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The Russians fooled us once, but we don't have to let them fool us twice

This is different. That was my first thought when I, then director of global engagement, sat in the ...

Posted: Apr 12, 2018 9:51 AM
Updated: Apr 12, 2018 9:51 AM

This is different.

That was my first thought when I, then director of global engagement, sat in the White House Situation Room in the winter of 2014, tracking Russian forces spilling into Ukraine. It wasn't their "little green men" or even use of massive missiles that suggested to me the situation was unprecedented.

The arsenal of bots, propagandists and intelligence agents they deployed was equivalent to that assembled for the allies' invasion of Normandy. The speed, scale and sophistication of Russia's asymmetric attacks were unlike anything I had seen before.

Most across our government remained fixated on the soldiers and the munitions. They saw the information issue as a lesser threat that could be contained to Ukraine or Eastern Europe. I aggressively argued we needed to be prepared for a new and more destructive kind of warfare to spread across the globe. It was the dawn of a new age of combat between countries -- though many across our government didn't yet recognize it.

Today, many of these same officials now acknowledge they missed the warning signs in 2014. I agree with former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who, after my story ran on CNN, said the situation I described reminded him of the failure to recognize Al Qaeda as a serious threat to the homeland. Unlike in 2001, we still have to build the structures and strategies needed to neutralize the threat.

What's clear now, regardless of what took place four years ago, is that we are under serious attack. We are up against the next generation in information weaponry. As with the risk of nuclear war in the last Cold War, I believe we need to closely monitor the exploitation of information, create deterrents and build countermeasures to adequately respond.

This isn't just a theory. Unlike with Al Qaeda, we actually got off to a strong start against Russia.

After the invasion of Crimea, strategic communications leaders from across the government were convened. They agreed to rapidly create an interagency task force, governed by a simple principle: take the fight to the Russians and take back lost ground.

It worked pretty well. We were successful in getting Ukraine through elections, despite Russia throwing everything (and the kitchen sink) into cyberspace to delegitimize the process. The taskforce got multiple government agencies tracking and responding in unison. Even many of our European allies were involved in the same communications campaigns.

Then came the pressure from some senior bureaucrats.

Those charged with working on Europe at the State Department didn't want us to stay in their sandbox. At best, they viewed it as a distraction from "more serious matters." At worst, we threatened to upend traditional territory and bureaucratic authorities. The task force was dismantled.

The reasoning for the inaction was predictable: Oh, we are far too busy with hard problems for such soft power stuff. Besides, Russia will get angry and do even more. Let's not poke the proverbial bear. Yet it seems pretty clear they've only escalated their tactics.

So what could we have done? And, more importantly, what should we do now?

At a minimum we ought to have continued the task force. I was also advocating for the creation of more robust countercrisis strategies, including establishing a crisis communications command center with our allies. Russia created the information equivalent of weapons of mass institutional destruction. We are using slingshots and arrows to try and knock them down.

The countercrisis approach, like nuclear game theory, is premised on being proactive and changing our opponents' calculus. You don't wait for them to launch. Engage early. Create radar systems and defensive infrastructure, like national tracking, training and even telephone support for Congressional candidates on foreign influence in 2018.

In Ukraine, we pioneered the use of countermeasures. Instead of swatting them away, we struck back. We rapidly declassified intelligence and released satellite imagery to disprove Russia's denials their troops and equipment weren't in Eastern Ukraine. That was a deterrent President Vladimir Putin understood. We saw Russian propaganda recede.

Even after the unprecedented attack on American elections, our leaders wasted precious time while Russia continued to refine its information weaponry. It's time to focus on solutions. Just as with the space race, we can, and we must, catch up. Doing so requires strong presidential leadership.

First, President Donald Trump should personally and forcefully tell Vladimir Putin to knock it off or we will send some of his own medicine to Moscow. Based on my experience, the Kremlin will, at least, pause and temporarily pursue a more cautious path.

That buys us time.

We then need to finally treat information warfare as a serious, significant threat. Addressing it effectively involves elevating it from a secondary security concern, investing significant sums to build new capabilities (like that command center) and putting our best people on the issue.

This goes for the private sector, too. Facebook licking stamps on old fashioned postcards addressed to potential Russian propagandists isn't going to solve their problem. We need to bring the tech companies and other countries together to tackle the issue with a clear, coordinated and consistent strategy.

Like with our old Ukraine task force, we need to track emerging threats together, we need to train our teams together and we need to respond forcefully together. Back in 2014, I proposed a public-private partnership that would establish joint US-European centers in Silicon Valley and Hollywood to co-create technology and credible Trans-Atlantic content that could counter Russian efforts to divide us. I believe those ideas and other even more ambitious ones remain valid.

Russia is not stopping at our politics. Technology, finance, even entertainment are sources of Western power. Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood should learn from our government's myopic mistakes and be better prepared for the next strike.

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