Caution lights for the military's 'information war'


Location:
Department of Defense, Washington, DC, 20301, United States

[Commentary] It has become commonplace since Sept. 11, 2001, to speak of the "war of ideas" between Muslim extremists and the West. But there has been too little attention paid to the U.S. military's mobilization for this war, which is often described by the oxymoronic phrase "information operations."

To populate this information "battle space," the military has funded a range of contractors, specialists, training programs and initiatives -- targeted on the hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader zone of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia. Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who oversees that region, has been one of the military's most vocal proponents of aggressive information operations. The potential problems were highlighted on March 14, when the New York Times revealed that a Pentagon official from the "strategic communications" realm had funded contractors to gather intelligence in Afghanistan. Last week also brought a report by The Post's Ellen Nakashima that the military, in an offensive information operation, had shut down a jihadist Web site that the CIA had been monitoring for intelligence purposes. In both cases, it seemed the military was wandering into the covert-action arena traditionally reserved for the CIA.

This murky area should be marked with a flashing yellow warning light, meaning: "Slow down!" The United States should be careful about encouraging, in effect, the militarization of information -- and it should be especially cautious when these efforts bleed into the intelligence world. We are a nation that has prospered uniquely from open, untainted information flows. As I watch the covert contractors get their arms around this topic, it makes me nervous.

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