What is the Public’s Role in National Security?

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo Credit: Jeffery Smith for The Atlantic 

When the security of the American public is at stake, what role does the constituency have in shaping the response to threats? There is a divide between national security leaders and American society on two related fronts: threat prioritization and public mobilization. In a democracy the will of the polity is necessary to successfully address the threats of the day, but in order to harness the power of the people, national security officials need to better inform and communicate through commonly used channels, thereby enabling the American people to more accurately judge the severity of threats.

The question of how much say the public should have in setting national security imperatives is a difficult one. Many threats are made opaque to the public by byzantine security protocols, leaving critical details secret. Professionals trained in threat assessment frequently disagree about where resources and attention should be focused. It would therefore be unrealistic to expect the broader public, working with far less available information and understanding about evolving threats, to decide how the national security apparatus approaches national security.

Yet, threat prioritization is a political and moral issue in a democracy, and one that the American people have always had at least some say in. The choice to go to war, and likewise the pressure to end war, is the most evident example of the public’s role in setting the national security agenda, but it is far from the only one.[i] Consider the amount of attention on domestic counterterrorism in the United States. This regime has grown out of an intense public concern about terrorism in the post-9/11 period. The public’s demand for more security, or at least the perception of more security, led to substantial changes in public life, from the proliferation of metal detectors to the reshaping of police forces.[ii]

Currently, the Trump administration’s efforts to refocus the national strategy epitomizes the ongoing divide between the public’s threat perception and attempted agenda-setting by the national security apparatus and the need to align the two. The Trump administration has attempted to shift the public’s attention to great power rivalry and recontextualize the threat posed by terrorism, as can be seen by both public statements by national security officials and official documents like the National Defense Strategy.[iii] This is an uphill task for officials, however, as terrorism remains the issue Americans are most concerned about, while conflict with major powers like China or Russia not even making the top 20 list of policy concerns.[iv]

Manifestations of great power rivalry at home exemplify why the attention of the public is necessary for effective defense policy, specifically in combatting influence operations against the U.S., which have ranged from Russian interference in the 2016 election to Chinese propaganda advertised in an Iowa newspaper.[v] While the defense apparatus can address some counter influence operations on its own, such as mandating social media organizations remove malicious content, the vigilance and awareness of the American public provide the ultimate safeguard against these malign campaigns.[vi]

While public mobilization conjures images of its wartime context, the U.S. can look to Cold War precedents for the effectively informing and warning the public during peacetime against subversive measures like those seen today. The premier example of this is the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG), an interagency taskforce established in 1981 tasked with exposing Soviet disinformation, both in the U.S. and abroad. One Soviet operation managed to forge a National Security Council document entitled “Carter’s Secret Plan to Keep Black Africans and Black Americans at Odds” published in an American newspaper. The ploy attempted to play on racial tensions, a social divide that, according to AMWG findings, the Soviets had a long history of seeking to exploit and which contemporary Russian operatives again targeted in the 2016 election.[vii]

The AMWG, a State Department-led effort, brought together members of the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice, and the State Department’s own United States Information Agency with a simple, yet difficult mission: to report, analyze, and expose Soviet disinformation. The group worked to disseminate their findings to journalists both domestically and internationally, and had major success countering some of the most pernicious Soviet propaganda. The AMWG’s seminal moment came in 1987 with its release of the report entitled Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986–1987, which successfully helped dispel the Soviet concocted conspiracy that the U.S. was responsible for spreading the AIDS virus. The report received so much attention from the US media that it caused then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to swear off disinformation campaigns and led Soviet scientists to retract their claims about the US role in the AIDS crisis.[viii]

The interagency process of the AMWG managed to not only collate important findings, but put it in the hands of those whose job was to work with the media and the public and made sure it was widely disseminated to reliable media sources with broad networks, both in the U.S. and abroad. This example of strategically communicating the methods of the adversary to those being targeted allowed the U.S. to finally get ahead of Soviet slander and more proactively refute wild claims, and eventually silence them altogether, however briefly.[ix]

While public attention is necessary to counter influence campaigns currently undertaken by China, Russia, and other actors, that same power is needed to confront the broad spectrum of security threats we presently face—ranging from the cyber realm to climate change—and those that will certainly emerge in future.[x] Success on this front requires defense officials communicating clearly to the public through the most effective channels, which is no small task in today’s bifurcated media atmosphere. The power of intelligence agencies and the military standing on their own are not enough to quash the threats facing the U.S. today, and they never have been. Mobilizing the American public by using strategic communication to inform them of the threats they face, the methods being used, and the collective power individual citizens possess to counteract disinformation is the most important action that can be taken to safeguard the country.










[i] Michael Tomz, Jessica Weeks, and Keren Yarhi-Milo, “Public Opinion and Decisions about Military Force in Democracies,” Princeton University, January 4, 2018, https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/kyarhi/files/twy-publicopinion-2018-01-04b-paper.pdf.

[ii] “Terrorism,” Gallup Historical Trends, Gallup, accessed October 1, 2018. https://news.gallup.com/poll/4909/terrorism-united-states.aspx.

[iii] “Mattis: US national security focus no longer terrorism.” BBC News, January 19, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-42752298; “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,” United States Department of Defense, January 2018. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[iv] John Gramlich, “Defending against terrorism has remained a top policy priority for Americans since 9/11,” Pew Research, September 11, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/11/defending-against-terrorism-has-remained-a-top-policy-priority-for-americans-since-9-11/.

[v] Tony Munroe, “U.S. ambassador accuses China of ‘bullying’ with ‘propaganda ads’,” Reuters, September 30, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-diplomacy/us-ambassador-accuses-china-of-bullying-with-propaganda-ads-idUSKCN1MA0HW.

[vi] Greg Treverton, Influence Operations and the Intelligence/Policy Challenges: CATS Conference 4–5 May, 2017, (Stockholm: Swedish Defense Univesrity Center for Asymmetric Threats Study, 2017), 21, https://www.fhs.se/download/18.1ee9003b162cad2caa5351cf/1524483543405/Influence%20Operations%20and%20the%20Intelligence%20Policy%20Challenges.pdf.

[vii] Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb, “Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference,” Strategic Perspectives, no. 11, 2012, http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/inss/Strategic-Perspectives-11.pdf; Dan Keating, Kevin Schaul, and Leslie Shapiro, “The Facebook ads Russians targeted at different groups,” The Washington Post, November 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/business/russian-ads-facebook-targeting/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.003f23602386#new-york-bm; Philip Ewing, “Russians Targeted U.S. Racial Divisions Long Before 2016 And Black Lives Matter,” National Public Radio, October 30, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/10/30/560042987/russians-targeted-u-s-racial-divisions-long-before-2016-and-black-lives-matter.

[viii] Schoen and Lamb, “Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications,” 63.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Matt O’Brien, “Google takes on alleged Iranian influence campaign,” AP News, August 23, 2018, https://apnews.com/d20b7098de014bfd999bf738e716db6e; Scott Simon, Julie Bykowicz, “Qatar’s Influence Campaign,” National Public Radio, September 1, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/09/01/643921977/qatars-influence-campaign.

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