Friday, March 11, 2016

Quotable: General Eric Votel on CENTCOM’s strategic communications and information operations

Thursday, March 10th 2016

Glimpses of U.S. strategic communications and information operations in the Central Command’s area of responsibility were provided in the replies to “Advance Questions for General Joseph L. Votel, U.S. Army, Nominee for Commander, U. S. Central Command,” on March 9, 2016, to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  While he focused on CENTCOM’s own efforts, General Votel also discussed coordination with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the Coalition Global Communication Cell in London, the Sawab Center in United Arab Emirates, and the Dubai Regional Media Hub.

There are references to “information,” “messaging,” and “narrative” through the entire document, but here is the key section.  The Committee’s questions are in bold.  The replies by General Votel are in regular font.

Strategic Communications and Information Operations

Over the past decade, DOD has funded an increasing number of military information support operations (formerly known as psychological operations) and influence programs.

What are your assessment of DOD’s military information support operations, influence programs, and other information warfare efforts in the CENTCOM AOR?

Good progress has been made and USCENTCOM is seeing some success in combatting ISIL’s propaganda and narrative online using our existing programs. We are expanding our cooperation with our Interagency and Coalition partners to achieve our common mission of countering ISIL ideology and propaganda. Our efforts are focused at the tactical and operational level to amplify battlefield successes and counter ISIL’s disinformation. We are seeing positive momentum working with regional military partners, who increasingly use their IO training to combat violent extremist messaging.

Looking ahead, we need to continue to improve operating with our interagency and regional partners in a more synchronized manner so that we can dominate the information environment. This will enable us to discredit, erode, and attack ISIL’s legitimacy in the eyes of those audiences susceptible to being radicalized.

What unique value should such programs contribute in distinction from strategic communications and influence activities conducted by other government departments and agencies?

Strategic communications are targeted and tailored for select groups and individuals generally comprised of large audiences. Military information operations can be – and frequently are – directed to mass audiences as well as to individuals posting on social media websites. CENTCOM Information Operations focuses its efforts in two main lines of effort: 1) building capacity of regional military partners to conduct IO/MISO for themselves; and 2) supporting on the ground operational activities by amplifying successes and discrediting ISIL’s false messaging. We provide fact-based online messaging integrated and synchronized with real-time events, presenting information that regional audiences cannot find elsewhere. CENTCOM has the unique capacity to mobilize indigenous voices leveraging existing regional networks. This provides authenticity and credibility than the USG could not create alone. These efforts organize existing counter-ISIL conversation, supply new content, share successful tactics, and encourage credible voices to move to conversation threads that the adversary is using for recruitment.  CENTCOM programs play an important role in countering the appeal of ISIL’s brand, to key audiences in Iraq/Syria, the region and abroad, interrupting the echo chambers of propaganda and disinformation that the group has created. We synchronize our efforts with the new Global Strategic Engagement Cell within the Department of State, meeting several times a week, and are committed to supporting the U.S. whole of government and coalition approach.

ISIL, al Qaeda and affiliated violent extremist groups work hard to appeal to local populations. In several cases throughout the CENTCOM AOR these efforts have allowed violent extremists to establish a safe haven, conduct operations, and expand their recruiting base. The composition and size of these groups in comparison to the U.S. Government permits them to make policy decisions very quickly.

Do you believe CENTCOM and other agencies within the U.S. Government are appropriately organized to respond effectively to the messaging and influence efforts of ISIL, al Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups?

CENTCOM is postured to identify and effectively counter adversary disinformation concerning Coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria. We are linked at the operational and strategic level with other departments conducting similar efforts. However, there are times where tactical successes in Iraq and Syria could be better exploited at the strategic communications level.  ISIL’s messaging and appeal outside Iraq and Syria are a major concern – CENTCOM participated in a series of working groups alongside Department of State and Special Operations Command to address this concern and improve overall USG ability to synchronize efforts and respond more rapidly.  We are working a number of initiatives in this regard. The problem is not one of organization or venues to promote cross departmental coordination. Rather, the emerging challenge is creating procedures to rapidly coordinate with the Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, Coalition capabilities; such as the Coalition Global Communication Cell in London; the Sawab Center in UAE; the Dubai Regional Media Hub; and others. Establishing and improving these procedures will increase our speed, volume and messaging effectiveness. Numerous efforts are underway to move these issues forward.

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