iWar: War And Peace In The Information Age
(Bill Gertz, May 11, 2017)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
America is at war, but most Americans don’t know it. Covert information warfare is waged by world powers and rogue states—like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea—and groups like ISIS. Bill Gertz describes how technology has revolutionized modern warfare, how the last administration failed to meet this challenge, and what we can do to fight back.
In his new book iWar, Bill Gertz describes how technology has completely revolutionized modern warfare, how the Obama administration failed to meet this challenge, and what we can and must do to catch up and triumph in this struggle. (iWar will be available for purchase and signing.)
Bill Gertz is an award-winning national security journalist and author of seven books, including Breakdown: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11 and The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America. He is currently senior editor of The Washington Free Beacon, an online news outlet, and national security columnist for The Washington Times.
Gertz has an international reputation. Vyachaslav Trubnikov, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, once called him a “tool of the CIA” after he wrote an article exposing Russian intelligence operations in the Balkans. A senior CIA official once threatened to have a cruise missile fired at his desk at The Washington Times after he wrote a column critical of the CIA’s analysis of China. China’s communist government also has criticized him for his news reports exposing China’s weapons and missile sales to rogues states.
For more on the future of warfare, see Sean McFate’s Westminster talk, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.
Robert R. Reilly:
Anyone who has been in Washington for any period of time or follows the subject of national security and foreign policy knows the name of Bill Gertz and has followed his stunning, insightful writing in The Washington Times for so many years, in The Washington Beacon now but continuing in The Washington Times and also Bill’s seven books. He is one of the most notable, influential, important writers on national security. Some of those books include Break Down: How America’s Intelligence Failures Led to September 11, and the China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America. What a surprise. I think all the books may be gone. I’m not sure but we did have some books for sale at cost at Westminster’s special price. I am sure that Bill will be happy to sign those for you. If you did get copies after his presentation tonight.
By the way, Congressman Stockman just walked in and I wanted to acknowledge his presence and say how happy we are to have him here and the great service he provided in the U.S. Congress from the great state of Texas.
Now, nothing could be a greater recommendation for Bill Gertz than the fact that heis attacked by both sides, and one of those attacks came from the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence service, who said he was a quote “tool of the CIA,” unquote. Whereas a member of the CIA once threatened to have a cruise missile fired at his desk at The Washington Times after he wrote a column critical of the CIA’s analysis of China. So with that introduction please join me in welcoming Bill Gertz.
I’ve been doing a lot of book promotion. You know I am a national security writer and I do a lot of radio interviews and I do one station, Chicago WLS, where the host is John Howell and he has me on to talk about terrorist threats and the China threat, Russia threats, and he always asks me, he says, “Bill, I don’t know how you sleep at night with all that you know.” And most of the time I just don’t say anything and finally I said, “John, I sleep like a baby. I sleep two hours, get up and cry, go back to sleep, get up two hours.”
Yeah, I am going to talk about what I really think is one of the most important subjects right now, and that is the subject of information warfare. And I wanted to start out with our quote from the book and it is by Angelo Codevilla, who as many of you know is a long time national security strategist.
And he had a saying which I put in the very front of the book because I think it really captures the beginning point of how we deal with this issue. He says, “War is essentially a clash of purposes. Only derivatively is it a clash of arms. Peace and war are two sides of the same coin. Failing to grasp that makes it impossible to understand the event that ends war and ushers in peace, namely victory.” Now, he is talking about the concept of how do you bring about the end of war, and in the information environment it is really about ending threats.
So there are two main takeaways from i-War. The first is we are under information assault from enemies, and this is a threat-book that looks at those threats. I was contacted by an Air Force guy after the book came out and he told me, “Basically, we now have an acronym for the five threats.” They call it ‘CRKIT’ and it stands for China, Russia, Korea, Iran, Terrorism. And so those are the big threats and they are clearly coming at us from an information perspective.
