Out of the Info Loop

Why information networks are crucial to modern warfare.


The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century, by Bruce D. Berkowitz, New York: Free Press, 272 pages, $26

The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror, by Ronald Kessler, New York: St. Martin's Press, 496 pages, $27.95

During the 1999 Kosovo war, American forces pounded Serbian ground targets from the skies. Less famously, they also attacked with what Pentagon strategists call information operations, or I.O. The goal was to cause economic and political panic in the Serbian leadership. The methods ranged from cutting electrical power to hacking bank accounts to spamming e-mail boxes and Web servers. Important buildings were destroyed by cruise missiles and pinpoint munitions after a series of fax and phone messages appeared, delivering clear warnings of the attack and fomenting fear in the classic psychological operations mode.

By most assessments, this campaign had little effect. It did not fatally weaken the Serbian infrastructure. Coordination was ill-defined, legal problems persisted (is an electronic attack an attack on civilians?), and the effort was beset by such unforeseen problems as foreign ownership of some targeted media enterprises. Despite American advantages in Internet experience and programming power, no virus shut down Belgrade; the city did not endure the "digital Pearl Harbor" of so many I.O.-fueled speculations. Indeed, Serbs also took to the Net, fighting for media dominance internally and abroad and perhaps hacking in return.

Such results disappointed those with high hopes for information warfare. But the approach has remained part of the American arsenal, and it has expanded vigorously since 9/11, albeit with unclear results. Two new books, Bruce Berkowitz's The New Face of War and Ronald Kessler's The CIA at War, attempt to describe and assess I.O. in the context of the war on terror.

Each author argues that information operations have transformed American forces: That they've led to smaller, more flexible units—and more flexible doctrine. Kessler's account ascribes the changes to the last phase of the Cold War, the rise of anti-terror operations, and personnel changes within the CIA. Berkowitz prefers a larger scope: He argues that the development of I.O. goes back decades, culminating in the first stage of a global shift to information warfare.

Berkowitz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, begins in the 1950s, as a series of thinkers recognized that the Cold War was linking vast military machines, nations, and globe-spanning alliances into new information networks. One function of those networks was the systematic, in-depth assessment of the other side's capabilities, in comparison with one's own, combining intelligence operations abroad and analysis at home. By the early '70s, the RAND Corporation's Andrew Marshall and Albert Wohlstetter offered an innovative analytical method which looked for imbalances between two forces.

At that time, the Pentagon was working from a parity model, trying to balance Soviet forces with its own at every register. In contrast, some threats were not so balanced. Short- and medium-range missiles, ineffective against the American homeland when based in the USSR, became dire threats when relocated to Cuba; submarines stationed offshore offered the capability not to counter American subs, but to decapitate the United States' command and control apparatus.

While concerns about these asymmetric threats prompted a series of American responses to perceived Soviet imbalances, asymmetry also became applicable to other forces without the size and resources of the USSR, such as the Vietnamese National Liberation Front or the Somali urban war clans. An American military built to fight the Warsaw Pact in a conventional war on the German plains had to rethink its approach when confronted by the drastically underresourced Viet Cong.

Asymmetry combined with networks in 1976, when Boeing published engineer Thomas Rona's Weapons Systems and Information War. This monograph argued that communications and information support networks were sufficiently linked and cross-dependent to be inviting targets. In Berkowitz's words, "this meant that the best way to defeat your enemy was to attack the components of its information systems, and Rona was broad-minded in defining 'component.' It included the hardware, of course, but it could just as easily be software, the people operating the system, or the data that traveled through it."

A World War II example shows the implications of this insight. When the British cracked the German ENIGMA cryptography scheme, they had several options: They could use information gleaned from German messages to strike military targets pre-emptively, maintain the illusion that they had not broken the code so they could continue to decrypt German messages, or use the code to feed the Germans misinformation.

The New Face of War calls this "the Perennial Question of Information Warfare," arguing that it recurs to the present day: "Deny, deceive, destroy, or exploit? Do you transmit your own smoke signals to interfere with his? Do you send bogus signals to confuse your adversary so that he is easier to kill? Do you find the enemy sending the message and kill him? Or do you quietly watch the signals so you know where your adversary plans to be, head him off, and kill him then?"

When one thinks of information as an essential part of military operations, this question covers much broader ground. Berkowitz explains its importance by drawing on the work of the Air Force colonel and influential military theorist John Boyd. Considering the defeat of American F-105s by MiG-17s over Vietnam, Boyd theorized that military opponents fought each other through a sequence of steps: observation, orientation, decision, then action. He called this the "OODA loop." American pilots were flying faster aircraft than their enemies but were nevertheless outmaneuvered by Soviet planes using better intelligence on the ground (observation) and smaller turning radii (orientation), thus getting a jump on rapid decision and action.

