At a glance.
- US seizes Iranian websites.
- Warship positions misrepresented in AIS.
- Poland attributes email compromises to Russian intelligence services.
- The scope of Russian disinformation operations.
- A look at GRU psychological operations.
- Mutual incomprehension.
- Grand masters and card sharks.
- China's celebration of Uyghur culture as apparent misdirection from forced labor.
Iranian websites seized by US authorities.
The US Justice Department yesterday seized thirty-three websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and three more run by Kataib Hezbollah. Aligned with the Iranian government, the media outlets were operating in violation of US sanctions against designated terrorist groups. The domains Justice seized were owned by a US corporation. Other sites based abroad were beyond the scope of the warrant the Justice Department executed. The immediate offense, note, is sanctions violations, not engagement in propaganda or disinformation.
Possible naval vessel position falsification.
Two NATO warships, the Dutch vessel Evertsen and the Royal Navy's HMS Defender, operating in the Black Sea and visiting the Ukrainian port of Odessa, were falsely reported to have moved to disputed waters in the vicinity of the Russian-claimed port of Sevastopol. The USNI News reports that it seems Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals were falsified to give the impression that the warships had engaged in what effectively would have been a provocation. In fact, both ships remained in Odessa. Whether the AIS reports were deliberately falsified and by whom, or whether the incident involved some malfunction, how the misreporting occurred remains unclear.
Should you be unfamiliar with AIS, the British electronics retailer ICOM has a useful overview of the system on its site. “AIS works by taking your position and movements via the vessels’ GPS system or an internal sensor built into an AIS unit. That information is then collated along with programmable information from the AIS unit (e.g. Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, vessel name, destination, cargo type) and is transmitted in the background at regular intervals whilst also receiving other vessels AIS information.”
Most commercial vessels are required to be equipped with AIS, which is a valuable aid to collision avoidance, among other things. Warships also typically carry AIS, although for security reasons they may turn it off as necessary, since their locations are often sensitive. But navies too are interested in safe transit: in 2017, for example, following two deadly collisions between US Navy warships and commercial vessels, for example, the US Navy told its ships to turn their AIS on in heavily trafficked waters.
Poland attributes recent email compromise to the Russian government group behind Ghostwriter.
Polish authorities have offered more details on the cyberattacks their country has sustained over recent months. They attribute the campaign to UNC1151, a threat actor associated with Russian intelligence services and generally regarded as responsible for the Ghostwriter campaign. According to TheHill, Polish intelligence services regard the campaign as part of a larger effort aimed at destabilizing Central European governments. “The findings of the Internal Security Agency and the Military Counterintelligence Service show that the UNC1151 group is behind the recent hacker attacks that hit Poland,” a spokesperson for the Polish Minister Coordinator of Special Services, said yesterday, adding, “The secret services have reliable information at their disposal which [links] this group with the activities of the Russian secret services.”
The scope of Russian disinformation operations.
An op-ed in TheHill notes that while President Biden confronted President Putin over Russian toleration and arguably encouragement of cybercrime, especially ransomware, the summit did not take up the possibly more troubling issue of Russia's disinformation effort. The author, Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, argues that "This effort involves multiple institutions, from the notorious 'Internet Research Agency' of pro-Kremlin oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin to more obscure ones, such as Global Research website affiliated, via cutouts, with Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR. It entails the promotion of a wide range of pernicious narratives, ranging from false data casting doubt on the efficacy of Western vaccines to sensationalized, distorted accounts of social and racial strife within the United States." He concludes that the US needs to work out ways of imposing costs for disinformation as well as cyberattacks and cyberespionage.
"Make no mistake: we're not friends."
The Kosciuszko Institute's General Talks podcast this week features an interview with author Michael Weiss, who spoke about psychological warfare as understood and practiced by Russia's GRU, the country's military intelligence service. His principal source was the Aquarium Leaks, leaked GRU documents that included lecture notes delivered to cadets studying psychological operations.
Weiss argued that the GRU has enjoyed far more continuity than other Russian intelligence and security services, operating almost continually since its formation between 1918 and 1920 as a recognizable organ of first the Soviet and then eventually the Russian government. During the transition from the Soviet period, Weiss said, "The distinction between war and peace was completely elided," and psychological operations have continued "no matter what the geopolitical lay of the land might be."
He thinks that GRU psychological operations are no longer strictly subordinated to the Russian Army, but now address political and economic goals. While technically the GRU is under the Defense Ministry, now it has a direct line to the Presidential office. It also has a long record of successfully running human agents, and it has for some time established connections with criminal organizations, co-opting them for state purposes. This is useful both as a means of establishing plausible deniability ("prove it," or "show us the evidence," as Russian officials commonly says when other governments complain of the Russian services' misbehavior). It's also a way of sending a message, as Weiss believes happened with the recent ransomware attack against JBS. The message that attack sent, he thinks, coming as it did around the time of the Russo-American summit, was, "Make no mistake: we're not friends."