The second point of the book is that the U.S. is woefully unprepared, ill-equipped to deal with this threat. We have basically been disarmed in the information warfare front and that is a real- real danger to national security.
What is Information Warfare?
First, a little bit of the definition. Information warfare. We have kind of gotten into kind of a technical versus content kind of issue. A lot of people can say information warfare is cyber attacks, and that is certainly something we have become much more aware of just in the last several years, but I define information warfare as both the cyber technical part of it as well as the information content side of it.
So obviously, we are familiar with cyber attacks and the damage that they are doing. They are escalating in damage. It started out as theft of information and it moved on to damaging, disruption of service. Now the big dangers are attacks on our infrastructure and they are very vulnerable. On the content side we really have not done anything in this sphere since the ’90s, and one of the big problems there was that we ended the U.S. Information Agency. That was one of our key things and I will get into that in a little bit.
But again we have cyber attacks that can range anything from our financial systems to our electrical grid. They talk about the various infrastructures, the critical infrastructures, but I think most people agree that there really is one most critical infrastructure and that is the electrical grid. I mean if you shut down the electricity, we do not have good battery backup. We do not have a lot of transformers that can be replaced if cyber attacks can succeed in causing transformers to explode.
In the content side of things what we are dealing with I think was highlighted by the Russian hacking and influence operation during the election. Again, this has become almost a hysteria in Washington, DC lately. It is a subject of high level investigations, intelligence reporting, and this was unique. The Russian operation was unique and represented a new phase of information warfare.
In the past, information attacks, cyber attacks – like the Chinese stole $22 million federal records from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – so it was mostly theft. They are going to use that information for future attacks, for counterintelligence, for HUMINT operations. What the Russians did was a little different. They not only stole the information, but they had a network which they could use to disseminate it to cause an impact.
They really tried to create havoc in the political environment. I can remember the time period when the Podesta emails were coming out, WikiLeaks was reporting this. WikiLeaks was identified as a Russian conduit for this information. That is hard for some people in the U.S. to fathom. But then there were some other outlets that were more dedicated Russian GRU and FSB outlets; the persona known as Guccifer 2.0 and something called DC Leaks.
So content operations: they employ the range of these operations and they talk about media warfare, legal warfare, psychological operations, traditional public diplomacy, and also strategic communications. It is the whole range of these activities. When you have dictatorships like those in Russia and China, these can be potent strategic weapons. The U.S. does not have anything like that. We simply do not have it.
During the Obama administration, we were completely disarmed in the information sphere across the board. And that includes our public diplomacy. I can remember the quote from the head of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which is an Under Secretary position, so it is a fairly high leveled position. It was a guy name Rick Stengel. He is a former liberal journalist who went into government, and he actually was quoted as saying we are not going to engage in a war of ideas against terrorism. We do not think it is worth our time to take them on in that sphere. And so in a sense we have been disarmed.
In the intelligence community similarly our Directorate of Operations at the CIA and a lot of our other places have been completely disarmed in the information sphere. They are not doing the kinds of things that we need to be doing to one, identify the threats, and two, take steps or recommend steps to counter those threats.
The other thing about information warfare is that our enemies have figured out that it is much more cost effective to use information warfare than to use traditional conventional kinetic warfare or, at the higher end of the spectrum, even nuclear warfare. They figured it out. This is a way to attack their enemies, to achieve strategic goals without restoring to the costly operations involving armed conflict or, again, nuclear conflict at the upper end of it.
And I blame my own industry as part of the problem. The news media today is in turmoil. As recently as twenty years ago the news media was pretty much limited to a small group of outlets. You had the major newspapers, you had the major broadcasting channels, you had the wire services, which were key drivers, and you had a lot of foreign coverage. All of that has been pretty much tossed away now.
We have a massive proliferation of news outlets and huge competition. The major newspapers are losing money hand-over-fist. They are trying to figure out ways to make the transition from print reporting or broadcast reporting to the internet where everything is going. Facebook now is providing most of the news for many people.
