China and Russia are engaged in sophisticated information warfare against the United States, spreading false narratives to undermine social cohesion and sow division, senior Pentagon intelligence officials disclosed Tuesday.
James Sullivan, a Defense Intelligence Agency cybersecurity expert, told a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence and special operations that both adversaries are engaged in covert warfare using disinformation — deliberately deceptive information — targeting the U.S. public and government.
China’s People’s Liberation Army is aggressively using global media outlets in what intelligence officials call “Three Warfares” — public opinion, legal, and psychological warfare.
“The PLA likely seeks to use digital influence activities to support its overall Three Warfares concept and to undermine an adversary’s social cohesion, economy, morale and governance,” Mr. Sullivan told the House panel.
Separately, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint intelligence assessment as the hearing was proceeding Tuesday morning. The assessment concluded that Russia and Iran sought to influence the 2020 presidential election but that no foreign government attempted to change voting results or alter ballots.
Intelligence officials said China did not interfere with the U.S. election but a slew of new players — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Cuba and Venezuela — took steps to influence the outcome.
The Justice and Homeland Security departments said they investigated multiple claims that foreign governments were attempting to disrupt or control the U.S. election infrastructure but none of those claims was credible.
“The departments found no evidence that any foreign government-affiliated actor manipulated election results or otherwise compromised the integrity of the 2020 federal elections,” they wrote in the report.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were told that Moscow is waging what DIA officials call “information confrontation,” using dissemination methods honed since the 1920s by the new Soviet communist regime.
“It’s been said in the past in the information sphere, Russia introduces bad weather whereas China is changing the climate,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I think that it is Russia that is changing the climate, and I think it is China that is introducing bad weather.”
The DIA analyst said China, however, is advancing its capabilities for spreading strategic disinformation in its global anti-U.S. propaganda operations.
“China will grow into that role,” he said. “China will use technology. China will use machine learning and [artificial intelligence] faster than the Russians will.”
Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, accused Beijing of committing “aggression and coercion” in the information sphere, including planting false stories about the origin of the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The spread of malign information has sought to spread panic and distrust within the U.S. and even alleged that the United States Army was responsible for bringing the virus to China,” Mr. Kelly said.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman last year suggested that the U.S. military may have brought the coronavirus to China in a bid to deflect growing criticism of Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in its early days and its role in allowing a highly infectious virus to spread around the world.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told a congressional hearing last week that Chinese officials operate “a vast disinformation machine.”
“They use both regular media and social media and have nearly 1 million people in their propaganda machine to undermine U.S. interests, to capture the narrative to their own benefit, and to corrupt the environment in a way that creates doubt amongst our allies and partners in the reliability of the United States,” he said.
Mr. Sullivan, the DIA specialist, said Russia is “without question” the world’s leader in the strategic use of covert disinformation “because they are a lot more prolific and they are a lot more destructive.”
Moscow’s information operations are much more aggressive than China’s in seeking to undermine U.S. democracy and degrade social cohesion, he said.
“The threat in the information domain is here to stay because it really comes down to conventional military overmatch,” where neither Moscow nor Beijing is ready to challenge U.S. military might, Mr. Sullivan said.
Moscow’s disinformation campaign scored a major success during the 2016 presidential race, when a major overt and covert effort helped foster sharp political divisions within the United States.
Testimony by Mr. Sullivan and two other Pentagon officials indicated that the U.S. military is struggling to develop effective ways to counter disinformation operations both in peacetime and in war.
In January 2020, nine U.S. combatant command leaders signed a memorandum known as the “36-star Memo” urging intelligence agencies to do more to counter foreign disinformation.
The Pentagon and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will not complete their response to the generals and admirals until September.
Asked about “gaps” in coordinating a response to foreign disinformation, the DIA’s Neill Tipton told the House panel that intelligence agencies lack expertise they need.
“We’re rebuilding muscle memory that we haven’t really exercised really since the Cold War as we operate in this information domain,” said Mr. Tipton, director of defense intelligence for collections and special programs. “So clearly there are gaps in how we do that. We are working through that.”
During the hearing, it was revealed that the 1st Special Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, recently created an information warfare center and has plans to create “influence artillery rounds” for its operations.
“I think it’s indicative of what we’re trying to do across the force, which is really elevate this issue,” said Christopher Maier, acting assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
“I wouldn’t want to articulate or even speculate on what they mean by an ‘information artillery round,’ but I think it speaks to the idea that information is a part of our war-fighting concept,” he said.
Special Operations Command is the main military unit in charge of “military information support operations,” or MISO.
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board concluded in a recent study that military activities in “gray zone” warfare are disjointed and unsuccessful. The military needs to build up its soft-power capabilities in areas such as cybersecurity, intelligence and influence operations.
The U.S. military “needs to be more aggressive in the Gray Zone and treat every action as a campaign to deter competitors from behavior counter to U.S. objectives,” the board concluded.
Mr. Sullivan said all nations wage information warfare to a certain degree, but none is engaged in the style of warfare employed by Moscow using both information and disinformation.
“I’ll say this: In the United States, we are not going to fabricate or alter data and release it publicly. The Russians would have no problem doing that and do do that quite often,” he said.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.