Much Russian disinformation is laundered and amplified, whether through state-controlled news outlets like RT and Sputnik or through organizations like the Internet Research Agency's St. Petersburg troll farm. This tradecraft has evolved. In the 2016 election season, the IRA and others "play acted" as Americans. Now, however, we're seeing Americans and Europeans co-opted to launder disinformation. Sites catering to the far left and far right, sometimes with cross-sharing, are hiring American writers.
Journalists, Weiss thinks, are susceptible to being gamed by their dependence on their customary online information ecosystems. Psychological operations work because the willingness to believe is there. The Russians observe what we're doing to one another, and they egg us on. "American social cohesion is very very weak," Weiss said, adding that "It doesn't require much to turn what's weak into what's completely dysfunctional."
Weiss offered no easy prescriptions. "It's an easy gig to work for this GRU psychological operation today." He doesn't see censorship as an answer. Better media literacy, more skeptical consumption of news would be welcome, but that's difficult to achieve. He did think that transparency about disinformation campaigns would help, and that the US Government could be a lot more transparent about the schemes it's detected. "The ODNI report on 2020 was gratifyingly clear, and we could use more of this." Consider that one of the most influential figures, President Putin, is using Western financial systems and markets to enrich himself. It's in the public interest to know this, Weiss said. A major reason for Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 US elections was President Putin's belief that the Panama Papers amounted to a US intelligence conspiracy, not just the simple journalistic effort it appeared to be He wanted to retaliate against a perceived US active measure with one of his own.
Otherwise intelligent and reasonable people are taken in by disinformation, Weiss says, and it can be traumatic to counter disinformation. Pushing back against nonsense exacts a psychological cost: you can expect to be met with a torrent of online abuse. Much of the abuse is from real people who've been taken in, but much of it is not. Psychological warfare as the GRU practices it represents an attempt to saturate the information space.
Chess versus poker.
Two points made in the Kosciuszko Institute's General Talks podcast are worth noting, as they suggest some cultural incomprehension with respect to Russian and American habits of understanding the world. The first is President Putin's apparent conviction that the embarrassing revelations of the Panama Papers couldn't have been the sort of leak and opportunistic journalistic digging that by all appearances it was. His belief that this had to be an American intelligence operation shows in some respects a chess player's way of understanding the world: complex and deterministic, where there's room for mistaken moves, but not really for chance. Contrast that with the poker-player's view of the world more common among Americans: stuff happens, and you need to be able to take risks and assess the odds, but in the end much of what goes on happens without any overarching direction. The invisible hand operates globally, the hidden hand locally. Russo-American competition might be seen in some respects as a contest between chess masters and card sharks.
Increasing the adversary's friction as opposed to reducing one's own.
The other point made in this episode of the Kosciuszko Institute's General Talks is the negative, entropic character of Russian disinformation. Americans may be accustomed to thinking of psychological operations as marketing in battledress, and marketing typically has a positive goal: buy this car, drink this beer, watch this show. Russian psychological operations don't have this sort of goal. They aim instead at disrupting and damaging an adversary, not at persuading that adversary in any particular direction. Alt-right and alt-left work equally well, provided the lines they push serve to open wounds and increase fissures in civil society.
It may be useful, since psychological operations are said to be seen by the GRU as a form of warfare, to consider this in the light of Clausewitz's idea of war. What distinguishes the idea of war from actual war, Clausewitz argues, is what he calls "friction." The idea of war discounts friction in the same way the formal models used to teach high school physics do ("assume a frictionless surface"). So ideal war consists of thinking of the movement of forces against the enemy, but it doesn't take into account the "friction" of bad weather, units getting lost, mechanical breakdown, misunderstood orders, the difficulty of moving at night, fatigue, and so on.
One might aim, in real war, to reduce one's own friction or to increase the enemy's. All armies do some mix of both, of course, but their national styles will weight the two differently. Russian disinformation is very much an effort to increase the adversary's friction.
China's celebration of Uyghur culture seems aimed at the domestic tourist trade.
Gulf News reports that theme-park-styled tourist centers in China's Xinjiang province are featuring celebrations of the region's Uyghur culture, but it also notes that surveillance and security were much in evidence. Nor does the theme-park approach seem to have had much influence on international perception of China's treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population: the US Commerce Department, for example, today added five Chinese organizations to its Entity List for their complicity in Xinjiang's forced labor practices.