ost in the press’s ongoing sideshow about whether or not Trump colluded with Russia to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency has been the much bigger and more important crisis that the United States is a combatant in a massive, multi-front information war. All of us—left, right, and center—are under full-scale attack.
This should not be news. Information war is as old as warfare itself. The Book of Joshua tells of the Gibeonites’ attempt to hoodwink Israel’s army. Julius Caesar’s campaigns were textbook examples of how to use targeted information as a weapon. Hannibal crossed the Alps thanks to expert misdirection and well-placed spies. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s cunning and deception were the keys to his military success. Without George Washington’s skillful manipulation of the lines of communication, North America might still be sending taxes to London’s Exchequer. The British attempt to “win hearts and minds” in Malaysia in the 1950s, and the American continuation of that trope—“WHAM”—in Vietnam, is a classic expression of the idea. What Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said 2,500 years ago remains true today: to win in war, you must have, and deploy, better information than does your enemy.
An appreciation for the historical centrality of information war is on full display in Bill Gertz’s latest book, iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age. Gertz is a veteran national security columnist and Pentagon reporter who has been breaking stories for Washington newspapers for decades—a hardened information warrior who so consternates the guardians of the military-industrial complex that defense secretary and press puppeteer Donald Rumsfeld once lamented that he was drilling holes into the walls of the Pentagon and sucking out information.
iWar brings some very badly needed perspective, historical and otherwise, to the panoply of threats America faces. On the Russia front, Gertz goes deep into Soviet history to show that meddling in American politics—and messing with the heads of populations around the world—is a time-honored Russian tradition. To take just a few examples, the KGB falsely claimed that the CIA was trying to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, Zhou Enlai, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, and then spread the pernicious lie that the U.S. military produced the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in a laboratory before releasing it to decimate Africa’s population. When read in tandem with other, more extensive works on Russian deception—Ion Mihal Pacepa’s Disinformation (2013), Milt Bearden and James Risen’s The Main Enemy (2003), John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2010), and Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein’s The Haunted Wood (2000)—iWar gives a real feel for how Russian nosiness in the Trump-Hillary cage match was nothing compared with the no-holds-barred campaign of information warfare between the United States and the Russians that has been unfolding for the past eighty years.
Gertz writes with equal thoroughness when describing the North Korean assault on Sony Pictures Entertainment in retaliation for its production of the American Pie-class 2014 feature film The Interview. The plot of this juvenile movie has two bumblers caught up in a CIA plan to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. Pre-publicity for the film made it clear that it was going to be an over-the-top satire. Before the movie was released, however, North Korean hackers managed to infiltrate Sony servers and download dozens of terabytes of data before taking out computer systems throughout the company’s network. Embarrassing e-mails and other sensitive corporate information were uploaded wholesale to a hacker website, and the worst of the leaked material soon made its way to the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The North Korean cyber-attackers made their assault public on November 24, 2014, a date that, Gertz says, will be remembered as “the beginning of World War C” (for “cyber”). One month later, December 24—the original release date for the film—theaters across the country refused to screen The Interview for fear of North Korean bombings or other, more overt acts of terror. Kim Jong Un may go down in history as “Rocketman,” but he successfully led a cyber campaign—and others like it—against his sworn enemy, causing infinitely more damage than he did with any of his splashdown missiles.
In terms of possible geopolitical consequences, perhaps most concerning of all the info-war campaigns Gertz describes is the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) against the United States. Realizing after the first Gulf War that America was militarily undefeatable, the Chinese began crafting an alternative plan for a takedown of the American colossus. Unrestricted Warfare, written by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in 1999, is a detailed plan and justification for electronic guerrilla warfare against the U.S. PLA Units 61398 and 78020 have been particularly successful, compromising highly sensitive data at the State Department, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the White House. The PLA also staged a massive hit against the Office of Personnel Management, stealing the personal information of at least 21 million Americans. The PRC has stolen blueprints for dams, power networks, and other infrastructure projects, and is continuing its information war campaign within the United States and Canada by funding comfort women statues and “Nanking memorial days” expressly designed to wreak havoc among the tripartite alliance of Japan, the U.S., and South Korea—the triangular cornerstone of the wall blocking the PLA Navy’s full conquest of Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. Given the PRC’s reckless invasion of Vietnamese, Philippine, Indonesian, and Japanese territory and the infiltration by Chinese agents into American institutions, coupled with the worldwide reach of PRC operatives via the Belt-Road Initiative, info war with the Middle Kingdom has the potential to escalate rapidly into armed conflict whether either side wants it or not.
