That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
The Inside Battle Against Disinformation: The U.S. Intelligence Community
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"The federal government is stepping up its efforts to counter foreign disinformation."
In this episode, we explore the lesser-known agencies within the United States Intelligence Community. With the rise of false information and disinformation as a major threat, the federal government is increasing its efforts to counter foreign disinformation. The Director of National Intelligence discusses the establishment of a farm line influence center and their work in understanding the plans and intentions of key actors in this space, including China, Russia, and Iran. We also hear from Brady Roberts, COO of Emergent Risk International, and Andrea Leibman, an analyst with the Psychological Defense Agency of Sweden. Join us as we delve into the complex world of intelligence agencies and the battle against disinformation.
[00:02:11] China, Russia, Iran.
[00:08:01] Russian influence on Sweden.
[00:10:33] Deplatforming and outing actors.
[00:13:19] Government body for investigating disinformation.
[00:19:41] Government organization and enforcement.
Got questions, comments or ideas or an example of disinformation you'd like us to check out? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to our guests Brady Roberts and Andrea Leibman, our sound designer and editor Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Thanks so much for listening.
00:05Brandus: Most Americans have heard of
the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, of course, and the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, the FBI. Perhaps even the biggest intelligence
agency of all, the National Security Agency, or NSA. But lesser known is
the fact that the United States Intelligence Community, or IC, is
actually comprised of 17 agencies in all. Many were formed decades ago,
tasked, of course, with a wide variety of responsibilities. But the
explosion and cantorous growth of a different kind of threat poses a new
challenge. That threat is false information, intended to confuse,
mislead, and or undermine a target. There's another word for this, of
course, disinformation. The Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk
International, Meredith Wilson, is away. I'll be joined in this episode
by ERI's Chief Operating Officer, Brady Roberts. The federal government
is stepping up its efforts to counter foreign disinformation. The
Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, noted this in recent
Senate testimony. 01:33Haines: Congress put into law that we
should establish a farm line influence center in the intelligence
community. We have stood that up and it encompasses our election threat
executive work essentially looking at foreign influence and interference
in elections, but it also deals with disinformation more generally. And
what we have been doing is effectively trying to support the Global
Engagement Center, others throughout the U.S. government, in helping
them to understand what are the plans and intentions of the key actors
in this space. China, Russia, other, you know, Iran, et cetera. And then
give them a sense of what it is that we're seeing in terms of the
techniques that they use, how they go about this, and provide that for
policymakers so that they're able to take that information and hopefully
counter it and address it.
02:30Brandus: Director Haynes mentioned
something called the Foreign Malign Influence Center, or FMIC. Its
mission is to bolster the intelligence community's overall efforts to
counter hostile foreign actors. She singled out China, Russia, and Iran.
I mentioned 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. The director of one of them,
the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, is Lieutenant General Scott
Barrier, who at that same Senate hearing added some additional context.
03:03Berrier: I think DIA's perspective on
this, Senator, is really speed. We want to be able to detect that, and
it's really with our open source collection capability, working with our
combatant command partners where this is happening all over the world,
and then the ability to turn something quickly with them under the right
authorities to counter that disinformation or misinformation.
03:21Brandus: The Foreign Malign Influence
Center is new, authorized by Congress a year ago. Director Haynes said
that in addition to its focus on combating election interference, the
FMIC is also tasked with dealing with, in her words, disinformation more
generally. Indeed, when you read the entire law behind the FMIC's
creation, it notes, quote, public opinion within the United States. So,
in other words, this appears to be an attempt to combat the flood of
disinformation that ordinary Americans are hit with every day. But how
do you combat that, especially when the disinformation has already been
tweeted, texted, shared, posted, broadcast, and printed? We've talked
about this core problem at length during the two years of this podcast
series. Once the false information is out there, it's out there. What do
you do about that? Can we learn from anyone else? An examination of
best practices offers at least one interesting possibility, and for
that, we go to Sweden, soon to be the newest member of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization, driven into its arms by the Russian
invasion of Ukraine. Last year, the Swedish government launched
something called the Psychological Defense Agency, or PDA. One of its
top analysts, Andrea Leibman, consented to an on-the-record interview.
04:52Leibman: We are actually alone in the
world as far as a country having an agency like this. So we're a
government agency, we're a civil defence capacity, so we report to the
Ministry of Defence. And our primary purpose is to identify, analyse and
counter foreign malign information influence. We see disinformation as
part of hybrid warfare directed towards Sweden by foreign actors. So we
do not look at our domestic space. We don't look at domestic actors. But
it's all about foreign actors targeting Sweden with disinformation.
05:33Brandus: And I know the answer to this question, but who is targeting Sweden?
05:38Leibman: Well, there's a variety of
actors, state, non-state, ideologically motivated actors, for example.
So it's a great variety. You'd have the usual Suspects, Russia for
example, they'd be very interested in influencing the Swedish
population, Swedish interests, decision making by the leadership in many
ways in order to kind of run their own agenda.
