Only by “waging the truth in the public domain against America’s 21st century challengers” can Washington shore up support from American allies, they said. But efforts to compete in the battle of ideas, they added, are hamstrung by overly stringent secrecy practices.
“We request this help to better enable the US, and by extension its allies and partners, to win without fighting, to fight now in so-called gray zones, and to supply ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives,” the commanders who oversee U.S. military forces in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, as well as special operations troops, wrote to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last January.
“Unfortunately, we continue to miss opportunities to clarify truth, counter distortions, puncture false narratives, and influence events in time to make a difference,” they added.
The memo, which was reviewed by POLITICO and has not been made public, made waves inside the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, and on Capitol Hill over the past year, where it has come to be known as the “36-star memo.” It wasn’t a command or an ultimatum; rather, it implored the Intelligence Community to make big changes.
The fact that it was signed by nine of the 11 four-star combatant commanders — all but one of whom are still in uniform — is nearly unheard of, said multiple government officials familiar with the memo who said it underscored an unusual level of alarm among the top brass. The top leaders for U.S. Central Command and Cyber Command did not sign.
The letter was organized by Adm. Phil Davidson, the outgoing head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and was also signed by Gen. Jay Raymond, who at the time was commander of U.S. Space Command but is now head of the Space Force and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Spokespeople for Davidson and Raymond declined to comment on the memo or their concerns.
The missive casts in sharp relief some of the trickiest perennial challenges for U.S. national security leaders: When do you go public with classified intelligence? And what role do secrets play in the global battle for public opinion?
“The Russians and the Chinese, in particular, have weaponized information,” said Kari Bingen, who was one of the recipients of the memo when she was undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. “This is a significant concern that is being raised by military commanders and intelligence professionals.”
“The combatant commands are out at the edge,” she added in an interview. “Their forces are interacting with our allies and partners, and seeing what our adversaries are doing, on a daily basis. They need timely and relevant information to expose bad activity and to counter what they’re seeing.”
The Russians and Chinese militaries have been increasingly aggressive. Moscow this spring amassed a large combat force along its border with Ukraine and has stepped up its incursions into North American and European airspace. It has also been the target of additional U.S. sanctions for its sustained campaign to meddle in the American electoral process and engage in cyber attacks.
Beijing has continued its military expansion into contested areas of the South China Sea, most recently a chain of islands claimed by the Philippines. It has also mounted an aggressive campaign to bully Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, including brazenly sending more than two dozen combat planes into its air defense zone this month.
Meanwhile, the State Department has said that Russia and China have used the coronavirus pandemic to push anti-American conspiracy theories, including that the virus was an American-made bioweapon and that U.S. troops were responsible for its rapid spread.
The memo from the generals and admirals, which was unclassified but labeled “for official use only,” insisted the status quo falls far short of what they need to counter such propaganda, which means broadcasting to the world that Russia and China are undermining global order and democratic institutions.
One area of intelligence that the military said needs to be made more public is satellite images. A former senior Pentagon intelligence official said the memo alludes to frustrations some combatant commanders have about their inability to share satellite photos with allies and partners about adversaries’ behavior.
A second former defense official also said commanders have vented privately that they’re not getting the kind of intelligence they want or they’re getting it too late, or they’re getting it overly classified so they can’t circulate it.
The admin’s plan
Last summer, a team of senior Pentagon and intelligence officials convened a series of working groups in response to the military memo and issued recommendations, according to Matt Lahr, deputy assistant DNI for Strategic Communications.
In December 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence requested intelligence agencies “review their existing procedures and improve their posture to support Combatant Commands at the speed and scale they require,” Lahr said in a statement.
He added that “initial responses” were received from directors of the spy agencies in January of this year. Now, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and David Taylor, who is performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, “are reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasize that countering malign influence remains a top priority.”
Officials outlined a series of steps in their efforts to respond to the military’s continuing concerns about losing the information war. For starters, that includes “a review of existing IC procedures to shorten timelines and create efficiencies in disclosure, downgrading, and declassification processes.” Another goal is “the publication of priority intelligence requirements that address strategic messaging and malign influence,” Lahr said.
In other words, that means ODNI is telling other U.S. intelligence agencies to increase their focus on how hostile governments try to shape global public opinion, both secretly and publicly. But the statement doesn’t indicate just how high up on the list of priorities that focus has moved.
ODNI is also in the process of creating education and training programs for intelligence officers and analysts on how to spot different forms of misinformation or disinformation by adversaries, according to the statement.
Need for speed
A number of current and former national security officials told POLITICO that the efforts now underway are moving too slowly.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, briefly mentioned the memo in a hearing last month. He told POLITICO that the change its authors called for has yet to materialize.
“I think there’s meaningful movement,” he said of the 15 months since the memo was delivered. “I can’t say that it’s been a change yet, because this is still evolving.”
Gallego said America is most effective at countering enemy propaganda where U.S. military forces are in combat, because there is a greater urgency to share intelligence to debunk conspiracy theories or try to sway the civilian population.
But when competing against adversaries in murkier circumstances that lie somewhere between peace and all-out war, as it is with Russia, Gallego said the U.S. struggles.
“There is no winning definitive victories, but you can definitely lose,” he said.
That concern is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, told POLITICO that four-star commanders “need more tools that empower them” as they wage a “war of information.”
“Our inability to speak publicly about the real threats coming from China and Russia means many Americans don’t truly know everything we’re up against,” Inhofe said in a statement. “It makes it easier to argue to cut the defense budget when we can’t have an honest discussion about these threats.”
“I know this frustrates many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle — and we need to get better at fighting in this space,” he added. “Our adversaries like to operate in the shadows, and the best way to combat them is to call out their lies.”
This battle of ideas is viewed as only widening. In a new threat assessment published this month, the DNI highlighted the aggressive campaigns by both Russia and China to shape global public opinion.
“Beijing has been intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China on such issues as religious freedom and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong,” it said.
Russia, meanwhile, “presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services and influence tools to try to divide Western alliances, preserve its influence in the post-Soviet area, and increase its sway around the world, while undermining US global standing, sowing discord inside the United States, and influencing US voters and decisionmaking.”
The generals, in their memo, put it this way: “China and Russia are employing all instruments of comprehensive national power to execute political warfare, manipulate the information environment, violate the sovereignty of nations, co-opt international bodies, weaken the integrity of multilateral institutions, and splinter our alliances and partnerships. Their efforts to reshape the world in their image, proliferate authoritarianism, and advance their ambitions are provocative, dangerous, and destabilizing.”
But in the view of those who are seeing it up close, the United States is still playing catch-up.
Citing “the severity and pace of the information challenge,” the commanders said countering Russia and China in the court of public opinion “will take active and prolonged engagement” from senior leaders “to accelerate a transformation to meet the volume, variety, veracity, and velocity of information ammunition that we require.”
“I would expect the combatant commanders to ask for more from the IC on how the adversaries are using information for operational advantage,” said Sue Gordon, a career intelligence official who retired in 2019 after becoming ODNI’s second-most senior official.
But America also has a major advantage against China and Russia, said Sen. Jack Reed, who chairs the Armed Services Committee. “The truth is on our side and we need to do a better job of illuminating and exposing these activities.”
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.