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Deception isn't just for war anymore
Military deception (MILDEC), a name and an acronym that has been around since at least World War II, just isn’t good enough anymore. The name has been changed this year to “deception activity (DA)” a new term to match a new Cold War and a cyber era of constant battle, never before revealed.
The Pentagon has a bad habit of constantly changing the names of organizations and activities, always with the justification that they are just being more precise. But in this case the name change, never before publicly revealed, gives insight into the military’s increasing involvement in information warfare, even in “peacetime”. Along with deception activity comes the mouthful Sensitive Messaging and Operations in the Information Environment (SM&OIE), sensitive messaging being the manipulation of China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorists, all with the conviction that the United States needs not just to defend itself against cyber attacks and disinformation from its many adversaries but go on the offensive as well.
Overseeing it all is the new Influence and Perception Management Office (IPMO), subordinate to the
Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, established on March 1, 2022. IPMO is tasked with “the development of broad thematic messaging guidance and specific strategies for the execution of DOD activities designed to influence foreign defense-related decision-makers to behave in a manner beneficial to U.S. interests deliberately conceal or selectively reveal information to a foreign audience in a manner beneficial to U.S. Interests.,” according to a document obtained by the authors.
“Defense related” is a key phrase here, because in this new era of “cyber deception and adversary engagement” as it’s being called, the CIA carries its own covert deception activities oriented towards civil decisionmakers. Some of this is accomplished through the technical skills and brute force of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command. The State Department conducts overt messaging – a lot of good that’s doing. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI are trying to wrap their heads around countering disinformation on the domestic battlefield. Lots of mischief there.
And of course the armed forces soldier on with traditional MILDEC activities. MILDEC connotes what happens during a conflict, whether on the battlefield or at the strategic level. At the strategic level, one of the most successful MILDEC operations ever was the deception that occurred in World War II before the invasion of the continent as part of Operation Overlord. Through MILDEC, the allies were able to convince the Nazis to divert resources and reinforcements to Pas-de-Calais and away from the true objective, Normandy. At the tactical level, decoys (such as fake tanks), false communications, or even controlled agents can be used to confuse enemy decision makers.
All of the techniques of MILDEC have been applied to American conflicts since the first Gulf War and some, on a strictly situational basis, are reputed to have been successful. But of course the greatest deception of the modern era is Saddam Hussein convincing the United States, his friends and even his own military that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. In his brutal and compartmented system, he was able to maintain the fiction that he secretly possessed WMD, despite public claims otherwise, to deter a war and regime change. That worked.
All forms of deception are highly secret. There’s no use in trying to deceive the enemy if it knows what you are doing (and how). Of course that means that this new world of deception activity is and will take place in highly compartmented worlds, the activities themselves and the successes (or failures) buried by secrecy. The other greatest danger is that in the realm of messaging and engagement in the Internet era, there’s plenty of room for blowback (or confusion). As an example, and we’re making this up, the U.S. undertakes various deceptions to influence Russian decision-making with regard to how it’s doing in a conflict like Ukraine. The news media (and experts) picks up the minutiae, reporting that a country like Ukraine is weak, that it’s losing, that it’s on the edge of disaster. All with an $80 billion price tag for the American people. We’re not saying that they’ve done this … not exactly.
Similarly, in the Internet age, when U.S. deceivers operate online under false “personas”, there is the issue of veracity: who’s engaging, who’s spying, who else is following? Arkin has already written about the vast world of signature reduction and the growth of military undercover, clandestine and covert activity. The Washington Post reported in September that the Pentagon was ordering a review of how psychological operations and online messaging over social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were blowing back, indeed even whether they were legal. We can reveal that the DOD Inspector General is now initiating an Evaluation of Combatant Command Military Deception Planning (Project No. D2023-DEV0PD-0019.000) “to determine the extent to which the combatant commands have effectively conducted military deception (MILDEC) planning in support of ongoing operations.”
Effectively is the key word here. And assigning numbers. The inspectors will ask: how many adversaries heard the message? What tangible evidence is there that the messaging influenced decision-makers? They will not ask whether deception activities in peacetime – on in this era of perpetual war – makes sense or achieves larger goals. Of course, there is a ready battalion of government lawyers already passing judgment on the collateral damage associated with every deception operation. But like drone attacks, where estimates of civilian deaths influenced whether an attack was approved, getting the numbers and the paperwork perfect become the focus.