How disinformation shut down US special operators
B.S. can really hurt on the battlefield.
A U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS TEAM could not operate in combat for a month because of disinformation.
It was March 26, 2006, and American Green Berets and their Iraqi partners had just fought insurgents from the Mahdi Army, a brutal death squad in Iraq.
After a brief gun battle, they cleared the target compound and tallied the score: A dozen or so enemy dead, a similar number of detainees to interrogate, a weapons cache found and destroyed, and one hostage rescued. Mission complete.
The special operators had finished a typical no-knock raid and were headed home. But they weren’t prepared for what came next: After leaving, someone went to the compound, removed the weapons, and rearranged the insurgents’ bodies to make it seem like they were murdered during prayer.
“They then took pictures, uploaded them to the web, and issued a press release explaining that U.S. soldiers had entered a mosque and killed men peacefully at prayer,” the Government Accountability Office said in a new report to Congress demonstrating how disinformation can threaten national security and have real-world impact.
“Literally they had their story, their propaganda, out on the wires before the assault force was back at the compound…” Col. Kenneth Tovo, the group commander, recalled to an Army War College researcher in 2009. “That’s how brilliant [this was. It] really surprised us that first time.”
Back then, photos of empty bullet casings on a blood-stained floor the insurgents claimed as a mosque appeared on the AP wire. The story was picked up in American and Arab news media, outraging Iraqis and fueling violent protests and suicide bombings in the ensuing days.
“As a result of this disinformation activity, this special operations unit was not allowed to conduct any military operations for 30 days while the Army conducted an internal investigation,” the GAO wrote.
In other words, a team of elite soldiers was bested on the battlefield not by bullets but by information. “…essentially neutralized for a month by those same forces using a cell phone camera,” the War College researcher concluded.
Fortunately, U.S. soldiers had helmet cameras documenting the raid, which showed the insurgent propaganda was bogus. But the incident convinced at least one Army officer to never again go out without considering visual documentation of a mission.
I HAD NEVER HEARD this story before reading the report. But it sounded familiar, having personally felt the power of flawed reporting a year prior: I was a U.S. Marine in May 2005 when all hell broke loose in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, after Newsweek reported that Guantanamo guards flushed Qurans down the toilet. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter as we braced for an attack on our base that, fortunately, never came. The retraction and apology came too late for Afghans killed during violent protests.
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Things have gotten worse in the years since. And today’s information environment “poses new and complex challenges for national security” according to the GAO report, which is based on surveys of numerous Pentagon and intelligence officials, DARPA, and all the military services.
“Russian media regularly skews, twists, and misrepresents information to Latin American audiences on DOD activities, missions, intentions, and motivations to increase negative perceptions of DOD among foreign audiences,” according to U.S. Southern Command officials.
They also say that servicemembers’ “exposure to adversary propaganda and disinformation can influence DOD perceptions and decision-making.”
China conducts several information ops that “threaten Air Force missions and operations,” Air Force officials said. “China maintains a worldwide information collection program to advance its weapons development programs and national influence/disinformation activities.”
China was targeting “critical Air Force information by conducting sophisticated computer network intrusion and data exfiltration operations against the Air Force and its industry partners.”
(The Senate Intel Committee recently warned that U.S. spy agency efforts to stop China from stealing secrets are hampered by an unclear mission, miscommunication, and lack of funding for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.)
Local Pacific military officials “are less inclined to speak negatively about strategic competitors or confront malign influence in the same manner as the United States,” U.S. Pacific Command officials reported (China is unnamed as the strategic competitor in question, but that’s who they’re talking about!). “The command added that this is particularly the case when in matters such as maritime presence and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.”
Also of note: “Violent extremist organizations are using the narrative of the Taliban’s victory over the U.S. in Afghanistan to influence extremists in the Philippines and Indo-Pacific region.”
Here at home as reported by U.S. Northern Command, “China has exfiltrated plans for fighter jet aircraft from a DOD contractor’s system,” and a February cyber alert “noted that Russian state-sponsored cyber actors had exfiltrated DOD information from cleared defense contractors.”
“The alert noted that this incident granted the actors significant insight into U.S. weapons platforms development and deployment timelines, plans for communications infrastructure, and specific technologies employed by the U.S. government and military.”
The command also claimed that foreign terrorists target “sympathetic U.S. service members on social media, attempting to convince them to commit an active-shooter scenario at a U.S. military installation to atone for perceived atrocities committed by the U.S.”
And something no one worried about in 2006 but hey, times change: “Deepfakes could also lead audiences to disregard legitimate evidence of wrongdoing and, more generally, undermine public trust in audiovisual content.” We haven’t even scratched the surface of how these incredibly realistic videos will likely be used to manipulate audiences in the future.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Secretary of Defense “stated that training for its personnel and leadership related to the information environment and IT systems are limited.” Cool.
🚨 The Rundown
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered automatic increases to housing allowances for troops living in areas where rent has gone sky-high. The “basic needs allowance” pay bump hits in October and varies by location.
“This is also personal for me,” Austin wrote in a Sept. 22 memo. “I have seen firsthand how much our military families sacrifice to keep our force strong, healthy, and ready to defend this exceptional nation. In the face of challenges and frustrations, our families show incredible resilience.”
📣 Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan gave a rousing speech to airmen on the risks of the U.S. losing to China. “Your kids grow up subservient to a rules-based order that benefits only one country if we lose this…” he said on Sept. 21. “There is no access to the global commons. There is no ‘free and open.’ There is no rules-based order. So the stakes are incredibly high.”