Twitter is an incredible resource for news. I use it tremendously. In the book I talk about how when when the bomb blast went off at the finish line of the Boston marathon, I was in California, sitting on my brother’s deck in his house and I knew immediately – the first reports were coming over, they were not coming over CNN, which used to be the go-to news outlet, they were coming over Twitter.
Within a very short period of time it was clear that this was a terrorist attack. I jumped into reporter mode and was able to quickly report that the pressure cooker bombs that were used by those terrorists had been disseminated on the internet by Al Qaeda in their newsletter. They showed specifically how to develop a bomb from a pressure cooker, and to put ball bearings in there to increase its lethality. So this is the threat we are facing.
Let me just run through some of the top threats. At the top of the strategic threat list is not Russia, it is China. I have been covering China. My book in 2000, The China Threat, was a starting point. I really need to do an update when I get some more time, but it was really important in identifying this problem, which was a long-term problem.
The reason that I wrote that book way back in 2000 was because I was doing a piece on the Chinese Military, and back then at the Pentagon they used to provide you with background briefings. So I went to the Defense Intelligence Agency. They gave me a background briefing and it was fairly vanilla, it was not anything eye-opening, but at the end of the briefing, a colonel came in and said the director would like to see you, and I said okay.
I was a pretty young reporter at the time. I sat down at the table and the director told me, “Bill, you know China is not a threat,” and my first response was okay, why? I am paraphrasing it but his response to me was because, basically, their statements; they say they are not a threat. And I was shocked, I was really shocked.
Now, granted, he may not have believed that. He may have been trying to spin me. That is not unusual in Washington. If you have not been spun by government officials, you have not been doing a good job. But clearly I saw that this had been a key strategic communications and information warfare theme from the Chinese, going way back from the ’80s, probably even earlier than that; this notion that China is not a threat.
The reason they are doing that is because they have a strategic plan and they actually tasked their intelligence personnel and their diplomats to measure what they call the China threat theory around the world, in Japan, in the United States, and they try to gauge how that will impact their modernization. So it is a real problem and it has really damaged not just the intelligence community, which for years – I can remember the annual reports that the Pentagon had to do on China for years, they said China has no military ambitions beyond Taiwan.
Well, the report that just came out this month provided a completely different picture from that. The Chinese are building up a network of bases around the world. The most obvious one is now in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. They started building it last year and it will be completed this year. It is at one of the most strategic choke-points in the world on the Red Sea. The report said that they are going to leverage their access to civilian commercial ports, which we know they have got at either end of the Panama Canal. They have got it in a number of locations and these will be used for friendly port visits for Chinese navy ships.
Now, when you add that to the other section, that they are building a ballistic missile capability – they have had a ballistic missile submarine for a long time and it was basically a showpiece, but they have got four boomers now, and they are building at least two more classes down the road. So they are moving to a major undersea nuclear strike capability, and that is why they are expanding their logistical footprint around the world. This is a real threat. It has been completely ignored. If you ask people today in government about this, they will say that yes, we are aware of it and we are monitoring it, but it is not really an important highlight as it should be.
Now, as I said, I put it at the top of the strategic threat spectrum. Short term, I would put the Islamic State and Islamic extremism. This is really a threat that is here and now. We are seeing it expand and that has not been handled well in the U.S. government. They have completely ignored the ultimate way to get victory. It is not through killing terrorist leaders.
Now, I am not against killing terrorist leaders, and the CIA has done a very good job of that along with the military, but that is not going to stop the problem, that is not the way to achieve victory. That is not going to bring about that state of peace where your enemy is no longer threatening you. It requires an ideological attack, and that is what we learned in the Cold War. We were able to do that during the Reagan administration. They developed a number of ideological programs that targeted the ideology of Soviet Communism, and it succeeded in defeating that enemy.
