Acts of Speech and Acts of War: Wikileaks and Information Warfare

Has the most recent Wikileaks diplomatic document dump sparked a worldwide information war?  The political establishment in the US was quick to frame the Cablegate release as an act of war.  The incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Peter King, has stated, “This is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it’s worse than a military attack,” and promptly called for Wikileaks to be designated a foreign terrorist organization.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the disclosures "an attack on America's foreign policy interests," as well as "an attack on the international community."  Such rhetoric has undoubtedly figured in the decisions of corporations such as Amazon, PayPal and Mastercard to cut all ties with the controversial organization, and inspired distributed attacks against the Wikileaks website, prompting Sam Wilson at Think 3 to wonder whether we are in the midst of "an internet civil war."  But this "war" is not confined by any single nation's borders, rather, it spans the globe.  Dave Bonta writes at Via Negativa:
It doesn’t seem that long ago — around 2000, maybe? — that I first heard someone say “TMI” and had to ask what it meant. This morning, as news breaks that the anarchistic, world-wide non-organization of geeks known as Anonymous have launched DDoS attacks against the websites of MasterCard, Swedish prosecutors, and others they consider to be unfairly targeting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it occurs to me that the problem or scandal of “too much information” is very much at the heart of what’s shaping up to be the first global information war — call it WIW I, or perhaps WWWW I (World Wide Web War I).  
Many advocates of transparency in government and internet freedom, however, have begun to argue that employing even the metaphorical language of war and warfare to describe the ongoing fallout from and response to the most recent mega-leak, represents a serious strategic blunder, as it allows opponents of transparency in government and internet freedom to control the terms of the debate.  At Polizeros, Josh Mull argues that "journalism is not an attack and Wikileaks is not warfare."  He writes in response to a post by Bob Morris:
Asymmetrical warfare, anarchist bomb-throwing, and “digital vandalism” are all forms of attack. But dissent is not an attack. Activism is not an attack. And most importantly, journalism is not an attack . . .

The act of publishing information is not warfare. Wikileaks is not warfare. Just because Julian Assange thinks of himself as a freedom fighter, and just because Wikileaks’ supporters like to imagine themselves fighting an “Infowar”, doesn’t make it true.  If we allow our definitions of war and conflict to blur, then we bring the government’s aggressive response on ourselves . . .

If you support Wikileaks, if you support transparency, accountability, or even just basic free speech, you should not be playing into the government’s semantic game that presents itself as a victim, and Wikileaks as an attacker. As someone who engages in journalism, as someone who engages in activism and dissent, I don’t want these things re-defined as an attack on the state.
The problem, however, is that the state has already prepared the conceptual groundwork to promulgate a redefinition of such acts and actions as part and parcel of an ongoing information war.  Morris writes in response: "It’s not asymmetrical armed warfare, to be sure, but the tactics are the same, so perhaps we should call it asymmetrical info warfare."  In fact, Cablegate – understanding that term in the widest sense, to include the actions of Wikileaks as well as the response by agents of the state, individual citizens and other non-state actors – has virtually all the markings of an information war as that term has been re-defined and re-conceptualized by the state.

Over the last ten years, the Department of Defense has quietly been developing the conceptual and operational framework for what it calls "information operations," or "info-ops" for short.  An Information Operations Primer published by the Army War College in 2006 (see the relevant document at IWS) delineates five core capabilities that constitute information operations: 1) psychological operations, 2) military deception, 3) operations security, 4) electronic warfare, and 5) computer network operations.
• The concept behind Wikileaks is almost indistinguishable from that of psychological operations (PSYOPS), here defined as "planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals."

• The immediate response to the latest megaleak on the party of the Department of Defense was aimed at ensuring operations security (OPSEC) by taking actions to defend against any future such leaks from protected information networks.  As noted at Wikipedia, OPSEC is "a process that identifies critical information to determine if friendly actions can be observed by adversary intelligence systems, determines if information obtained by adversaries could be interpreted to be useful to them, and then executes selected measures that eliminate or reduce adversary exploitation of friendly critical information."

• The distributed denial of service attacks against Wikileaks and those against the websites of corporations such as PayPal and Mastercard might easily be construed as a form of electronic warfare (EW) or as computer network attacks, in which latter case they would fall under the rubric of computer network operations (CNO).  A computer network attack "includes actions taken through the use of computer networks to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy the information resident in in computers and computer networks and/or the computers/networks themselves."  In response, all parties involved here have all very likely engaged in computer network defense, understood as "actions taken through the use of computer networks to protect, monitor, analyze, detect and respond to unauthorized activity within information systems and computer networks." 

• Finally, some conspiratorially minded observers and commentators have begun to wonder whether the Cablegate mega-leak is itself an act of military deception, and have asserted that Wikileaks was always or has become a front for state-actors engaging in "false flag operations." 
Among those speculating whether Wikileaks has effectively ignited an information war, the question has been raised as to what or where precisely the battlefield of this conflict is.  If one assumes that we are indeed in the midst of an information war, then the answer to this question is disturbingly simple: there is no space, whether physical, virtual or even mental, that is not a part of the battlefield.  Consider the following graphic conceptualization of information operations from the document mentioned above:

The "information environment" – the abstract space in which information warfare and information operations are carried out – has physical, informational, perceptual, cognitive and social dimensions.  Thus the potential informational battlefield stretches from the tangible real world, to cyberspace, to the individual human mind, to society as a whole.  As such, information warfare allows for a form of total war the likes of which were literally impossible before the dawn of the information age.

One of the primary characteristics of total war is the erosion of the distinction between civilians and combatants.  The complete collapse of this distinction is axiomatic for radical terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.  The maintenance of this distinction represents a primary difference between civilization and barbarism.  For this reason, if for no other, it is imperative to defend the freedom of speech and of the press against any and all who would seek to argue that any such act of speech or press constitutes an act of war.


Anonymous said...


Do you have any reference to the information you describe as psy-ops and wikileaks?
How is it that you came to this conclusion?

d.eris said...

The definition of the word "psy-ops" that is used above is from the Army War College Information Operations Primer referenced above, which you can find at the IWS site linked above. As an organization that publishes leaked documents, Wikileaks' standard operations arguably fall under the scope of the broad definition of 'psy-ops' used by the US DoD.

Anonymous said...


I do not understand how Wikileaks used OPSEC in this situation?

d.eris said...

the claim made above is not that Wikileaks used OPSEC, but rather that the DoD had to re-implement, or re-work its OPSEC in response to Wikileaks. For instance, by restricting access to SIPRNet, taking greater security precautions, etc.

Anonymous said...

Interesting story and your facts regarding IO relate well.

I wonder what about INFOSEC or information assurance because that is part of it also, there also other IO principles which you have not discussed,
physical security, including physical attack, counterintelligence, public affairs, diplomacy, influence operations..

d.eris said...

That's a good point Anon. There is more to information operations than the five points considered above. But since the focus here was on the question of whether there was an "information war", I focused on what the military itself calls the "five core capabilities" of its information operations strategy.

It would be especially interesting to put this in the context of public affairs and public diplomacy, especially with the recent report from Afghanistan that I/O units were used to dig up information on visiting congressman.

If you write anything up on the matter, be sure to drop a link here.