The party that completes its loop faster has a huge advantage over its enemy. Critically, information is central to each cycle—information about the enemy, the situation, and one's own forces. "This was the real answer to the Perennial Question," Berkowitz argues. "You can collect, analyze, and move your information faster than your opponent to get an edge." This means a combination of something like special forces operations with knowledge management: You weaken the enemy's cycle processing while speeding up your own loop to finish first. The September 11 attacks were a successful OODA run, with Al Qaeda striking before American intelligence and military agencies were able to connect the dots and react decisively.

The first major test combining these concepts for offensive purposes came during the first Persian Gulf War, with the desert flanking move that checkmated Iraqi forces in Kuwait. A small American task force led a pinpoint attack on Iraqi radar and communication systems, preventing the Iraqis from gathering information about what was going on in their western desert and stalling them in the first O of Boyd's OODA loop. At the same time allied flanking units used geographical positioning systems and a well-defended network to keep observing, while remaining oriented within the larger battle plans. Berkowitz differs with the received wisdom regarding this move, arguing that at that point "speed, usually critical to turning the corner in a traditional flanking maneuver, was not the most important factor. Even if they had not been fast, the Coalition forces could have outflanked the Iraqis, simply because the Iraqis could not see them, had no idea where they were, and did not know where they might reappear."

Other American military thinkers worked out implications of the attack. RAND's David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla attributed the Allied success to the preservation of their own networks coupled with the disruption of the enemy's. From cases like this, Ronfeldt and Arquilla conceived a network-centric military paradigm, which they dubbed "netwar" (or sometimes "cyberwar"). Large armed forces operating in centralized command structures would not be suited for such fighting, they argued, and in fact would be vulnerable. Instead, small, heterogeneous units operating within a network would be the most effective agents. Digital networks, such as the Internet or a group's intranet, would become important battlefields.

With this, The New Face of War completes its picture of I.O.'s lineage: asymmetrical threat analysis, OODA loops, and finally netwar. The past established, Berkowitz proceeds to patterns emerging in the present, describing information warfare's new concepts in terms of zapping, swarming, and network defense.

Zapping, more formally known as "precision destruction," occurs when the combination of networks and successful information looping allows one side to pinpoint specific targets, both human and inanimate. A case in point is the aforementioned prewarned destruction of selected Serbian buildings during the Kosovo war, where carpet bombing became a thing of the past. Precision munitions—"smart weapons" equipped with advanced sensing and guidance technologies, such as laser tracking and thermal sensors—are an essential component of zapping, but they work well only within a secure and correct information network. Recall the inadvertent bombing of China's Belgrade embassy, which was purportedly caused by out-of-date maps.

Assassination, incidentally, falls into the zapping category. "The problem today," Berkowitz writes, "is that modern weapons are so accurate and modern intelligence and communications systems are so sophisticated that it often seems impossible not to target a particular person."

Swarming is a form of netwar in which multiple units suddenly converge on a surprised target. They sneak beneath enemy notice during the preparation for attack, then pounce. Berkowitz uses the example of Al Qaeda's 2000 attack on the USS Cole, in which a local cell was able to coordinate intelligence on American movements and their own small ships, agents, and explosives. Another example involves American operations in Afghanistan, where ad hoc teams of CIA agents, Air Force bombers, satellites, and ground units would combine to swarm Taliban or Al Qaeda units.

Like zapping, swarming is available to any force with the network components. In their 2000 book Swarming and the Future of Conflict, Arquilla and Ronfeldt point to Mafia operations, globalization protesters, and historical examples from Napoleon to the Viet Cong and from "swarming Soviet anti-tank networks that played such a brilliant role in defeating the German blitzkrieg in the Battle of Kursk" to "fast-moving Zulu impi, capable of marching over 40 miles per day, [that] would break into small units as they went into the attack, surrounding their opponents and swiftly destroying their cohesion."

Network defense is exactly what it sounds like. In netwar situations, the security of networks becomes central. A truly devastating attack through network superiority alone is unlikely, Berkowitz argues, as the incomplete information assault in Kosovo demonstrates. An electronic Pearl Harbor would be too hard to control, too difficult to keep from blowing back on the operator, and too easily fixed. Instead, network command should supplement other forces. "Information warfare is rarely an end in itself," Berkowitz writes. "It is always a means to get ahead of your opponent so that you can destroy him, or leave him so cornered he will give up."

