We have met the enemy and he is us

The U.S. Department of Defense wants to be able to bring the Net down and, unfortunately, it invented the thing.

At the deepest points of the Cold War, such as when Senator Joe McCarthy was attacking Americans, Walt Kelly's cartoon strip Pogo would remind readers that fear was our greatest enemy, observing that "We have met the enemy and he is us." Now Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense has added a new twist to that old saying.

In a document [click here for a PDF] uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archive at George Washington UniversityWe, the people of the Net, are the enemy, according to Secretary Rumsfeld., Rumsfeld endorses an "information operations roadmap" that calls for "fight[ing] the Net" by "dominating the information spectrum" and "Network and Electro-Magnetic Attack Capability."

In short, the DoD intends to manipulate information to win hearts and minds in theaters of operation and to depress enemies, as well as destroy the Internet or parts of it when necessary, a brand of mutually assured destruction for the information age straight out of the Cold War that makes Pogo's observation about the enemy within relevant, again.

Fighting networks. There are so many ironies in this document, from the fact that the DoD has decided its own creation, the Internet, is its field of battle and, potentially, something that it needs to be able to destroy, to the fact that ideas have become the enemy so much so that it may be necessary to use electro-magnetic attacks to interfere with their transmission. If we've learned anything from the end of the Cold War, it is that the transmission of ideas was the key to victory.

The Internet and the fax machine played important parts in the end of monolithic communism. And it was people talking, not armies, that brought down the Berlin Wall and regimes across Eastern Europe. Yet, the military wants to take the people out of the War on Terror at its discretion; it's the kind of centralized, government-knows-better thinking that is doomed to failure based on everything we know about network theory.

After all, the Net was designed to route around damage. A strategy that seeks to bring the network down is like trying to establish security through obscurity. Invariably, someone finds their way through the barriers to get messages through. Terrorists obviously don't rely on the Net all the time, having fallback channels to communicate securely. In that scenario, bringing the Net down only eliminates open sources of information that could be of use to the military. The strategy doesn't make sense. 

Lies as weapons. The plan goes on to acknowledge that PSYOP (psychological operations, in other words, propaganda) is increasingly flowing back into the United States, where Americans see and believe it. According to the plan, the DoD has allocated $161 million to implement "a more proactive public affairs effort that expands to include a broader set of foreign media and audiences." Not all those messages will be legitimate and honest, yet they increasingly become the fodder of American public opinion as they filter back to the United States.

The truth has become collateral damage, nevertheless the document insists PSYOP programs must be improved "in support of military operations and the themes and messages employed in a PSYOP campaign must be consistent with the broader national security objectives and national-level themes and messages" through "audience specific, commercial-quality products." It does acknowledge that, because of the likelihood of Americans seeing the propaganda generated against enemies there need to be some limits and "defliction with public affairs and public diplomacy."

When one considers that everything, even civil rights, has been sacrificed to "win the War on Terror," the line of deconfliction becomes impossible to see. We're all at the mercy of the vulcans in President Bush's war council, even our data, not to mention the late lamented truth on which democratic decisions are based.

The network is the people. A world connected has brought freedom to another billion people between 1980 and 2000. Not a lot of liberty has spread since the turn of the century compared to the previous two decades. By making the network itself a target of disinformation and physical disruption, the Bush Administration is undercutting the one ally freedom has been able to count on: the voice of the people.

It's time to make these executive decisions by Bush cabinet officials the subject of massive and active public debate in order to save the freedoms we cherish. Internet users should be concerned about their data, as Nicholas Carr wrote yesterday, but the important issue is that the military is stuck in a mindset that emphasizes the authority of the center over the power of the edges. If people stop talking and just listen to and repeat the propaganda injected into the media and blogosphere by the military, we're not going to need to worry about our data. It will have lost its meaning.

Walt Kelly's point when he coined the phrase "We have met the enemy and he is us," as he explained, was that "each individual is wholly involved in the democratic process, work at it or no.  The results of the  process fall on the head of the public and he who is recalcitrant or procrastinates in raising his voice can blame no one but himself."