In his first days in office, President Trump will be confronted by a diverse array of international communication challenges, including a sustained Russian political warfare assault against the West, Islamic extremist use of social media to recruit adherents and inspire lone wolves, and China’s meddling in the domestic politics of America’s closest allies.
While Congress should consider new bureaucracies, if necessary, to meet these threats, there are a handful of ready options available to Trump today that would blunt the effectiveness of adversarial information campaigns and make the United States more secure.
The Reagan administration, in contrast, sought to deal specifically with the challenges of Soviet disinformation and created another small, interagency task-group: the Active Measures Working Group. Housed in the Department of State, its members were also tasked from across the national security community. Their specific mission was to analyze and expose Soviet disinformation, including the “fake news” story that the AIDS virus was developed by the U.S. government as a weapon to target African-Americans and the homosexual community.
That story was planted by Soviet intelligence in a pro-Soviet Indian newspaper in 1983 and by 1987, according to a study by Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb, had not only appeared in Soviet-controlled press, but “was reprinted or rebroadcast in over 80 countries in 30 languages.” At the height of the AIDS crisis, the story did tremendous damage to U.S. credibility abroad as well as at home. At least one study found that almost 50 percent of African-Americans believed that HIV was a “man-made virus.”
The Active Measures Working Group’s analysis of the campaign eventually caught the attention of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev who blistered at its claims of Soviet culpability in spreading disinformation. Yet his tirade at U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz proved the value of the working group. They had exposed the activities of the Soviet disinformation campaign; raised the cost of Soviet actions; exposed the lies of America’s adversaries; and discredited anyone who had peddled those claims.
Neither the OCB nor the Active Measures Working Group were large bureaucracies but rather task-built groups with small staffs designed to achieve specific effects in the fight against the Soviet Union and its ideology, exactly the type of agile organizational structures that could deal with an increasingly adaptable and complex set of ideological threats.
Like their predecessors, the Trump administration must make a conceptual leap in terms of developing the apparatus and programs needed to combat the ideologically driven political warfare campaigns directed against our nation. First and foremost, there must be recognition that changing behaviors and attitudes in the 21st century requires policies designed for specific psychological objectives. This requires unwavering commitment to a proactive and strategic approach rather than a transactional and reactive one.
Second, this approach requires interagency coordination and synchronization alongside significant autonomy within executive branch agencies. Specifically, the National Security Council should have a focal point on ideological and political warfare – much in the same way the Eisenhower NSC’s contained a Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Strategy. The incumbent in this position is not a policy czar focused on the tactics of engagement, but a master synchronizer.
Third, while “USIA on steroids” makes for a good headline, the key is finding the right organization to meet today’s challenges. It is possible that the State Department Global Engagement Center could provide a good model for the coordination, integration, and synchronization of messaging but it will require a focus beyond counterterrorism and a home that can truly have access to senior interagency leadership rather than being buried in the bureaucracy. In whatever form, the new capability must operate with the agility of a new-media start-up.
The challenges facing the West and the United States today are unmistakably ideological. Adversaries are peddling nationalism, the end of supranational organizations that impinge national sovereignty, religious extremism, and even separatism from California to Scotland to Okinawa—ideas that challenge the central tenets of the world created after World War II. Trump should respond, in the tradition of Eisenhower and Reagan, and organize his administration for political warfare.
Dr. James Ludes is vice president for Public Research and Initiatives and Dr. Mark Jacobson is a non-resident senior fellow at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center. Both have written doctoral dissertations on the American use of political warfare during the Cold War. Ludes previously worked in the U.S. Senate for then-Sen. John Kerry as an advisor on foreign and defense policy. Jacobson is a former senior advisor to both the secretaries of Defense and Navy.
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