Information war is a pervasive and perennial aspect of state-to-state interaction. iWar is a concise, context-rich overview of this largely hidden reality, and is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the deeper realities of geopolitics beyond cable news talking points. For readers who prefer perspective over journalistic hooliganism, iWar should be at the very top of their reading list. Gertz brings a lifetime of direct engagement with his subject, and he speaks with the no-nonsense clarity and authority of a man who has seen things with his own eyes and drawn his own conclusions.
And yet, for all its strengths, iWar may give the alert reader pause. For example, Gertz writes:
To remedy the problems and counter the threats outlined in this book, I am proposing a series of concrete plans and actions for creating “Information America,” a U.S. Information Agency-like organization designed for the twenty-first century and tooled for the Information Age and the threats it poses. The organization will promote fundamental American ideals and values, while working to counter lies and disinformation, using truth and facts as the ultimate weapons of information war.
Truth and facts are great, but surely Gertz cannot expect to get them from the same government that has given us James Comey, John Brennan, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, Adam Schiff, Valerie Jarrett, Hillary Clinton, Richard Nixon, James Clapper, Barack Obama, Lois Lerner, Peter Strzok, Loretta Lynch, Jim McCabe, and Nancy Pelosi. Dianne Feinstein (who played hostess to a PRC spy for more than twenty years before he left to join one of the PRC-funded organizations that brought the anti-Japan comfort woman statue to San Francisco) alone is a good example of why asking the government to go on truth-and-fact patrol is a very bad idea.
That the government cannot be trusted is perhaps the one key lesson of Gertz’s decades-long career. He reminds his readers of this on virtually every page of iWar. For instance, Gertz duly lays bare the boldfaced deception that went into Obama’s infamous Iranian deal. The deal was, without question, a sham, orchestrated by Obama’s National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes with the President’s full guidance and support. Rhodes later boasted to the hapless New York Times about how easy it had been to dupe the press and, by extension, average Americans into believing the lies that he and the White House team had fed them about the proposed deal. As Lee Smith at The Weekly Standard remarked in 2016, this was full-blown information war—waged by our government against us.
And yet, writing about the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, Gertz makes the startling assertion that “had the United States government and intelligence community had a highly developed information warfare capability at the time, then peaceful regime change could have been carried out without firing a shot.” The fundamental duplicity of the Washington crowd would seem to complicate such predictions of smooth sailing. History rises to interject, too. Just one paragraph before his forecast of easy regime change, Gertz says that “The CIA successfully had worked behind the scenes in Iran in 1953 to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and install the shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.” Yes, but this rather breezily overlooks the very messy and underhanded tactics that were required to pull that stunt off, as well as the iron link between the CIA’s skullduggery in 1953 and the hardliners’ revenge in 1979. For Gertz to say that the American intelligence community could have orchestrated a peaceful revolution in Iran forty years later requires a paper-cutout view of history that Gertz surely does not share. It also requires a suspension of disbelief, as there cannot be many left outside of the District of Columbia who honestly expect the federal government to do anything but lie, cheat, steal—and ultimately fail—wherever they go and whatever they try to do.
If the government tries to do anything at all, that is. The United States is wracked daily by info-war attacks. Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Washington, DC, and everyone and everywhere in between are being hit. So far, Washington has hardly bestirred itself even to acknowledge this onslaught, much less respond to and neutralize it. Perhaps the real lesson of “i-war” is that, eventually, it will have to be a “we-war,” an effort by the American people to protect their own interests—which, as is becoming increasingly obvious, are very different from the interests of those in power.