The Pentagon is more successful in using deception operations against closed societies like China and Iran but is careful to avoid “blowback” disinformation that reaches U.S. society, a Pentagon official said on Wednesday.
“Yes, we do deception,” said Jake Schaffner, an official within the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Deception operations seek to influence the actions of foreign states or leaders and are more successful in closed societies like China, Iran, Syria and Egypt where information is tightly controlled by the state in an effort to control populations, he said.
No specifics of current deception operations were revealed, but public discussion of what Mr. Schaffner termed “the art of deception” is very unusual.
One past deception was the 1967 operation in Vietnam using F-4 jets disguised as F-105s to lure Vietnamese MiG-21s into combat.
In open societies like the United States and Europe, deception operations are more easily discovered by journalists and researchers using the free flow of information, especially on the Internet, Mr. Schaffner said during a cybersecurity conference.
Police states are more difficult places to set up deception programs but generally provide an easier environment for deception to succeed.
“They’ve caused the population to expect information to be presented in a certain way, certain formats, that certain words be used, certain types of presentations … and so it’s very easy to follow along with that,” he said.
If an operation can be set up, “then … the police state that is trying to protect itself is actually setting up many of its people to be deceived by you,” Mr. Schaffner said.
In cyberspace, Mr. Schaffner said, networks can be defended better using deception. He recalled meeting a group of 30 computer hackers who revealed about 20 types of online responses from targeted websites that would prompt them to “simply just turn around and go away” because the system would not respond.
He implied that by deceptively using such signs on networks, defenders can dissuade hackers from attacks.
Another deception specialist, Neil Rowe, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told the conference that false-error messages can be programmed on computers to pop up in response to outside intruders as a way deception can enhance network defenses. Another way is to “wrap” software applications in security software so that targeted computers slow down when an outsider gets inside or improperly tries to access a network through it.
Asked about blowback, or the unintended replaying of deception to publics in the United States, Mr. Schaffner said concerns about the potential problem require care and precision to avoid harming free-information environments.
“Absolutely, everyone lies,” Mr. Schaffner said. “So getting people to try to deceive other people is not particularly hard.”
However, doing it in a way that does not harm non-targeted populations requires nuance and trained people, he said.
“If we’re going to perform a deception where data can go almost anywhere, we have to be very careful not to harm that environment that is a central treasure of ours,” Mr. Schaffner said, noting that blowback must be prevented at all costs.
President Obama on Monday issued a directive to the military’s command structure making several changes, one of which is shifting responsibility for military deception from the U.S. Strategic Command to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
CIA analysts are bound to provide government policymakers with objective analyses and assessments free of policy designs.
So current and former intelligence officials were surprised by a recent news report revealing that a group of agency analysts celebrated a policy victory of sorts several years ago by issuing a special coin after they had prevented President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from ordering an attack on Syria’s secret desert nuclear facility.
According to journalist Bob Woodward, the analysts worked to dissuade Mr. Bush from attacking the al Kibar reactor facility, which Israeli jets eventually destroyed, claiming there was “low confidence” that it was for nuclear arms.
“At the CIA afterward, the group of specialists who had worked for months on the Syrian reactor issue were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case,” Mr. Woodward wrote in The Washington Post.
“So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, ‘No core/No war.’”
A spokesmen for the director of national intelligence had no immediate comment.
John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations and the State Department’s key arms-proliferation policymaker in the Bush administration, said he is concerned about the reported CIA politicization.
“Thank goodness the Israelis didn’t listen to them,” Mr. Bolton said. “This is a real breach of the ‘wall of separation’ between intelligence and policy.”
A former senior intelligence official said he was astonished that CIA analysts would take such a blatant policy position.
“Whose side are these guys on?” the former official asked.
A second former official said that until the Woodward report, it was thought the State Department and White House National Security Council were suppressing intelligence on the Syria-North Korean reactor facility to avoid upsetting the six-nation nuclear talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said the coin was given to men and women from five intelligence agencies who worked on locating the Syrian nuclear reactor and monitoring it before and after its destruction. The coin also was given to those who kept “U.S. policymakers informed of rapidly changing developments.”
“The commemorative medallion was provided in July 2008 by the agency to formally recognize their skill, commitment, and contribution to America’s security,” she told Inside the Ring.
“To try to read anything more into it is wrong and unfair, both to these intelligence professionals and to the policy customers they served.”
Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander of the new U.S. Cyber Command, which would wage computer warfare in a future conflict, said Internet spam emails are a major problem and even his email was victimized.
During a speech to a conference hosted by the Association of the Old Crows, an electronic warfare group, Gen. Alexander said that “my persona has been used out there.”
“So if you’re in a company and you get something from me that says, ‘Hey you need to protect yourself, open this link.’ Don’t do it. I’m not sending you stuff directly. Trust me.”
The four-star general said the use of hijacked email is one of several methods used by hackers to gain access to computers. False emails are sent out that appear to be from a trusted sender, urging the receiver to click on a link. The link is actually a hacker-controlled computer that loads malicious software on a computer or mobile device.
Internet and wireless communication devices and networks are expanding rapidly, Gen. Alexander said, creating new opportunities as well as vulnerabilities for cybercrime, espionage and data theft.
“We live in interesting times, there’s no doubt,” Gen. Alexander said. “The rate of change in this area is extraordinary.”
The general said 10 years ago, the number of Internet users was 200 million. Today the number of online users is 2 billion.
Email messages in 2010 totaled 107 trillion, or about 294 billion a day, and 89 percent were spam messages, Gen. Alexander said .
Twitter and Facebook also are growing rapidly, he said, noting that in March, the tsunami in Japan led to 573,000 people opening new Twitter accounts on a single day, March 12.
Facebook boasts 750 million active and inactive accounts, making it the third-largest nation of “netizens” in the world, he said.
Malicious software continues to proliferate, too. One security company finds on average more than 55,000 new pieces of malware per day.