But perhaps network command shouldn't be left to the Pentagon. For network defense reasons, Berkowitz attacks the Defense Department's current mix of state control and federal purchasing cycles, arguing that the result is a weakly defended Internet. Individuals and companies suspicious of the Big Brother approach seen in the Clipper Chip and Communications Decency Act expend energies in withdrawing or opposing state measures, while fewer enterprises develop products—less powerful than they would have otherwise been—to assist the feds. Berko-witz recommends instead that the government shift more of the onus for command of the nets to companies.

The result, in his view, would be a larger market and better results for net command, and more available to defense. Companies working without strong legislative oversight, he writes, would be more likely to develop better software, and have a more cooperative attitude toward the government, than would firms laboring under bureaucratic scrutiny and control.

This position stems not from libertarian economic arguments but from a sense of recent Internet history. During the 1990s the federal government tried to push the Clipper Chip, prosecute Phil Zimmermann for distributing homegrown cryptography, and mandate weaker software security. This caused government influence over increasingly suspicious I.T. companies to wane. Berkowitz also suggests that rather than developing new network warriors, the agency should hire already skilled network analysts part-time, as a sort of distributed resource team.

The New Face of War concludes with a survey of intelligence work, focusing mostly on the CIA. This covers a lot of familiar ground; what makes it refreshing is the context of information warfare (always central to the narrative) and seeing familiar operations through the insights of Boyd, Arquilla, and Ronfeldt.

While The New Face of War keeps its narrative anchored in information warfare's development, The CIA at War is too often unmoored. Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, focuses primarily on the institutional transformation of the CIA under George Tenet's leadership and its impact on the war on terror. He offers a heroic portrait of a CIA director rebuilding the agency into a more agile, effective organization, partly along network lines. The book's historical model is intriguing, and it offers some new background about the topic, but its approach underestimates the cognitive and organizational shifts that information warfare entails.

The CIA at War offers a historical narrative to explain the present state of the CIA. Kessler shows how the agency's focus on the Soviet Union began and grew, with the CIA developing skills and methods imaginatively and successfully. The CIA's attention shifted to terrorism in the 1980s, starting with the successful campaign against the Abu Nidal organization. (Nidal's group had staged terror acts and won a growing global audience. The CIA fed its leader disinformation to stoke his innate distrust into violent, organization-destroying paranoia.)

The transition to fighting terrorism was difficult, marked by competing internal cultures, as cowboys (action-prone activists) and professionals (procedure-focused managers) struggled for institutional power. In addition, the Aldrich Ames affair proved destructive of agency trust and morale, as the high-profile mole's long-unchecked career cast doubt on the CIA's ability to police itself. Moreover, the absence of a mission as clearly defined as the Cold War left the agency somewhat adrift. Kessler criticizes two directors of central intelligence, James Woolsey and John Deutsch, for their inability to reform the CIA, arguing that they fostered managerial problems, failed to turn around morale losses, and lost bureaucratic turf to the Pentagon.

There is some useful information in Kessler's description of how the CIA developed structures for fighting terrorism and improved operational efficacy. Kessler points to a post-9/11 emphasis on low-level initiative and increased information sharing as ways of better "connecting the dots." Kessler's defense of the CIA's approach to Islamist groups—the agency penetrates Al Qaeda and allies using local agents, not case officers—indicates that Tenet continues to stress human intelligence gathering. Intriguingly, Kessler mentions in passing the CIA's recruitment of Muslim academics and mullahs to speak out in favor of the United States. "We are creating moderate Muslims," one source says. Kessler takes this at face value, though many readers will suspect that the real purpose in recruiting influential Muslims is to use them to spread disinformation.

While Kessler provides a credible description of a CIA on the rebound, using information thoughtfully and with some awareness of its importance, his discussion of the war on terror is very weak. The information is thin, often drawn from newspaper accounts. The innovative campaign in Afghanistan receives scarcely four pages, a discussion that introduces an important CIA branch (the paramilitary Special Activities Division) we should have read about much earlier. Kessler's description of Tenet's reforms before and after September 11 consists largely of sweeping statements in the place of analysis (e.g., "In the end, it required a commitment by the entire U.S. government to change the way business was done").

Kessler's celebration of Tenet and his renovated agency becomes shrilly defensive in the face of criticism. When other observers charge that poor information-sharing in the intelligence world made the 9/11 attacks possible, the book responds by blaming the State Department and FBI while simultaneously claiming the attacks were impossible to predict. The constructive contributions of other agencies are sidestepped, as when Kessler removes the Philippine police from the scene of Operation Bojinka in 1995, when a Manila police officer acting on her own broke up an Al Qaeda plot to bomb civilian jetliners over the Pacific Ocean. Kessler defends other aspects of the war on terror in strange ways, as when he says Jose Padilla was arrested for "the attempted dirty bomb attack on America," rather than the sketchier explanation the Department of Justice actually presented.

