The U.S. Central Command is stepping up psychological warfare operations using software that allows it to target social media websites used by terrorists.
The Tampa, Fla.-based military command that runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan recently bought a special computer program that troops use to create multiple fake identities on the Internet. The military uses the fictitious identities to infiltrate groups and in some cases spread disinformation among extremist organizations such as al Qaeda and the Taliban with the goal of disrupting their operations, according to documents and U.S. officials.
The program is aimed at helping troops create and maintain realistic online personalities that will persuade extremists to allow them into chat rooms and bulletin boards by creating the appearance that they are logging on and posting messages or other contributions from anywhere in the world.
Information operations generally are carried out by U.S. special-operations forces.
The software is used for what the military calls “information operations” that use “classified social media activities outside the United States to counter violent extremist ideology and enemy propaganda,” Centcom spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks told The Washington Times.
Information operations include activities designed “to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting our own,” according to Pentagon documents. Such activities include disinformation campaigns, or military deception; computer network operations, or hacking; and what used to be called psychological warfare operations or “psy-ops,” but is now referred to as “military information support operations.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued a memo this year directing that military information support operations replace psychological warfare and transferring oversight and management of information operations from defense intelligence officials and to the Pentagon’s policymaking directorate. He said the change would enable better coordination of activities across the Pentagon and throughout the U.S. government.
Under Mr. Gates’ order, U.S. Strategic Command, where the military’s new cyberwarfare arm is based, will concentrate on military computer hacking and cyberdefenses. The Joint Staffs will take responsibility for deception operations and Special Operations Command will take the lead in military information support operations. Deception operations can be strategic and tactical and can be aimed at supporting U.S. policies or small-scale operations.
Former CIA Director and retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden said in an interview that information operations like those at Centcom, using social media, are the cutting edge of U.S. military and intelligence activities that often require officials to rapidly determine how long-established rules and limits apply in the borderless world of the Internet.
“I think a good word would be developmental,” Mr. Hayden said. “Operationally developmental, technologically developmental and legally developmental.”
Centcom purchased the $2.7 million software from San Diego-based Ntrepid, the same company that markets “Anonymizer,” a popular online tool that lets users hide their identities and locations on the Web.
The company and its executives did not respond to several requests for comment.
According to military procurement documents, the software will “enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries.”
“Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world,” the documents stated.
Any computer that logs on to the Web generally does so from its unique Internet location, known as an Internet Protocol or IP address. The addresses often can be tracked back to specific corporations or agencies, and sometimes are pinpointed geographically.
The software generates false IP addresses that are not linked to the U.S. military, thus making them appear to originate from specified parts of the world, the documents stated.
“The service includes a user-friendly application environment to maximize the user’s situational awareness by displaying real-time local information,” the document said, a reference to information it can generate about the time, weather and local news in the pretend location of the fake persona.
The growth of a single global information culture and the growing ubiquity of the Internet pose challenges for U.S. military psy-ops warriors who are barred by law and policy from targeting U.S. audiences.
Traditional information operations such as leaflets can be dropped on enemy troops, making it easy to exclude U.S. audiences. “Leaflets don’t blow across the world,” said Isaac R. Porche, a researcher at the RAND Corp. who has written about information operations. “That’s not the case” with Internet communications, he added.
“Cyberspace doesn’t have borders,” he said.
The issue is further complicated by the most popular social media sites that are owned and operated by U.S. companies that enjoy many of the same rights and protections as citizens under U.S. law.
The social networking site Facebook, for example, says that any effort to create false identities is a violation of the terms of service agreement required of all users.
“Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture,” spokesman Andrew Noyes said. “It’s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this.”
He said the company had a special team that reviews these reports and “takes action as necessary.”
Cmdr. Speaks said the Central Command program operates only on overseas social media sites.
“We do not target U.S. audiences, and we do not conduct these activities on sites owned by U.S. companies,” he said.
But restrictions like these placed on information operations are sometimes irksome to the troops carrying them out, Mr. Porche said.
“At the lowest echelon of the actual operators,” he said, “there are complaints there that there’s too many hoops they have to jump through. … In a firefight, if you’re shot at, you return fire immediately. … The people who have to do the missions are always the ones who want to move the fastest.”
But Mr. Porche said the limitations on “returning fire” in information operations were necessary. “You can’t just unleash an operation. It has to be coordinated.
“There are a lot of checks and balances,” he said.
John Delong, an official in charge of overseeing operations at the National Security Agency, the electronic signals intelligence and code-breaking agency, said he could not comment specifically on the Centcom operation. But he said it was a challenge in these emerging and dynamic areas to “play aggressively right up to the line” of what was allowed under law and policy.
“Sometimes people think of the rules as these things that are fixed on paper,” he said. “They’re constantly changing; they interact with each other. There are constantly [new] interpretations coming down both internally and externally.”