Wikileaks and information warfare

The political establishment in the United States was quick to frame the Wikileaks Cablegate release as an act of war.  In response, many advocates of transparency in government and internet freedom have begun to argue that employing even the metaphorical language of war and warfare to describe the ongoing fallout from and response to the most recent Wikileaks mega-leak, represents a serious strategic blunder, as it allows opponents of transparency in government and internet freedom to control the terms of the debate.  Here at Polizeros, Josh Mull is not alone when he argues that “journalism is not an attack and Wikileaks is not warfare.”  He writes in response to a post by Bob Morris:

The act of publishing information is not warfare. Wikileaks is not warfare. Just because Julian Assange thinks of himself as a freedom fighter, and just because Wikileaks’ supporters like to imagine themselves fighting an “Infowar”, doesn’t make it true.  If we allow our definitions of war and conflict to blur, then we bring the government’s aggressive response on ourselves . . . As someone who engages in journalism, as someone who engages in activism and dissent, I don’t want these things re-defined as an attack on the state.

The problem, however, is that the state has already prepared the conceptual groundwork to promulgate a redefinition of such acts and actions as part and parcel of an ongoing information war.  Bob writes in response: “It’s not asymmetrical armed warfare, to be sure, but the tactics are the same, so perhaps we should call it asymmetrical info warfare.”  In fact, Cablegate – understanding that term in the widest sense, to include the actions of Wikileaks as well as the response by agents of the state, individual citizens and other non-state actors – has virtually all the markings of an information war as that term has been re-defined and re-conceptualized by the state.

Over the last ten years, the Department of Defense has quietly been developing the conceptual and operational framework for what it calls “information operations,” or “info-ops” for short.  An Information Operations Primer published by the Army War College in 2006 (see the relevant document at IWS) delineates five core capabilities that constitute information operations: 1) psychological operations, 2) military deception, 3) operations security, 4) electronic warfare, and 5) computer network operations.  All of these are in play in the Cablegate affair:

• The concept behind Wikileaks is almost indistinguishable from that of psychological operations (PSYOPS), here defined as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.”

• The immediate response to the latest megaleak on the party of the Department of Defense was aimed at ensuring operations security (OPSEC) by taking actions to defend against any future such leaks from protected information networks.  As noted at Wikipedia, OPSEC is “a process that identifies critical information to determine if friendly actions can be observed by adversary intelligence systems, determines if information obtained by adversaries could be interpreted to be useful to them, and then executes selected measures that eliminate or reduce adversary exploitation of friendly critical information.”

• The distributed denial of service attacks against Wikileaks and those against the websites of corporations such as PayPal and Mastercard might easily be construed as a form of electronic warfare (EW) or as computer network attacks, in which latter case they would fall under the rubric of computer network operations (CNO).  A computer network attack “includes actions taken through the use of computer networks to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy the information resident in in computers and computer networks and/or the computers/networks themselves.”  In response, all parties involved here have all very likely engaged in computer network defense, understood as “actions taken through the use of computer networks to protect, monitor, analyze, detect and respond to unauthorized activity within information systems and computer networks.”

• Finally, some conspiratorially minded observers and commentators have begun to wonder whether the Cablegate mega-leak is itself an act of military deception, and have asserted that Wikileaks was always or has become a front for state-actors engaging in “false flag operations.”

Among those speculating whether Wikileaks has effectively ignited an information war, the question has been raised as to what or where precisely the battlefield of this conflict is.  If one assumes that we are indeed in the midst of an information war, then the answer to this question is disturbingly simple: there is no space, whether physical, virtual or even mental, that is not a part of the battlefield.  Consider the following graphic conceptualization of information operations from the document mentioned above:

The “information environment” – the abstract space in which information warfare and information operations are carried out – has physical, informational, perceptual, cognitive and social dimensions.  Thus the potential informational battlefield stretches from the tangible real world, to cyberspace, to the individual human mind, to society as a whole.  As such, information warfare allows for a form of total war the likes of which were literally impossible before the dawn of the information age.

One of the primary characteristics of total war is the erosion of the distinction between civilians and combatants.  The complete collapse of this distinction is axiomatic for radical terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.  The maintenance of this distinction represents a primary difference between civilization and barbarism.  For this reason, if for no other, it is imperative to defend the freedom of speech and of the press against any and all who would seek to argue that any such act of speech or press constitutes an act of war.

Cross-posted and adapted from Poli-Tea.

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