fleeting, access is dynamic, and attribution can be difficult to determine.”
No immediate solution to that policy problem is at hand, as far as is known.
The difficulty that the U.S. government has had in confronting the Islamic State on the level of messaging, influence or propaganda is more than an embarrassing bureaucratic snafu; it has also tended to expedite the resort to violent military action.
“Overmatched online, the United States has turned to lethal force,” wrote Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet of the Washington Post, in a remarkable account of the Islamic State media campaign. (“Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine,” November 20).
* * *
The House Armed Services Committee now produces the most informative hearing volumes of any congressional committee in the national security domain. Beyond the transcripts of the hearings themselves, which are of varying degrees of interest, the published volumes typically include additional questions that elicit substantive new information in the form of agency responses to questions for the record.
The new hearing volume on US Special Operations Command notes, for example:
* USSOCOM currently deploys 20-30 Military Information Support Teams to embassies around the world. They are comprised of forces “specially trained in using information to modify foreign audiences’ behavior” [page 69].
* “Only one classified DE [directed energy] system is currently fielded by USSOCOM and being used in SOF operations” [page 61]. Other directed energy technology development programs have failed to meet expectations.
* Advanced technologies of interest to SOCOM include: signature reduction technologies; strength and endurance enhancement; unbreakable/unjammable, encrypted, low probability to detect/low probability of intercept communications; long-range non-lethal vehicle stopping; clandestine non-lethal equipment and facility disablement/defeat; advanced offensive and defensive cyber capabilities; weapons of mass destruction render safe; chemical and biological agent defeat [page 77].
Another recently published House Armed Services Committee hearing volume is “Cyber Operations: Improving the Military Cybersecurity Posture in an Uncertain Threat Environment.”