The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has set up a body to counter foreign ‘disinformation’
The US has established a Foreign Malign Influence Center to address foreign threats to elections as well as the “public opinion” within the country, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines revealed in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.
Operating under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FMIC has access to “all intelligence possessed or created pertaining to foreign malign information, including election security.” Its director, Jeffrey Wichman, was formerly chief of analysis for the CIA’s Counterintelligence Mission Center.
For the agency’s purposes, ‘foreign’ means originating in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or “any other foreign country that the Director of the Center” deems appropriate, while ‘foreign malign influence’ is defined as “any hostile effort undertaken by, or at the direction of, or on behalf of or with the substantial support of,” one of the named countries in order to influence, covertly or overtly, US government or state policy or the “public opinion within the United States.”
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While the FMIC was apparently founded in September at the behest of recent legislation, Thursday’s hearing was the first public mention of its existence. Its establishment was controversial, as some senators and intelligence officers questioned the need for another agency with the same remit as the Global Engagement Center, the State Department subsidiary tasked with disseminating American propaganda to fight the foreign variety.
Haines addressed some of those concerns in Thursday’s hearing, insisting the FMIC was working to “support the Global Engagement Center and others throughout the US government in helping them to understand what are the plans and intentions of the key actors in this space: China, Russia, Iran, etc.”
Countering ‘foreign disinformation’ has become something of an obsession for government bureaucrats since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, with half a dozen agencies springing up since then. In addition to the GEC, launched in 2017, the Pentagon quietly launched an Influence and Perception Management Office last year, joining the Department of Homeland Security’s Foreign Influence and Interference Branch, Countering Foreign Influence Task Force, and the ill-fated Disinformation Governance Board, as well as the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.
However, Pentagon contractor RAND Corporation recently acknowledged Russia’s role is probably overstated. The think tank warned in a study conducted last year that blaming Moscow for all information Washington doesn’t like is likely to backfire, urging the Defense Department to reduce “overattribution of disinformation on social media to Russia.”
“Pointing the finger at Russia in every instance of activity on social media resembling Russian interference distorts the understanding of the threat,” the report stated.