By Ambassador Brian Carlson
Years ago, during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda continually portrayed the United States and NATO nations as militaristic, provocative and dangerously over-armed. Every new Western weapons system and Congressional appropriation became more grist for Soviet-sponsored psyops mills around the world, while the USSR’s and Warsaw Pact’s own military spending and armaments research were cloaked in secrecy.
One answer to the Soviet disinformation effort was the Reagan Administration’s decision in 1981 to publish Soviet Military Power, a definitive, factual annual report on the military capabilities, weapons systems, and strategies of the Soviets and their allies. Based on declassified intelligence, open source facts, and clear photographs, Soviet Military Power was the first time we offered the world an honest picture of Soviet military effort and an annual reminder of the imbalance in capabilities between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addtion to the English version printed by GPO, SMP was translated and disseminated in German, French, Japanese, Italian and Spanish. PAO’s such as myself convinced local organizations to fund translation and distribute vernacular language versions in many countries.
Working in Washington and abroad with Soviet Military Power, I learned two good lessons. First, it is very difficult to convince the intelligence community to declassify and make public the hard evidence we hold. Even with the President himself behind the project, we could not get overhead surveillance photographs (which the Soviets knew we had) released. The work-around? We got artists (with clearances) to paint pictures from the photographs of Soviet hardware and installations.
Second, I learned the value of shining the bright light of truth on an adversary’s nefarious activities. Countries with political systems and leaders that depend on lies, secrecy, denial, and obfuscation are especially vulnerable to the truth. And, in most free societies, it is possible to find allies who will help reveal the truth and let the public judge for themselves.
In the spirit of that second lesson, it is a step forward to find a new tool tracking daily Russian efforts to influence public opinion in the United States and abroad. Called Hamilton 68—named for the 68th edition of the Federalist Papers, in which Alexander Hamilton discussed how to prevent foreign meddling and influence in America’s electoral process, this web-based dashboard uses charts and graphs to display the hashtags, topics and URL’s being used by some 600 Russia-linked influence networks targeting the United States.
There is a full explanation of the research and analysis on the German Marshall Fund-sponsored site (http://dashboard.securingdemocracy.org/). The key is that while it might be problematic to say that any single tweet or individual Twitter account is part of a coordinated influence campaign, it becomes obvious when you see many synchronized accounts and their messages. You can see the forest—if you look at enough trees.
One might wish that the State Department’s own public diplomacy people had invented the Hamilton 68 dashboard. But maybe it’s better coming out of the independent public policy community?
PAO’s might bring this resource to the attention of people in capitals abroad who are concerned about Russian meddling their own politics and elections. As I learned years ago, figure out whatever your adversary is keeping secret or is reluctant to bring into public view; then find a way to shine the bright, honest light of public attention on it.
A career public diplomacy officer and former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia, Brian Carlson is Vice President of the Public Diplomacy Council and advises private clients on military and foreign affairs issues.