“The pile of our nation’s enemy dead, the pile that is the biggest, is in front of the United States Air Force.”
“Lethality matters most. When you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.” (The last two were laugh lines.)
“It’s important that we surround ourselves with a winning lexicon: Destroy, dominate, kill, defend, secure, win, unfair win, lopsided win. Those terms matter.”
“We are not ready to fight and win inside the first island chain, but we will be in a year. Well sir, that’s a lot to do in a short time.’ Yeah, no shit.”
The U.S. and Israel finished exercise Digital Shield in the Gulf of Aqaba on Sept. 22, which used “unmanned systems and artificial intelligence in support of vessel boarding,” the Navy said. The Coast Guard and the Navy’s nascent Task Force 59 of several dozen sailors worked alongside Israeli soldiers and naval officers to practice seizing ships under the watchful eye of a Saildrone Explorer and T-38 Devil Ray unmanned surface vessel.
☢️ The National Nuclear Security Administration and its contractors “have not fully implemented six foundational cybersecurity risk practices,” according to a new GAO report on Nuclear Weapons Cybersecurity. Fortunately, most cyber issues don’t appear in IT systems dealing with nukes—though the NNSA hasn’t developed a strategy for countering such hazards and “likely constrains…awareness of and responses to such threats.” Please get on that.
The Marine Corps allowed its Amphibious Combat Vehicle back into the water on Sept. 22 after a two-month safety review. The Corps paused all waterborne operations on July 21 after heavy surf disabled two ACVs at Camp Pendleton, California (No Marines were hurt).
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appointed retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles to chair a new Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion on Sept. 23. The 20-member committee of former senior military enlisted, officers, and civilian experts is tasked with helping the Pentagon on “matters and policies relating to improving racial/ethnic diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity within the DoD.”
After I broke this news on Twitter, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got big mad. Anyway, remember when Cruz attacked an American soldier using Russian propaganda and never apologized for it? It still bugs me.
The Pentagon has a big update out on its major weapons systems’ cost, schedule, and status. 81 DoD reports show where things stand on various military hardware, including KC-46A tanker aircraft modernization, Littoral Combat Ship, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and more. [Full List]
The Marine Corps Inspector General is assessing the “overall command climate” of the Corps’ aviation community. Marine aviators and flight students should have received an email with a link to the survey, which concludes on Oct. 21. 🤔
Edward Snowden is 🇷🇺 Russian. On Sept. 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted citizenship to the former U.S. intelligence contractor, who in 2013 fled the United States for Hong Kong with a huge cache of top secret documents—which he had not fully read—and later emerged as the source of leaked documents stolen from the National Security Agency. He also exposed legitimate NSA hacking in China and blew intel targeting Al Qaeda in Mosul, tainting what he called “whistleblowing.”
Speaking of top secret documents, former President Donald Trump thinks he can declassify documents with his mind. 🤯
The U.S. has been reportedly sending private messages to Russian leadership for several months warning of “grave consequences” if they use nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Putin is “himself giving directions directly to generals in the field,” according to a CNN report citing two sources familiar with western intelligence. Russian officers have complained in intercepted communications about decision-making and military strategy from the micromanager in Moscow.
The U.S. Strategic Command’s advisory group will meet privately on Oct. 19-20 to talk “scientific, technical, intelligence, and policy-related issues” during the “development of the Nation’s strategic war plans,” according to a federal notice. The agenda includes a nuclear stockpile assessment, “dual near-peer threat assessment and integrated deterrence,” and StratCom’s ties to the intelligence community.
Vlad’s nuclear threats aren’t stopping the U.S. and Europe from arming and training Kyiv. Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive has been stunning and bolstered hopes that Moscow would ultimately lose, but as Mick Ryan notes, hope is not a plan for western militaries in a supporting role.
Russian men drafted into military service reportedly get only “15 days of training before potentially being deployed to Russia’s stumbling war effort in Ukraine.” Two weeks is enough time to learn basic infantry tactics and how to fire a weapon—but don’t expect much from conscripts facing people defending their homes (U.S. soldiers go through 24+ weeks of training to be qualified grunts).
Two U.S. military veterans were among hundreds freed last week in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow released 215 Ukrainians in exchange for 55 Russian soldiers and Victor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The CIA’s model of Ayman al-Zawahari’s safe house is now on display in Langley. The agency's model to brief President Joe Biden on the operation—which ended in the al Qaeda leader’s demise in Kabul—is in a museum closed to the public, though you can see photos here. (FYI: The NSA has a museum that is open to everyone).
Raytheon won a $985 million contract on Sept. 22 to develop a hypersonic attack cruise missile (HACM) for the Air Force by 2027. The HACM will be an air-launched standoff weapon, meaning that a pilot can launch a missile at targets deep inside enemy territory while safely flying beyond their air defenses. And since a hypersonic flies five times the speed of sound on an unpredictable flight path, it’s practically unstoppable.
The U.S. military has been trying to build hypersonics for years despite funding and technological hurdles. But development has gotten a big shot in the arm lately due to similar efforts by Russia and China. “A hypersonic arms race is accelerating,” Science warned in 2020.
The U.S. Maritime Administration is looking to identify “oceangoing vessels that may be both useful and available to the Department of Defense for deploying U.S. military equipment (such as tanks and other tracked and wheeled vehicles) and the full range of supplies (including petroleum products and fuel) necessary to sustain a force in a foreign theater of operations.” I asked twice, but Pentagon officials were unable to say what this was about before my deadline.
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