Pentagon Trolls The Net

Internet users beware: Pentagon snoops are taking an interest in your cyber-communications. Last summer, Charles Swett, a policy assistant in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, produced a report that assessed the intelligence value of the Internet for the Defense Department. His study discovered the obvious: By monitoring computer message traffic and alternative news sources from around the world, the military might catch "early warning of impending significant developments." Swett reports that the "Internet could also be used offensively as an additional medium in psychological operations campaigns and to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives." A striking aspect of his study is that there is one sort of Internet user who attracts a large amount of attention: cyber-smart lefties.The 31 page unclassified study is mostly cut and dried. Much of it describes what the Internet is and what can be found within its infinite confines. Swett lists various "fringe groups" that are exploiting the Internet: the white-supremacist National Alliance, the Michigan Militia, Earth First! and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He highlights MUFON-the Mutual UFO Network -- which uses the Internet to disseminate information on "U.S. military operations that members believe relate to investigations and cover-ups of UFO-related incidents." MUFON computer messages, Swett notes, "contain details on MUFON's efforts to conduct surveillance of DoD installations." The report does not suggest that the computer communications of MUFON and these other groups should be targeted by the military-though X-Filers will be forgiven for wondering if something sinister is afoot.What Swett apparently finds of greater interest than MUFON and the "fringe groups" is the online left. A significant portion of the report is devoted to the San Francisco-based Institute for Global Communications, which operates several computer networks such as PeaceNet, EcoNet and WomensNet, that are used by progressive activists. IGC demonstrates, he writes, "the breadth of DoD-relevant information available on the Internet." The paper refers to IGC conferences that might be considered noteworthy by the Pentagon, including ones on anti-nuclear arms campaigns, the extreme right, social change and "multicultural, multi-racial news." Swett cites IGC as the home for "alternative news sources" that fill gaps in the mainstream media. (It might be good for Pentagon analysts to read IGC dispatches from Holland's Peace Media Service.) Yet he seems to say that one can also track the left around the world by monitoring IGC: "Although [IGC] is clearly a left-wing political organization, without actually joining IGC and reading its message traffic, it is difficult to assess the nature and extent of its members' actual real-world activities."Swett's paper presents the world of opportunity awaiting a cyber-shrewd military and intelligence establishment. The Pentagon and intelligence services will conduct "routine monitoring of messages originating in other countries" in the search for information on "developing security threats."That means overseas e-mail, like overseas phone calls, will be intercepted by the electronic eavesdroppers of the National Security Agency or some other outfit. Data will be fed into filtering computers and then, if they contain any hot-button words, forwarded to the appropriate analyst. "Networks of human sources with access to the Internet could be developed in areas of security concern to the U.S." (But bureaucrats should rest assured; "this approach" -- using computer-assisted spies -- "could never replace official DoD intelligence collection systems or services.") The Internet "can also serve counterintelligence purposes," by identifying threats to the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence activities. As an example, Swett refers to a message posted in a discussion group for "left-wing political activists" that repeated an AP article about an upcoming U.S. Army Special Operations Command training exercise at an empty Miami Beach hotel.Another growth area is the dirty tricks department. Noting that government officials, military officials, business people, and journalists all over the world are online, Swett envisions "Psychological Operations" campaigns in which U.S. propaganda could be rapidly disseminated to a wide audience. He adds, "The U.S. might be able to employ the Internet offensively to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives." Swett does not delve into details, but he tosses out one possibility: communicating via the Internet with political and paramilitary groups abroad that Washington wants to assist while "limiting the direct political involvement of the United States." Imagine: contras with computers.Swett does point to a few potential problems. The Internet is chock-full of chitchat of no intelligence value. Retrieving useful nuggets will require monumental screening. He also predicts that, one day, footage of military operations will be captured by inexpensive, hand-held digital video cameras operated by local people and then uploaded to the Internet. Within minutes, millions around the world will see for themselves what has happened -- which could lead to calls for action (or calls to terminate action) before government leaders have had a chance to formulate a position.Such a development, he observes, "will greatly add to the burden on military commanders, whose actions will be subjected to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny." And opponents of the Pentagon might try to exploit the Internet for their own devilish ends: "If it became widely known that DoD were monitoring Internet traffic for intelligence or counter-intelligence purposes, individuals with personal agendas or political purposes in mind, or who enjoy playing pranks, would deliberately enter false or misleading messages." The study ends with a series of vague recommendations -- all to be carried out "only in full compliance with the letter and the spirit of the law, and without violating the privacy of American citizens."The Swett paper is "refreshingly candid," says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who placed a copy of the document on the FAS Web site on government secrecy, where it is being downloaded about twenty times a day (at http://www.fas.org/pub/gen/fas/sgp/). The IGC staff is amused by Swett's interest. "We must be doing something right," notes George Gundrey, program coordinator of IGC's PeaceNet. "But it is interesting that all his examples are the most left-wing items [on the network]." Swett's study is not the first of its kind. Under the rubric of "information warfare," other Pentagon outfits and military contractors have studied how to use computer networks to collect public information, disseminate propaganda, politically destabilize other governments and plant computer viruses into the information systems of foes. (The latter task is particularly foolhardy. Deploying viruses into cyberspace -- even if targeted against an enemy -- would likely pose a danger to the United States, since this country is more networked than any other.) But Swett's office -- the Pentagon's dirty tricks shop -- is a newcomer to this scene, according to David Banisar, a policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Banisar's group has been helping international human rights organizations use encryption to protect their global e-mail, "so the spooks don't listen in."It is natural that the national security gang will try to infiltrate and use a communication medium like the Internet to its advantage. What is most troubling about Swett's paper is its preoccupation with left-of-center travelers in cyberspace and domestic political activities. In the appendix, he reproduces four examples of notable e-mail: One (written by progressive activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven) calls for 100 days of protest in response to the Republican Contract With America, another announces plans for a demonstration at the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego, the third relays to lefties information on the U.S. Army exercise at the Miami Beach hotel, and the last is a communique from the Zapatistas of Mexico. Swett's use of these cyber-dispatches can be explained one of two ways: Either the left has made much more progress in cyber-organizing than the right and "such fringe groups" as PETA, or Swett, true to institutional tradition, is overwrought about the use of the Internet by certain parties.In any case, the would-be watchers in the defense establishment ought to be watched closely -- especially if Swett's report reflects broader sentiment within the Pentagon.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.