The 2003 war in Iraq receives fuller treatment, with more detailed descriptions of the CIA's preparatory work. Several passages in particular suggest information operations of the sort that Berkowitz describes. But Kessler barely explores the ramifications of this transformation in warfare. Instead, tantalizing references alternate with passionate denunciations of the Hussein regime and reiterations of the Bush administration's casus belli.

Kessler's thinness of information is complemented by a light style. Portentous sentence-long paragraphs dot the text. ("There were lessons to be learned from 9/11, Peterson told the analysts.") Policy discussions have a tendency to slide into detailed descriptions of meals and sex habits. Passages contradict themselves or lose their way—one begins by asserting that North Korea was not much of a threat, then concludes that it's a threat after all. The book jumps frequently across the 20th century, not always coherently; useful details are dropped in odd locations.

Taken together, these books make an implicit argument for the importance of historically grounding information operations. Netwar theory proves a useful lens through which to view recent history. Institutional transformation, for example, becomes something more than internal careerism and budgeteering; instead we see complex organizations grappling with novel concepts. When Berkowitz narrates the growth of information warfare through the Cold War, the conflicts of the 1990s, and the war on terror, information operations emerge as one replacement for the Pentagon's Cold War?era hierarchical command structures.

Kessler covers a different institution with a shorter chronology, seeing the new paradigm appearing instead from the ruins of the CIA's decline during the years just before and after the Soviet Union's collapse. Both the Defense Department and the CIA mutate and survive, generating new forms: netwar teams, counterterrorism centers. One open question is to what extent information warfare requires such creative structures, and how long they will last.

While Berkowitz emphasizes the universal utility of network warfare—he considers Al Qaeda's strikes a brilliant example of netwar—his primary focus is on America's use of it. Kessler is even more America-oriented, ignoring the intelligence agencies of U.S. allies and treating current enemies more as demons than as networks. Limitations of space, time, and institutional focus explain these omissions, but a more distributed sample would shed more light on the topic.

Netwar, after all, is a global tool, used by Serbian hackers and by Philippine protesters, by globalization activists and by transnational crime syndicates. The rapid growth of the I.O. model surely deserves attention, as does its role as one of the first truly global organizational structures.

The cultural framework behind networked warfare remains underexplored. Kessler makes a first pass at this, linking networked creativity to the American dream of economic advancement and innovation, arguing that each supports the other. But he fails to develop his analysis of I.O. enough to establish a connection. Berkowitz's account is more institutional on this score, focusing on the Pentagon's development (sometimes despite itself) of netwar. But we can go further. America's military tradition has long emphasized low-level initiative, and our libertarian tendency supports the free flow of information. American culture is a fertile ground for netwar teams and their rapid, nearly improvisational operations.

Changes in business culture are also relevant to a discussion of I.O. To his credit, Berkowitz discusses this angle, partly through references to Arquilla and Ronfeldt, who in their analysis move readily from military to business to criminal groups. With due allowance for the persistence of managerial authority, the sustained shift from vertical command in enterprises to an increasing reliance on horizontal, team-based work suggests further grounding for American I.O. One detail merits further development, given American backwardness in the area: mobile technology. It would be interesting to see a non-American study of the American use of mobile devices in information warfare.

Perhaps more significantly, the recent history of political Islam bears on Al Qaeda's attachment to netwar. With the exceptions of the Iranian Islamic state and the brief Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Islamists tend to be in opposition, out of central governmental authority. Decades of experience in dissenting Brotherhoods, insurgent militias, or local leadership contesting central control encourages a greater affinity for information-centric organization than does running a traditional statist military organization.

Likewise, the marginal, guerrilla, or revolutionary experience fosters a facility for information operations. Consider Al Qaeda's distributed nature and roving career, its central core migrating from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan to (almost certainly) Pakistan, with franchise-like affiliates around the world negotiating for local leverage, material power, media play, and religious persuasion.

Some Islamists, such as those influenced by Sayyid Qutb, see the secular world as fallen and threatening enough to justify sustained disguise and deception, as the 9/11 hijackers likely did. They are well prepared for the invisibility required by swarming. Such a movement is already practicing netwar in its daily operations.

The war in Iraq continues as a guerrilla struggle, with coalition forces seeking energetically to get inside the insurgents' OODA cycles. The global campaign against Al Qaeda continues, in much the same form as in early 2003. Viruses continue to spread wantonly across networks, without any proven cases of an electronic Pearl Harbor. Information warfare has emerged from its larval stage, and new I.O. organizations vie for global reach. Between them, Berkowitz and Kessler offer a useful framework for studying this pattern as it continues to emerge.