A covert operation is an operation planned and executed in a manner that conceals the identity of, or permits plausible denial by, its sponsor. Correspondingly, a covert influence operation is an information operation planned and executed in a manner that conceals the identity of the sponsor and provides an element of plausible deniability. Covert influence operations require plausible deniability because the sponsors could lose credibility if their sponsorship were known.
There has been a lot of talk lately about misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. So much so that calls to censor public information are gaining traction within the government and the private sector corporations that control much of the digital landscape. Some of these arguments for censorship are themselves information operations within the context of political warfare between rival political factions. It is almost impossible to know what to make of these competing claims of misinformation and calls for censorship without an understanding of how information operations work and how they are integrated into political and unrestricted warfare.
Information operations, or IO, are the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, and deception in order to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp human and automated decision-making. IO is not new. Before the proliferation of computers and the internet, IO was commonly called propaganda, psychological operations, or military deception operations. Since the advancement of the internet, the definition expanded to incorporate new delivery mechanisms like computer networks and electronic warfare systems.
Covert influence operations, a subset of IO, also are not new. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ran covert influence operations to disrupt and degrade U.S. diplomatic and military activities by financially supporting the anti-war movement and the anti-nuclear peace movement. They sowed unrest and chaos within the United States by funding and supporting left-wing domestic terrorist groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
According to Stanislav Lunev, a Soviet GRU defector, the USSR contributed over $1 billion to U.S. anti-war protest movements during the Vietnam era. Lunev described the effort as “hugely successful and entirely worth the cost.” Sergei Tretyakov, a Soviet SVR officer who defected to the West in 2000, also described a similar $600 million covert influence campaign across Western Europe in the 1980s to pressure European governments to remove U.S. military bases from their countries.
Not to be outdone by the Russians, our own State Department under Hillary Clinton reportedly provided hundreds of millions of dollars to anti-Putin democracy movements ahead of Russia’s 2011 legislative elections and the 2012 presidential election. Covert influence operations are like nation-state hacking—everybody does it.
Covert Influence in the 21st Century
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony on the strategic importance of the Pacific islands. During that hearing, Chatham House associate fellow Cleo Paskal provided expert testimony on the strategic situation in the Pacific region. According to Paskal, China is using its military, economic, and political elements of national power in the Pacific to gain geographical advantage over the United States. It is focused on acquiring influence and control across the three main island chains of the Pacific.
China’s ultimate goal is to deny access to the region in order to manipulate trade and supply chains to the United States and other western nations. Paskal testified that China’s activities are not just limited to official government interactions and programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative, but they also include pseudo-commercial business activities that, in turn, establish organized criminal networks. These criminal networks include drug and human trafficking groups, which ultimately undermine the economic and governing institutions of the various island nations. China regards the combination of these elements of national power as part of its unrestricted warfare doctrine.
Consider this translated excerpt from a 1999 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrinal paper written by two PLA Air Force colonels and widely regarded as the outline for China’s current unrestricted warfare doctrine:
When we decide just what is an act of war do we look at methods or effects? According to the conventional definition of war, there is no way to come to a satisfactory answer to this question. When we consider that any . . . non-war activities could be elements of the new kind of war in the future we have to give this new kind of war (a name) that transcends boundaries and limits: ‘Unrestricted Warfare.’
‘Unrestricted Warfare’ means that any methods can be prepared for use, information is everywhere, the battlefield is everywhere, and that any technology might be combined with any other technology, and that the boundaries between war and non-war and between military and non-military affairs has systematically been dissolved.
One of the key components of modern warfare is IO, and in the case of China’s unrestricted warfare doctrine, a key method of theirs is covert influence. By using covert influence, China can set conditions in targeted countries which create the decay of social structures and national power. In other words, covert influence operations provide a way to achieve operational “preparation of the battlefield” without employing an overt or official presence on or near the battlefield. This concept is much like the Soviets secretly funding anti-war groups in Europe in order to create what appeared to be native political pressure on European leaders to remove U.S. bases and nuclear weapons—bases and weapons that were specifically deployed for the defense of those European countries.
From the Inside Looking Out
In the movie “Hunt for Red October,” Sean Connery’s character, Soviet Captain Marko Ramius, is attempting to defect to the United States with the Russians’ newest and most sophisticated submarine. The Red October is a nuclear attack submarine equipped with stealthy first strike technology which could threaten the precarious Cold War balance of power.
Ramius and a small team of witting Soviet naval officers must devise a way to get the rest of the crew to abandon the Red October without alerting them that Ramius and his team intend to defect. To do this, Ramius “breaks” the submarine by creating a fake nuclear reactor leak. In this solution, we see Ramius and his team conduct a brilliant tactical covert influence operation. He has influenced his crew to take action by presenting a deception—a false piece of information—the origin and truth of which would defeat the purpose of the action and his ultimate intentions. There is a reactor leak, everyone will die, unless they abandon the vessel and allow themselves to be rescued by the Americans.
The problem for China is Taiwan and the United States. Taiwan and its Pratas Islands control the first island chain. Whoever controls the first island chain potentially bottles up China’s navy in its territorial waters. It provides the ability to block the PLA navy from operations further south in Micronesia and the southern Pacific. For China to succeed in its long-term objectives in the Pacific, it must be able to prevent its peer adversary, the United States, from projecting power and responding to Chinese actions against Taiwan and other island nations throughout Micronesia.
Short of all-out war, how could China degrade America’s ability to respond to an external threat in the Pacific? How could it prevent or degrade America’s ability to project power into the region to counter their objectives? How could it make the United States less able to defend itself and less likely to be supported by its allies in time of need? It could start by covertly undermining the U.S. elements of national power from within.
By creating problems—real and imagined—in economic, cultural, academic, diplomatic, and military institutions. It could seek ways to degrade the nation’s domestic industrial capacity—by undermining domestic production of key durable and consumer goods. It would seek to influence Americans, who heretofore possessed a strong national identity, that this identity is corrupt, illegitimate, and unworthy of defending. It would look to delegitimize U.S. relevance to its allies abroad.
Why would a nation permit itself to be deconstructed so? Perhaps, if its own oligarchs and ruling elite had a vested interest that was in line with that of China, it could be done without tipping off the U.S. citizenry to the plot. And here again, we see Ramius’ plan, this time overlaid onto America. How would the enemies of America—namely China and a global oligarchy—get Americans to abandon a functioning republic? By breaking it, convincing them it doesn’t work, doesn’t deserve to work, and that something better, more diverse, equitable, and inclusive awaits them just on the other side of liberty.
All they have to do is kneel.