We have got to do the same thing today with Islamic terrorism. It is an urgent matter, and yet we are caught up now in political correctness. We are seeing what they call the Red-Green alliance between the Leftists and Islamic outfits. President Trump promised to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and what happened was that the bureaucracy opposed it, and not just the State Department but the Pentagon, as well.
The Risk to Al Udeid Air Base[There are] a lot of reasons for that, I do not have all of the details, but one example you could take is the State of Qatar, which was recently identified by several Middle Eastern states as a hub for terrorism. I believe that the Trump administration was under pressure from the Navy, that if they were to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, that it might impact our big Air [Base] at Al Udeid in Qatar. We have eight to ten thousand troops there. It is a major hub for our air operations in both Syria and Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan.
Why Terror Designation Matters
But designating the Muslim Brotherhood seems like something that is a small thing, but it is so, so important. Right now, we have no concrete map in public for Muslim Brotherhood groups in the United States. We have had one trial a number of years ago in Texas, the Holy Land Foundation [case], which identified Muslim Brotherhood front groups. Since then, they have all gone underground.
They have all used legal warfare or lawfare to attack anyone that challenges their legitimacy. They are exploiting the concept of religious liberty by saying that they have religious freedom allows them to use political Islam, not religious Islam, use political Islam to advance their cause, so it is really important that we get in the information warfare game against Islamist terrorism. We will never win unless we do. It is absolutely vital.
I am hopeful that the Trump administration will go this way. They understand the threat, they have got really good people at the top. Unfortunately, there is a lot of turmoil at the White House now, and once that settles down, I think they will start to get this giant supertanker going all in the same direction.
The Russia Threat
Now, the Russia threat, again, as I mentioned it is amazing that the Democrats, who for decades were the most pro-Soviet and pro-Russia political party in the world, have now become the dominant, anti-Russia party. It is just amazing to me, and the reason is because the Democrats and the political Left and their media supporters, The New York Times and The Washington Post, they have got a political narrative, and the narrative states that the Russians stole the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton, and that as a result of that, Russia has now become enemy number one for the Democrats.
It is a false narrative, clearly, if there was evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, it would have come out. I mean we have got some of the most serious leaks that have ever been disclosed about communications intercepts, including the conversation between General Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States. By the way, Congress has not yet been able to get access to that transcript despite the fact that the Oversight Committees are supposed to have access to everything, but needless to say, we have got clearly a narrative that is being pursued on the Russia front.
Now, that is not to say that Russia is not an information warfare threat. They are definitely very, very good [at information warfare]. As Bob mentioned that early on, and I mentioned this in the book, the Russians singled me out a number of years ago. There was a story that I wrote, and I was really kind of puzzled by it. This was somewhere around ’89, ’90 period. It was after the Berlin Wall had fallen and before the Soviet Union had collapsed. And the Russians, the Soviets then, had hundreds of thousands or probably a hundred thousand troops in East Germany, and they were trying to do what they could to salvage that base and also to protect their intelligence assets, protect Erich Honecker, the East German leader.
So, I wrote a story of a Russian General, a Soviet General visiting East Germany, and the newspaper, Red Star, which was the official Red Army newspaper, [published] a story with the headline, “How Many Hats Does Mr. Gertz Wear?” The article was a very subtle disinformation activity to paint me as a CIA officer, ‘wearing two hats.’ They had a couple of allusions there. One was to somebody who writes something false must either have a – British saying or something – but the article was – I realized that the same day that that article had appeared in The Washington Times, I had also written a major investigative piece based on the production of the Active Measures Working Group, which was really one of the most important Cold War entities that was setup.
It is in the book. We used it when the Soviets were engaging in massive disinformation, including forging letters from the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and spreading lies and disinformation about the AIDS virus being created in the United States. So, this small group was setup. It was the first time that anything like that [had been setup] since World War II, when we had much more overt psychological warfare operations. This was a group that was really focused on countering the Soviet disinformation