Counter-Disinformation: The New Snake Oil

The San Diego Convention Center was packed with the defense industry elite. Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Booz Allen Hamilton, and a myriad of other arms industry salesmen, hungry to peddle their wares. WEST Conference 2023 is billed as the “premier naval conference and exposition on the West Coast.” A collective of military leaders and titans of the defense industry, intermingled in incestuous harmony.

It was a world with which I was well acquainted. After all, I had spent the past fifteen years in the Navy as a Special Warfare Boat Operator, using tools and weapons built by these very defense companies. My call to service came unexpectedly at the tail end of my high school senior year. I left for bootcamp on Valentine’s Day, 2007, and immediately entered the world of Naval Special Warfare upon completion. While the rest of my graduating class received tutelage at universities around the country, mine came by way of the military elite. Over a decade and a half, I received an education in Special Reconnaissance, Unconventional Warfare and tradecraft.

Many of the friends and former colleagues I met along the way now worked for these defense contractors, and perhaps, in another life, I’d be a participant in this conference. As it turned out, I was there as a spectator only.

I watched as a sea of suits and lanyards moved in waves throughout the lobby outside the convention floor. Thousands of exhibitors and participants waited in line to get their credentials, exchanging cards and networking as they sized up the competition. As I surveyed the crowd, I noticed something familiar in the attendees’ faces. There was a look of out-of-place discomfort. Tattoos peeking out of cuffs and collars of the business attire their bodies seemed to be rejecting. It was the look of the defense industry’s freshman class, those who had just made the leap from serving in the armed forces to being arms proliferators.

The conference embodied the idea of the military industrial complex’s self-licking ice cream cone structure. There was no discernible line between merchandiser and consumer, just a single organism supporting itself.

In 2021, the Revolving Door Project released a report titled “The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflict of Interest at the Center for a New American Security,” that trained a troubling spotlight on one of the most prominent defense-minded think tanks.

According to its website, the Center for a New American Society (CNAS) “is an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit organization that develops strong, pragmatic, and principled national security and defense policies.” The defense industry-funded group claims to “elevate the national security debate” by providing innovative research to policymakers and experts in the field. But given the whiff of defense industry influence around the organization, its high-level engagement with Washington’s most powerful figures raises numerous red flags.

A major point of concern presented by the Revolving Door Project, was, ironically CNAS’ own revolving door. According to the report, there are “16 CNAS alumni who have been selected for foreign policy and national security policy-making positions in the Biden administration.” Among them: Avril Haines, a former CNAS Board of Directors member who became Biden’s Director of National Intelligence in 2021, and Colin Kahl, the current Undersecretary of Defense Policy, a former CNAS Senior Fellow.

The report also includes instances of the think tank pushing agendas that directly benefit its membership, such as the collusion between CNAS and the United Arab Emirates to promote relaxed restrictions for exporting US drones. Not surprisingly, CNAS board member Neal Blue’s company, General Atomic, had an existing contract worth nearly $200 million with the UAE for drone production. The report reads:

CNAS receives large contributions directly from defense contractors, foreign governments, and the US government; publishes research and press material that frequently supports the interests of its sponsors without proper disclosure; and even gives its financial sponsors an official oversight role in helping to shape the organization’s research.

WEST 2023 offered yet another venue for private companies to seek out such connections, pushing an agenda that “supports the interests” of the defense industry–a kind of speed dating for the military industrial complex. And while the familiar mechanisms of war, like drones and submarines, were on display, the spotlight was on weapons of the information space.

Panel after panel featured cybersecurity and electronic warfare experts giving discussions on information operations, artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. The conference seemed to embody the new horizon for the defense industry: Information Warfare.

Counter-Terrorism to Great Power Competition

“In hindsight, we should’ve never taken our eye off the Great Power Competition,” the counter-disinformation expert said, referring to the historical focus on traditional preparation for conflict against countries like China and Russia. Her mastery of the subject was honed over a decade through the study of forensic psychology and counter-extremism strategies. She had worked across the public and private sectors, countering the dangerous narratives of violent extremists.

At the end of World War II, the power that had previously been distributed across multiple nations was now consolidated by the US and Soviet Union. American foreign policy entered the era of Great Power Competition (GPC), a contest for global dominance and influence pitting the two former allies in a Highlander-style deathmatch to see who prevailed as the one true superpower. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US focused on maintaining this strategic edge, until a decade later when the towers fell.

After 9/11, the US reoriented its foreign policy around a new acronym: GWOT (Global War on Terror). The Spy vs. Spy tactics of the Cold War were obsolete now that the deadly effects of adversarial narratives had been demonstrated. While propaganda used by the Soviet Union (and the US, for that matter) was aimed at deceiving, disrupting and undermining the adversary, terrorist organizations focused their messaging campaigns on radicalization, targeting at-risk Muslim communities into armies of holy warriors.

The seemingly archaic, global network of radical Islamists tapped into the far-reaching technology of the world wide web to spread their message and indoctrinate would-be jihadists. To combat this ideological plague, the US began crafting counter-messaging tools and methodologies, giving birth to what would become an updated version of a counter-disinformation industry that had existed as far back as 1942, when Voice of America began broadcasting counter-narratives into Nazi Germany. These efforts ranged from a “whac-a-mole” style process of detecting and eliminating terrorist propaganda to enlisting moderate Muslim leaders to push a counter-message.

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