Confronting Information As a Weapon

By: Andrew Swick, Columnist

Photo Credit: NATO

The 2017 Kalaris Intelligence Conference, hosted on September 14 by Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in partnership with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, highlighted one of the most pressing yet underestimated dilemmas faced by the United States— the threat of information as a weapon in itself. From ISIS’ use of the Internet to recruit to Russia’s interference in democratic elections, adversaries are utilizing information in digital public spaces as an offensive tool with increasing effectiveness. As defined in the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) quadrennial Global Trends report, the persisting dangers stemming from misinformation and propaganda will only worsen in the future and will require unprecedented cooperation between the United States and its allies to mitigate.

The NIC Global Trends report identifies the urgent threat of information warfare (IW), specifically describing the “exfiltration, exploitation, and destruction of information” among the tactics most likely to be employed by adversaries in the future. These tools present unprecedented difficulties that will in turn create “new challenges” relating to armed conflict and the sovereignty of nations.[i]

In addition to defining the threat, the NIC report suggests avenues to build resilience against these tactics, arguing that, “governments, organizations, and individuals that are most capable of identifying opportunities and working cooperatively to act upon them will be most successful.”[ii] The report argues that world actors will be most powerful when they are able to utilize capabilities across international lines and through public-private partnerships. [iii] Yet while US and European intelligence agencies are well aware of the scope of the threat following Russia’s use of IW in recent election campaigns, so far they have not taken adequate steps to collaborate on their response.

On their own, European governments are actively responding by exposing misinformation campaigns and educating their publics. A June 2017 report in the Washington Post detailed how governments across Europe are teaching students and Internet monitors to identify and expose foreign propaganda.[iv] Additionally, Britain and France have called on Facebook to “disable tens of thousands of automated fake accounts” used to spread misinformation.[v]

Despite maintaining robust intelligence sharing initiatives with European allies, the United States lags behind Europe in defending against influential IW campaigns. Though congressional committees and the US Department of Justice are currently investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—including the use of misinformation—US officials are only beginning to discover the scale of these campaigns following the revelation of the Kremlin’s use of Facebook ad-buys.[vi] On the other hand, European security officials were “uniformly more confident about the results of their efforts to counter Russian influence” than their US allies.[vii]

To match their European partners, US policymakers and diplomatic leaders should work to close the gap in efforts to counteract IW and further leverage existing opportunities for cooperation with their European partners. Evidence of these efforts appeared as recently as June when NATO conducted an alliance-wide exercise to practice intelligence sharing procedures in response to the threat of hybrid warfare.[viii] Similarly, the US intelligence community can use the alliance framework to borrow best practices and share information related to hostile influence campaigns. Developing modern intelligence depends less often on the collection of information than vetting and developing critical analysis from worthwhile information. Therefore, encouraging NATO partners to share these important insights related to combatting IW will both benefit the United States and strengthen the alliance’s arsenal against misinformation.

[i] “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress”, Report, National Intelligence Council, January 2017, 210.

[ii] Ibid, 66.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Dana Priest and Michael Birnbaum, “Europe has been working to expose Russian meddling for years,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2017,

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Dylan Byers, “Facebook still doesn’t know the extent of Russian ad buys in the election,” CNNMoney, September 14, 2017,

[vii] Dana Priest and Michael Birnbaum, “Europe has been working to expose Russian meddling for years,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2017,

[viii] “Exercise boots NATO intelligence-sharing ahead of Summit, NATO, accessed September 17, 2017,

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