06:09Brandus: Russian influence operations
against Sweden have had mixed results. The Russians tried, but have
apparently failed, to keep the once neutral and non-aligned Swedes from
joining NATO, for example. But the Russians eagerly exploited a recent
situation in which a far-right anti-Islamic politician set fire to a
Quran. There have been incidents setting off protests in Sweden and the
Middle East, like this one in Baghdad, in which angry Iraqis breached
the Swedish embassy. There have been some European reports, including a
claim by the then Foreign Minister of Sweden's neighbour Finland, which
is also in NATO now, that the Russians were associated, through others,
with the Koran burner. This programme has been unable to independently
prove such claims. But there's no question Liebman says that the
Russians have been eager to stir the pot.
07:12Leibman: Russia has been very
interested in Sweden and NATO for quite some time, so it's not just now.
It started already in 2014, for example, if I give it a year. But at
this time, Russia is more interested in, for example, the information
influence campaign that's directed by Islamist actors towards Sweden at
the moment. It has to do with the Koran burnings that are one after
another been coming up now in Sweden. So Russia is amplifying the false
messages that the Islamist actors are creating in order to, which has
been mentioned quite a lot during this conference, in order to polarize,
for example, or create distrust or a great deal of worry. And this is
to run their own agenda. And based on the fact that Sweden is in an
application to NATO, Russia is very interested in sort of breaking down
Sweden's population and trust to certain issues from within. We also
have, for example, the refugee crisis in 2015. Russia's very interested
in migration, the refugee crisis at the time, and now leading up towards
sort of intercepting with the areas of crime or immigration and fueling
that type of information that is perhaps seen more in Europe than in
Sweden. But there are these issues that Russia then amplifies.
08:46Brandus: But how does this PDA, the
Psychological Defense Agency, actually do its job? We'll get into that
after this short break. We'll also check in with the Chief Operating
Officer of Emergent Risk International for his take on all this. We'll
be right back.
09:05ad read: This series on
disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent
Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk
International. We build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in
a world of risk.
09:26Brandus: Welcome back. More from my
chat now with Andrea Libin of Sweden's Psychological Defense Agency. I
asked her, once they're convinced that something is disinformation, then
what? It leads to something called deplatforming. Listen,
09:42Leibman: There's a variety of things
that could be done, but once, if there is a way of actually, you've got
to be certain to attribute, so the identification has to be 100%. If
you're not certain, then you can't go out with outing these actors. But
when it comes to the information influence campaign that I've been
mentioning directed towards Sweden at this time, by the Islamist Actors.
It started actually in December 2021, January 2022. It was right about
the time when we started our agency. And it sort of peaked at that time
and sort of then it dropped, but it's been coming back and it goes in
waves. So at that time, we were able to attribute And what we do then
is, in that case, for example, we had to, what you'd say, de-platform
nearly, attempt to de-platform and out the actors. So we went out in
media and we conducted a line of interviews. And what happened was that
Swedish journalists, they did their job, they took the ball and they ran
with it. They did an incredible job in doing some investigative work
themselves, and we could sort of take a step back. Talking to media is
one of our strategic approaches in getting our information out. We also
hold press conferences together with, just recently with our Minister of
Civil Defence. And in this way we also reach media, but also a general
11:22Brandus: But this is where a key
difference between Sweden and the United States emerges. Here in the
U.S., surveys have shown for years that trust in both the federal
government and the media is waning. But in Sweden, those bonds, that
trust is stronger, which makes the job of the psychological defense
agency easier. I didn't say easy, only easier.
11:46Leibman: As far as building
resilience within our population, and we also support other actors, but
the resilience building efforts and actually strengthening and creating
that psychological defense capacity, we work operationally and we
provide a variety of actors with situational pictures. But what we also
do is we conduct many different types of training and capacity building
efforts. towards a variety of target audiences in Sweden. So for
example, towards civil society and youth. And we cooperate with other
agencies and civil society that specifically work with youth, for
example. We also support journalists. Now, we do not tell them what to
do. They don't come to us. They only come to us if they look for
support. And we have produced a handbook for journalists when it comes
to identifying and analyzing disinformation. So we're talking again from
foreign powers directed towards Sweden and how to sort of decipher in
the information environment. And we also have a handbook for
communication professionals. And we have educated journalists and
communication professionals, but also many, many other actors in Sweden
when it comes to malign information influence and how to actually
identify but also count.
13:11Brandus: Would something like Sweden's Psychological Defense Agency work here in America? I asked Brady Roberts.
13:19Brady Roberts: I personally think
that there should be. I think when you look at the incredible impact
that this information is having on the entire company, the country of
the U.S., and the polarization that exists in the country, It's my
personal view that we should have some type of body, given the
government's resources, which are arguably greater than any other
organization in the country, to be able to investigate disinformation,
distribute and publish information on disinformation. I don't really see
how you, as a country, like the US, I don't see how you tackle this
problem without there being a government body. The challenge, of course,
is that doing so is incredibly controversial, as we saw with the very
short term attempt to stand up the disinformation governance board.
