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National Resilience to anti-American influence is badly wounded and we're unarmed and flailing.
A wake-up call for DHS and the entire national security community
The missing core of protecting Americans, is a booster vaccine of American values.
Within my core profession of influence, there is a field that I believe to be the most basic and foundational component of defeating our current threat, from malign influence or what most Americans know as, mis and disinformation and worse, “fake news.” That field, called “resilience” by the national security community is also one of the most ignored components of dealing with this serious national security threat.
In my professional opinion, both the US, national security community and especially the Department of Homeland Security, are avoidant of what is required to deal with this threat in any meaningful manner. This, by default means we are less secure as a nation. With the ongoing assault by Russia, China, Iran and so many other nations, including several non-state extremist movements, we put ourselves at the same, if not worse vulnerability than Russia’s assault on our 2016 election. Now, as with 2016, Russian and other malign influence campaigns, there is substantial overlap with political parties. Some insignificant and some like Russia’s contributions to today’s Republican party are severe.
Foreign nations have always interfered in our political environment but only in the Trump era have they posed a serious threat. In the minds and research of respected experts in my field, me included believe Russian efforts in conjunction with immoral and un-American domestic influencers within the party, swayed the results of the 2016 election, decisively. What to do about the nexus between foreign and domestic malign influence campaigns is a failed effort within the national security community. Let’s take a closer look.
First and foremost, there are generally two parts of the US Code that deal with actions taken to protect the nation via intelligence agencies. Like most law, it’s complicated but here’s the technical explanation in the following quote from the best and famously non-partisan source in America, regarding government activities, the Congressional Research Service.
“Covert action is codified in Title 50, U.S. Code as an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly. The term clandestine describes a methodology used for a range of sensitive intelligence and military activities—conducted under Title 10 or Title 50 U.S. Code authority—in which the activity itself, as well as U.S. sponsorship, is secret. Congress’s particular interest in these activities is, in part, due to the characteristics that they have in common: they involve particularly sensitive sources and methods, have significant implications for U.S. foreign relations, and incur serious risk of damage to U.S. national security or loss of life in the event of exposure or compromise.”
- Covert Action and Clandestine Activities of the Intelligence Community: Selected Congressional Brief Updated July 2, 2019
The most basic explanation is that the military and the IC/ Intelligence Community have different roles and responsibilities for actions taken to protect the nation. The problem with the nexus between foreign and domestic malign actors is that both the folks operating on Title 10 or Title 50 authorities coordinate ineffectively, in most cases. Foreign and domestic bad guys, trying to undermine US values, confidence in the US government and American citizens in general exploit this no-man’s land between Title 10 and 50 authorities. In the most basic terms, we are mostly unprotected.
Again, using Russian activities and the Republican party as the example, most well-informed Americans are familiar with, Russia providing strategy and resources to the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump. The RNC either wittingly or unwittingly played along. Some members, especially in Trump campaign leadership, were active accomplices, like Paul Manafort and others at his leadership level.
The Republican party under Trump and based on a decades-long effort by far-right media like FOX, Breitbart, Newsmax and others, put extraordinary effort into redefining American values so that it would fit into the effort to sow radical division between different segments of US society. This is precisely the Cold War strategy of the Soviet Union and continued via Putin’s support for the Trump campaign. As I write this, Russia and other nations/ movements, with the witting or unwitting assistance from the GOP’s party machine, still exploit these wild conspiracy theory-based efforts to keep us divided and at each other’s throats.
With the exception of the US Civil War, Americans have long united against serious threats, especially foreign. We do this instinctively due to our actual American values, of which we are deservedly proud. In 2016, this all changed because Russia, with its nearly limitless resources to sow unrest and division in American society, had its first success. To this day and in several high-profile cases, the GOP either excuses or protects Russian interests. We see this in leadership calling to limit or stop funding to Ukraine, ignore Russian aggression, tolerate the record number of so-called “anchor babies” from Russia living in Florida while concurrently complaining incessantly and dishonestly about the Southern border. These are but a few, recognizable examples.
