In its ever expanding war against Syria, now under the broader pretext of “fighting ISIS,” the US Government has employed a variety of tactics. From arming terrorists whom it dishonestly labels “moderates,” to encouraging Turkey and Jordan to host jihadi training centers, to theCIA working with the Muslim Brotherhood to funnel weapons and fighters into Syria, the US and its allies have demonstrated the multi-faceted approach they’re taking to fighting ISIS, extremism, and the Syrian Government.
The war, once believed to be relegated solely to Syria and Iraq, has now been broadened to a regional, and indeed, a global war with no geographical boundaries or time limits. And now, the Obama administration has announced that its war will also be waged in cyberspace. As the NY Times reported:
At the heart of the plan is expanding a tiny State Department agency, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, to harness all the existing attempts at countermessaging by much larger federal departments, including the Pentagon, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies. The center would also coordinate and amplify similar messaging by foreign allies and nongovernment agencies, as well as by prominent Muslim academics, community leaders and religious scholars who oppose the Islamic State.
While the use of social media and other online platforms is nothing new, the coordinated nature of the program demonstrates the broader capacity the US State Department and intelligence agencies are going to employ in penetrating cyberspace to, in theory, counter ISIS and other extremists groups’ propaganda. But is this all they’ll be doing? There is good reason to doubt the seemingly innocuous sounding mission of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).
Countermessaging or Counterintelligence?
It is clear that the US Government is actively going to expand its social media and cyberspace presence vis-à-vis online extremism. According to the expressly stated goal, the CSCC is intended to:
…coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism… CSCC is comprised of three interactive components. The integrated analysis component leverages the Intelligence Community and other substantive experts to ensure CSCC communicators benefit from the best information and analysis available. The plans and operations component draws on this input to devise effective ways to counter the terrorist narrative. The Digital Outreach Team actively and openly engages in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali.
Although the description makes the program seem harmless enough, a close reading should raise very serious questions about just what exactly the CSCC will be involved in. The so called “integrated analysis” and “plans and operations” components provide an ambiguously worded description of collaboration with US intelligence agencies – CIA, DIA, DHS, and NSA undoubtedly among them. These agencies, aside from gathering intelligence and performing surveillance in every corner of the globe, are also involved in everything from espionage to “black ops” and “dirty ops” and other shadowy activities.
In effect, the CSCC will act in concert with these agencies both in the realm of information and activity. Does anyone seriously doubt, especially in light of the Snowden revelations about the all-encompassing nature of US surveillance and counterintelligence capabilities, that ultimately part of the CSCC’s responsibilities will be to act as a de facto arm of US intelligence in the cyberspace realm, with specific attention to global hotspots such as Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Libya etc.?