Spies turn to high-tech info ops
- By Dan Verton
- May 24, 1998
Federal intelligence agencies are studying ways to use computers and the Internet, rather than just leaflets and radio broadcasts, to shape and disseminate information designed to sway public opinion in the world's hot spots.
As part of its so-called "perception management" program, the intelligence community has for decades created misinformation to trigger political change without direct political or military involvement in countries where the United States has vested interests, such as Iraq and North Korea.
Acting on congressional recommendations to bolster research and development in information technology, intelligence agencies are turning to PCs to develop more sophisticated means of manipulating and delivering digital photos, video clips and recorded sound to portray fictitious events in hopes of provoking desirable outcomes.
Speaking at a military intelligence conference last week, John Yurechko, senior-level expert for information operations in the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) Office of Information Warfare, said the intelligence community is combining theories of cognitive psychology with computers, and the use of information technology is ushering in a new era in information operations.
Officials from the CIA declined to comment.
"The so-called offensive information operations are extremely important for this nation" and have been given special attention in the fiscal 1999 Intelligence Authorization Act, a congressional staff member said. Use of the Internet and video editing tools as a way to shape public opinion in places such as Iraq, the source said, "should be just another part of the intelligence toolkit."
Advanced software tools can manipulate photographs and videos to create images based on events and situations that never occurred, which can, in turn, be broadcast to foreign countries via the Internet. For example, intelligence agencies may wish to convince a world leader that a massive invasion is imminent by broadcasting manipulated video news clips depicting the presence of a large military force—- much larger than actually exists.
The hope, said the congressional source, is that by "having such a capability, we would avoid having to actually deploy troops."
Because the Internet knows no borders, there may be risks involved in using the technology, including possible breaches of intelligence oversight regulations, which spell out what the intelligence community can and cannot do within U.S. borders. "Because it involves national security, the risks are worth it," the congressional source said.
DIA is upgrading its military intelligence databases to include photographs, 3-D images and video clips that could be used to create in-depth personality profiles to help analysts discern how foreign military leaders react to information and make decisions, according to a source in the intelligence community.
"DIA has recognized that this is an area we have to focus on," a DIA spokesman said. However, using the term information operations "is really putting a new label on things that have been going on for years," he said. Information operations "can run the gamut of what you might call psychological operations [to] what you might call deception," he said.
To prove this point, Yurechko showed a 1938 picture of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin standing beside Nikolai Yezhov, then head of the Soviet Union's "state security" agency. Using an airbrush technique, DIA was able to remove Yezhov from the photo with little or no evidence of tampering. The same process can be applied to videos, Yurechko said.
The Office of Information Warfare was created in August 1996 with a staff of seven analysts. Today it has a staff of 100 and a dedicated collection team established within DIA's Directorate of Intelligence focused solely on information operations and information warfare.
The Internet and other advanced information technologies have become natural candidates for getting messages—- truthful and deceptive—- out to people, said John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.
"In the past, leaflets didn't have much staying power," Pike said, whereas the Internet "is an incredibly powerful medium."
Pike said that if the intelligence community does not provide information to places such as Iraq and North Korea, then somebody else will. "That will force [the intelligence community] to deal with the reality created by somebody else," he said.
But Barry Steinhartt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Americans who have access to the Internet also will be able to view the manipulated images. "The Internet is a borderless medium, and U.S. counterintelligence and propaganda can easily be read by Americans," he said. "It is probably time to look at the regulations that govern these agencies" to develop rules to take into account the nature of global communications.
Randall Whitaker, an analyst at the Air Force Research Laboratory, also said delivering propaganda via the Internet is risky. By distributing those images globally via the Internet, Randall wonders, "Who's more at risk: the deceivers or the receivers?"