14:17Brandus: Brady mentioned something
called the Disinformation Governance Board. In the spring of 2022, the
Department of Homeland Security launched this. It was supposed to
establish guidelines for DHS to deal with mis- or disinformation that
posed a threat to national security. But the Disinformation Governance
Board ran into a buzzsaw of opposition immediately. It was disbanded
just four months after it was launched.
14:46Brady Roberts: When you look back at
the disinformation governance board and you think about the problems
with standing it up, you had two issues. One was that it wasn't
necessarily created, at least from my perspective, from what I
understand, in the most bipartisan of manner. But then its mission was
not clearly and publicly defined, which left it open to criticism in
this case by the right because the Democrats were standing up this
initiative. I think the way to do it in my view is to look at this
organization as a mission statement, as in terms of authorities, in
terms of the rollout is one that has to be done in a way that is utterly
transparent. Again, you go back to the DGP and some of the criticisms.
One of the big criticisms there was that even understanding exactly what
authorities the organization would have. When journalists tried to
submit a Freedom of Information Act request to get the full scope of the
program, there were things coming back that were censored, and
probably, I'm sure, censored for very good reasons. But that, again,
gets back to how was this organization being constructed? What would be
its authorities? I think it's very hard to create a body in the US such
as this and place it under an organization like Department of Homeland
Security that within that organization has law enforcement authorities.
If you're going to do this in the US, it's got to be an agency, in my
mind, an agency that is about publicizing this information, showing
where it came from, being able to distribute this information in a way
that the public becomes aware. But you will always face that question
of, well, is there going to be a legal ramification if, for example, an
American especially unwittingly or unknowingly amplifies it. You know,
that's that's where the that's where the first amendment rights and the
freedom of speech rights come into play. And what one of the core
principles that makes this so complicated and so controversial.
17:08Brandus: Perhaps the new foreign
malign influence center that I mentioned at the top of this episode will
help. But let's go back for a second to the testimony of Avril Haines,
again, the director of national intelligence. I'll play part of her
17:23Haines: But it also deals with
disinformation more generally. And what we have been doing is
effectively trying to support the Global Engagement Center, others
throughout the U.S. government.
17:33Brandus: In other words, the Foreign
Malign Influence Center, designed to help thwart disinformation in
general, will support an already existing government agency, the Global
Engagement Center, or GEC, which is part of the State Department. Lots
of acronyms to keep track of here. Haines, the DNI, says the FMIC will
help support the GEC. Meanwhile, the DGB, the short-lived Disinformation
Governance Board, has gone away. Sorting through this alphabet of
acronyms, one organization The Foreign Malign Influence Center is part
of the vast U.S. intelligence community, while the Global Engagement
Center falls under the Department Responsibility for Diplomacy and
Public Engagement with the rest of the world, the State Department.
These organizations, based on their public profiles, are generally
looking beyond our shores for false narratives to thwart. But what about
homegrown disinformation? More from my discussion with Brady Roberts,
who mentions another federal agency, CISA, the Cybersecurity and
Infrastructure Security Agency. And how would you deal with the issue of
companies in the private sector, which unless they're doing something
egregiously illegal, have the right to do essentially whatever they
want, I suppose. Again, unless it's just outlandishly violating some
sort of a law or something. How do you bring companies, and I'm not
going to need to name uh, media companies or anything like that. But,
uh, folks who, uh, distribute or use their platforms to, uh, broadcast,
share, disseminate, whatever you want to call it, uh, content that many
folks know is false. You can have a government organization, but, uh,
what powers of enforcement would they have? Should they have a, how
might that look in your view?
19:36Brady Roberts: Well, yeah, that's a
complicated question that requires multiple steps to answer. In my mind,
if you're going to set up effectively an organization such as this,
it's going to operate very similarly to the footprint that already
exists or the blueprint that already exists, which to my mind is CISA.
CISA today provides alerts and advisories and warnings. It collects some
in the cybersecurity realm. It publishes information on active exploits
on vulnerabilities that it knows exists. And then it allows the public
to include companies and organizations to be aware of them in order to
take steps to mitigate. It collects that information, oftentimes through
classified sources, but the vulnerability, the fact that it exists
itself, and oftentimes the origin of that vulnerability, it's published.
It's publicly available knowledge. I would see an organization like
this being able to operate relatively similarly, where the only thing
that's not always going to be transparent to the public might be how the
government acquired the information. making that public knowledge, then
it creates an environment that puts all that information out there
transparently to the public, and it creates a mechanism for, for
example, social media companies to then be able to go back and say, hey,
there's been this advisory that this false narrative comes from,
whether it's this criminal organization or this key foreign adversary
that has created this narrative. We can go in, if you're a social media
company, we can begin to look at what bots are amplifying that
information. We can begin to take those down.
21:33Brandus: Thanks to Andrea Liebman of
Sweden's Psychological Defense Agency and Brady Roberts of Emergent Risk
International. Sound from C-SPAN and The Telegram. Our sound designer
and editor, Noah Foutz. Audio engineer, Nathan Corson. Executive
producers, Michael D'Eloia and Gerardo Orlando. And on behalf of
Meredith Wilson, I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.