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Caution lights for the military's 'information war'

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; A17

It has become commonplace since Sept. 11, 2001, to speak of the "war of ideas" between Muslim extremists and the West. But there has been too little attention paid to the U.S. military's mobilization for this war, which is often described by the oxymoronic phrase "information operations."

To populate this information "battle space," the military has funded a range of contractors, specialists, training programs and initiatives -- targeted on the hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader zone of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia. Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who oversees that region, has been one of the military's most vocal proponents of aggressive information operations.

The potential problems were highlighted on March 14, when the New York Times revealed that a Pentagon official from the "strategic communications" realm had funded contractors to gather intelligence in Afghanistan. Last week also brought a report by The Post's Ellen Nakashima that the military, in an offensive information operation, had shut down a jihadist Web site that the CIA had been monitoring for intelligence purposes. In both cases, it seemed the military was wandering into the covert-action arena traditionally reserved for the CIA.

This murky area should be marked with a flashing yellow warning light, meaning: "Slow down!" The United States should be careful about encouraging, in effect, the militarization of information -- and it should be especially cautious when these efforts bleed into the intelligence world. We are a nation that has prospered uniquely from open, untainted information flows. As I watch the covert contractors get their arms around this topic, it makes me nervous.

An early alarm was sounded last year by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an article in the Joint Force Quarterly, he wrote: "It is time for us to take a harder look at 'strategic communication.' Frankly, I don't care for the term. . . . It is now sadly something of a cottage industry."

Mullen's critique was amplified this week by a senior military official, who argued that these information operations had become "public affairs on steroids" with what he said was only "limited oversight." He explained: " 'Strategic communication' has an air of respectability to it that propaganda and influence do not. The problem is that it's a slippery slope, because the information environment is so instantaneously global today. . . . You put something out there and it goes worldwide in a flash, making each influence activity suspect to a much wider and more skeptical audience."

Defense Secretary Bob Gates this week ordered a quick, two-week assessment of Pentagon information operations programs. Gates said he "would have concerns" about "contractors collecting intelligence on the battlefield."

There's a gusher of money available to fund these loosely monitored operations. For the current fiscal year, Congress approved a budget of $528 million for information and for psychological-warfare operations (psy-ops). For next fiscal year, the Pentagon budget request is $384 million.

You can get the flavor of these activities by trolling the Internet. You will find an array of contractors offering their expertise in everything from "cultural engagement" to "clandestine operations." It's a world of PowerPoint presentations about how to spread pro-American messages while rebutting and demoralizing the enemy.

A February 2006 report on information operations by the military's joint staff defined the goal as "to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting our own." An October 2003 Defense Department "Information Operations Roadmap" noted in an appendix that one component could be "Radio/TV/Print/Web media designed to directly modify behavior." This doesn't sound much like Petraeus's frequent and appropriate invocation: "First with the truth."

Problems arise in part because activities are lumped together. Take Afghanistan: Rear Adm. Gregory Smith has a budget of roughly $100 million to support the information operations he commands, which include about $30 million for psy-ops, $30 million for reporting on local "atmospherics," $10 million for public affairs and another $30 million for smaller programs.

Smith told me by telephone from Kabul: "I have tried to bring a more disciplined view of what IO is, and make certain that we do not have activities bleeding into one another." His bosses at the Pentagon need to make sure that these necessary controls are, in fact, in place. This is an area where too much money and too little oversight have produced an information morass.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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