The US Needs a Center to Counter Foreign Malign Influence at Home
National security entities coordinate their fight against disinformation abroad. They need a way to do so within our borders.
The Biden administration’s decision to preemptively debunk—“pre-bunk”—Russia’s attempts to paint invasion as something other than naked aggression was key to rallying the world to Ukraine’s aid. This success underscores the need for a Center to Counter Foreign Malign Influence that can anticipate, identify, and defuse foreign-backed disinformation—not just in the face of impending war, but day to day, to keep it from undermining the foundations of our democracy.
The need for such a center has been clear for years. During my time as Acting Under Secretary for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, I tracked the influence of foreign influence campaigns on domestic extremism. Foreign actors seek to exploit our freedom of speech, find gaps between domestic and national security defenses and spread lies that undermine our democracy. Currently, the United States has no integrated approach to combating foreign-backed disinformation occurring within the Homeland.
The recent success in thwarting the Russian disinformation plan in Ukraine shows why national security entities such as the National Security Agency, CIA, and State Department coordinate efforts to fight disinformation outside the United States. The much more difficult challenge is what to do about foreign-backed efforts within our borders.
To date, Beltway turf wars and political hesitancy have prevented efforts to create such a center, but this gives us an opportunity to get it right on the first try. For a center to be effective, it must first have a U.S. mission. New authorities are not necessarily needed. I have spent decades navigating the process of sharing information from intelligence agencies with domestic partners. What this comes down to is getting the American public to trust this effort. This is the reason why the government cannot and should not go this alone. A formalized and integrated process to best use authorities within the intelligence community to give timely intelligence to the private sector: entities such as the press, academia, researchers, non-partisan organizations and social media companies. Participating organizations must pledge non-partisanship, speed, and the highest standards of transparency and oversight.
The process will also help balance the tremendous power of the federal government by incorporating the non-governmental partners to ensure civil liberties are protected. Enable dissemination of relevant intelligence early, and rebuff the rapid assaults on the efficacy of the center.
The center will also have to work closely with private companies. The reality is that social media platforms are both the answer and the problem. There should be formal ways to work with American companies to keep them from being used as mouthpieces by foreign adversaries. Various cooperative public and private consortiums focused on social media-based threats. A starting point to consider is the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which serves as a center of gravity for governments and social media companies. The weakness of the center it is an entirely private organization and suffers from funding challenges, scalability, and speed and relevancy.
To have the trust of the American people, the center must operate more openly than our intelligence agencies typically do. The center would neither censor users nor punish them for spreading falsehoods; both of these would be illegal. Instead, it will work to make citizens aware of misconduct by hostile foreign actors. To this end, public resilience would be strengthened through the center’s educational mission—similar to the role the nonprofit Center for Internet Security plays in educating public and private organizations on cybersecurity.
The FBI’s InfraGard program is another model of a public-private cybersecurity partnership that improves national security and provides insights the private sector can build upon. I recall the handwringing that initially occurred as InfraGard became more aggressive in sharing relevant and actionable cyber threat intelligence. Some worried that an adversary like China and Russia would know that we knew about their latest techniques. This historical circular discussion on protecting sources and methods versus sharing with the people who could actually do something about the threat seemed to have no end. What broke this cycle was we were losing and losing badly to adversaries. This is about the same place we as a nation are at now with respect to foreign-backed disinformation in the U.S.
In Ukraine, the administration has demonstrated the value of degrading foreign-backed disinformation. Very shortly, the U.S. midterm elections will be in full swing. Lies about election fraud have led many Americans to distrust the voting system, and foreign actors are certain to sow more hatred, mistrust, and chaos as the elections approach. Now is the time to build the Foreign Malign Influence Center we need.
Brian Murphy is Vice President of Strategic Operations for Logically. He previously served as the Acting Under Secretary for Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, where he set up its first counter-disinformation program.