Defending Against Covert Foreign Influence in the U.S.

Day 2 at the RSA Conference brought us an interesting discussion of fighting covert foreign influence while protecting free expression in the United States with panelists from U.S. Central Command, U.S. Cyber Command, and Red Branch Consulting. No U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) briefing starts without the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF), so here it is: foreign governments and other foreign actors engage in covert manipulation of the U.S. information environment to try to destabilize the U.S. Government (USG).

How is the USG to respond to covert foreign influence effectively?

The panelists discussed two divergent scenarios and discussed the options available to the USG, relevant policy or legal considerations that constrain U.S. actions, which USG organization should lead, whether laws should be changed, and finally, what can private actors do on their own.

A couple of quick takeaways on the threat:

  • Governments use information to shape the world and social and political environments to their advantage.
  • There is an ongoing threat to the U.S. domestic dialogue. Our open information environment provides easy access for adversaries. Russia is particularly focused on developing and exploiting divisions in the U.S., while China is focused on securing economic interests and countering narratives against the Chinese Communist Party.

Hypothetical Scenario #1: U.S. intelligence learns Russian government agents are covertly creating and disseminating messages to U.S. audiences citing increased fuel costs and the impact on American life, questioning whether protecting a far-away country is worth the price.

The panelists thoughtfully walked us through a variety of thought-provoking issues:

  • The most effective covert operations try to draw on certain truths to enhance their credibility.
  • The USG could remove the information through technical means, disable the covert actor’s infrastructure, pursue criminal indictments, or seek legislation requiring social media companies to implement procedures to identify such activities on media and take action.
  • Any action would entail significant legal and policy considerations regarding the First Amendment, Intelligence Community (IC) restrictions related to U.S. persons, the preservation of an apolitical military, law enforcement jurisdiction, privacy interests, and diplomatic efforts to promote U.S. interests abroad.
  • Under the First Amendment, we enjoy the right of free speech, which includes the right to receive information. This provides the basis for foreign citizens in the U.S. also having the right to free speech.
  • Certain limits apply. The First Amendment applies solely to government conduct. Foreign citizens outside the U.S. do not have a First Amendment right to free speech. There are also certain limits to free speech (you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, etc.). And, of course, foreign agents in the U.S. need to register with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Hypothetical Scenario 2: Covert Russian government actors spread claims that Ukrainian forces are committing war crimes and are unworthy of U.S. support. The U.S. has no evidence of Ukrainian war crimes.

With this scenario, the panelists asked us to consider:

  • The sensitive and challenging issue of the USG monitoring what Americans are reading.
  • The right to free expression in the U.S.
  • Laws governing intelligence activities in the U.S.
  • The real danger of covert foreign content misleading voters.
  • Privacy considerations.

What can or should the USG do? Very little domestically, the answer seemed to be. But, if the actions are directed by a foreign government, the USG could avail itself of certain legal mechanism directed towards agents of a foreign power operating in the U.S. (e.g., FARA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)).

As the panelists recapped their presentation, they summarized that the USG response to covert foreign influence attempts ranges from the “easy” to the “hard.”

Easy responses for the USG include:

  • Notifying platform owners of covert, foreign government activity on their platforms.
  • Countering the speech.
  • Notifying the public.
  • Engaging diplomatically.

Moderate responses for the USG include:

  • Disrupting the cover foreign influence activity at the source based on the speaker and its intent.
  • Notifying the targets only.
  • Seeking sanctions or indictments.

Hard responses for the USG include:

  • Disrupting the covert foreign influence activity at the source based on content.
  • Removing the U.S. speech from U.S. operating environment.
  • Removing the foreign speech from the U.S. information environment.
  • Removing covert foreign government speech from the U.S. information environment.

With those options, what would you recommend?

Now, I’m off to the next panel, so stay tuned for more from RSA Conference 2022.

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