It's no coincidence that our first failure to unify in the face of a foreign threat comes at a time when we are intensely divided. Regular calls for civil war, based on conspiracy theories by the MAGA hordes controlling the party, are a prime data-point. This, in a nutshell, is why resilience is based on our true collective national values and hence, national identity. Alter that identity and it spells vulnerability. Remember, that Russian tactics now are based on Soviet era tactics/ strategy called Active Measures has always been to sow dysfunctional discord in Western nations, especially the US. This pretty much defines the primary weapons system they used throughout the Cold War and beyond.
The only time their strategy has been decisively effective is when they acquired significant support from immoral and anti-American “insiders.” This is the ultimate insider threat. For more on insider threats, see the embedded link to a course co-authored by friend and Narrative Strategies colleague, Dr. Judy Phillipson. She is a nationally recognized expert in this field.
Ignoring resilience is an Achilles Heel
Let’s get back to resilience, now that we know that undermining US values, the representation of US national identity, has been effective.
1. The US national security community is, in my professional opinion, at least two generations behind when it comes to actively employing ethical influence, in either an offensive or defensive posture to protect our nation from adversarial influence, domestic, foreign or especially the combination.
2. The community at large is looking for a CYBER “silver-bullet” that will never fully exist in time to protect us from our enemies. Influencing humans must first be understood from the perspective of how humans make meaning out of what they experience, throughout their lives. This is the purview of narrative
Narrative is as natural to human beings as breathing. We are meaning-seeking animals, and our primary means of meaning-making is narrative. Narrative is the way we create, transmit, and in some cases, negotiate meaning. Without narrative, life would be experienced as an unconnected and overwhelming series of random events. We organize, prioritize, and order our experiences through narratives that we usually inherit. What’s more, we understand not only the world around us, but also ourselves, through the narratives we live by; our personal narratives inform our personal identities, our tribal/familial narratives inform our tribal/familial identities, and our national narratives inform our national identity.
- Ajit Maan, PhD.
3. Understanding the core principles of narrative (not the lay terminology of a “story”) is the core of human influence operations. Still, the community at large refuses to adopt a professional understanding of this. Full disclosure, I am the vice-president of a US-based think/ do tank called Narrative Strategies where we teach, mentor and research human influence from an academic and operational perspective.
4. Due to the conflict between Title 10 and 50 authorities discussed above, the Department of Homeland Security has the bulk of the responsibility for addressing this issue domestically, while DoD and most of the greater IC have responsibility outside the US.
5. In both cases, neither seem to understand the purpose of narrative in rebuilding the resilience of our national identity and its role in inoculating Americans against malign influence.
6. Both, in most cases refuse to take the initiative to develop a narrator, narrative relationship with American audiences. This failure is at the core of Russia’s success in 2016. The fake patriotism, based on conspiracy theories and disseminated by Russian and GOP operatives had a significant effect on US voters to allow their collective influence campaigns to achieve success beyond their expectations. This was compounded by a significant media failure to operate in accordance with journalistic standards.
7. Since Americans have now been conditioned by political parties and other influencers to only believe the narrators of their own belief systems (partisan media outlets) then it highlights even more stringently, the failure of US national security outlets to expertly approach their missions.
a. As an example: Post 9-11, we created the Department of Homeland Security. It became their job to communicate threats about the then, most prominent form of US domestic extremism, Islamic Extremism. Before them, the FBI and others in Government filled that role. Now that far-right extremism and violent extremism is the most severe threat, we hear nary a word outside of IC bulletins. How could Americans know or understand about the nexus between foreign malign influence and the far-right narratives of the current version of the GOP? Right, this is a rhetorical question.
8. During WW II and the Cold War, government communicated constantly about threats from malign influence. Why did we stop in late 2014 and 2015? The answer is simple; partisan politics prohibited such efforts. This is not only immoral and negligent but anti-American.
Time will only allow a couple of these recommendations, but it’s a start.
1. Rebuild & broaden the DHS communication system, post 9-11
a. Their system’s communications to the American public, must be regularly expressed by trusted narrators at every level from local authorities up to and including the White House.
i. For the record, the White House now has the least time available and is tragically doing the heavy lifting for agencies that refuse to communicate and elected leaders who refuse to acknowledge reality.
ii. Not one member of the GOP members of the House of Representatives or the Senate will stand up and tell the party the truth about any of this evidence, in any meaningful way. Phrases of half-truths, muttered under their breath in obscure interviews or media don’t count. Any reasonable person would ask “why.” The answer is as simple as it is painful; the party leadership forbids it.
iii. Leadership isn’t something one does for their own selfish needs, it’s as MLK said so eloquently.
2. Yes, we must have what DHS tried to do but was shut down by GOP congressional members, form a disinformation board that serves to illuminate these heinous conspiracy theories (and their outlets) that now dominate GOP party ideology, like the “big lie.” All parties use propaganda but the only serious threat at the moment in relation to malign influence, is the GOP.
a. Also, and this is important: fact-checking alone is useless in the war of influence raging between American voters. This war of influence is for national identity. Therefore, that’s where the focus is. Without employing a narrative-centric focus in providing truth, those with conditioned identities will not respond to facts alone. Our values are quite clear in our founding documents. The slow, decades long effort by far-right media outlets, especially FOX News has focused exclusively on redefining the values of their audience to see our national values as the xenophobic, aggressive, gun-toting, Christo-nationalist themes of hate and exclusion as our national identity. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is called “shaping” an audience in the world of influence. There are only two real ways to figure out the identity of an audience in order to predictably control them. Either do the hard work of narrative identity analysis or create, via sustained conditioning, an audience that makes their predictable choices, Pavlovian.
I will do my best to summarize this succinctly. This severe threat is malign influence. The threat actors are foreign enemies and domestic enemies of our true American identity/ values.
The only way to degrade this threat is to engage American citizens proactively, regularly and credibly via narrative principles. This though is only the core of the effort to rebuild our national resilience. CYBER, Law Enforcement and a variety of other tools must also be employed is a well-developed strategy. Hiding behind the saying that this effort is “too political” is utter nonsense.
First of all, there is nothing in our constitution about political parties. They are an artificial construct that increasingly try and redefine American identity for the purpose of acquiring power. This is utter dishonesty and must be recognized as such. Doing this head-on won’t work at this time in our history due to the artificially constructed wall between partisan factions. We must adopt an ethical approach of what is termed, informing to influence. This means reconnecting all citizens with our true values/ identity rather than a version that is in conflict with reality and built by the unethical influencers of foreign adversaries and immoral politicians.
The bottom line to getting our hands around this threat will require more moral courage than most can imagine, especially among so-called, “principled conservatives.” Their voice goes unheard due to the dominance of the extremist ideology infecting the controlling faction of the GOP. It is these principled conservatives whose courage will be tested the most. Will they stand for America or their party.
DHS and others will require the courage to shake-up a decades-long failure to remain proficient in ethical influence that supports our national security strategy. Citizens as well must realize that in order to be patriotic Americans, they must adhere to our true values, which defines being an American.
All of this and more, requires the braided-steel spine of serious patriots, operating as Americans, not as party members. The good news is that historically, Americans do operate on our values when threatened. The Trump era has been the exception, not the rule. As noted previously, Russia had little success undermining America, until the insider threat of the Trump era of fake news, mis/ disinformation and outright lying for no purpose other than power. Nothing about Trump or his movement is truly American. It’s the curse of fake patriotism.
I’m a true believer in our founding principles. We may not have always followed them as we should and in some cases, like slavery, veered badly off course. Still, over the centuries, we’ve corrected course to a compass setting more in line with our true values. We can do this again but it’s going to take a lot of work, expertise and extraordinary courage. The best news for true believers like me, this is in our American DNA.