of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 2    December / January 2002


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Information and the War Against Terrorism

by Lee S. Strickland

Lee S. Strickland is a career attorney with the federal government. He has been a member of the Senior Intelligence Service since 1986 and most recently served as the CIA official responsible for the development of information and privacy policy as well as the management of all information review and release programs. Currently, he is on detail to the University of Maryland where he serves as a visiting professor with the College of Information Studies and the College Park Scholars Program. He can be reached by e-mail at lee.karen.strickland@worldnet.att.net

September 11th was a pivotal day in American history. While only the fourth time in the history of the United States that foreign forces have invaded our territorial limits, it was the first time that substantial numbers of American civilians have been victims and remain under the cloud of realistic, recurring threat of further death and destruction. Osama bin Laden's terrorist network has warned of a "new storm of planes" (Associated Press, 11/14/2001) and he has directed his followers "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it" (PBS' Frontline, 2/28/98). Indeed it is a threat of terror not unlike that faced by the British people at the hands of the Nazis during the Blitz where random, purposeless violence against the civilian population was also the intent. Unfortunately, our risks will not change soon, yet America will persevere and see victory: "Time and again, America has demonstrated a resilience that is rooted in the remarkable diversity of her people." ("Mongrel Nation," Smithsonian Magazine, November 2001, pp. 18-19.)

In defeating this evil, tactical munitions and forces will play significant roles, but it is information that will be the single key to success for the United States. Indeed, information is the single most important factor in any comprehensive discussion of our war against terrorism. It is this proposition that defines the scope of this paper. We will consider information and information theory as our most effective war tool – as well as the legal and political authority for their covert use.

Traditional Threats and Responses

Bombing alone, whether from cruise missiles, B-2 stealth bombers or venerable B52s, will not win a war. History is replete with examples where the most extensive bombing campaigns have not altered the resolve of the civilian population and have damaged but not destroyed the enemy war machine or the will of a population and its government to continue the fight.

Similarly, ground forces, in the form of a punitive expedition, may bolster public and political morale but have minimal chances for quick success in either general or specific historical terms. Eighty years ago Britain, and the USSR more recently, learned that Afghanistan could not be conquered. Our own experience in Mexico in 1916 with a punitive expedition to punish a marauding Mexican revolutionary, involving ultimately over 10,000 cavalry forces, suggests the emotional and often illogical triggers for such events, the difficulty of retribution and the lack of certain success in such exercises.

Thus in considering our potential course of action today, we should examine in some detail a striking historical analogue involving the use of traditional military forces against non-traditional enemies. Specifically, we will examine the first war fought by the United States against a foreign power – the Barbary Pirates – and the first raising of the Stars and Stripes in the Old War – at the taking of Tripoli. The details, factual parallels and lessons learned are significant, the primary lesson being the extreme difficulty as well as the time necessary to overcome decentralized threats.

Who Were the Pirates? The pirates were individuals acting as a law unto themselves preying on the Western world for individual profit but in league with the temporal and religious rulers in Tripoli (the Bashaw), Algiers (the Dey) and Tunis (the Bey of Morocco) and more significantly, the supreme Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

The enemy? The enemy was Western civilization unless it would pay exorbitant tribute to their rulers. While in part a local "protection racket" intended to extort money from the then-superpowers, this contest also had substantial religious and state sponsorship elements. Although the Sultan's theocratic empire had become corrupt and weak and the local Barbary rulers were effectively autonomous in local affairs, the Sultan remained supreme and was the primary director and beneficiary of the piracy. The pirates, the local chieftains and the Empire were partners with the latter providing state authority, economic imperative and religious direction for the piracy. In effect, the Barbary pirates were in service to the grand Sultan fighting his continuation of the Crusades against Western interests.

What Was the Cost of the Piracy? The contest began in 1785 when Algerian pirates seized two American ships and crews and it continued for years, especially after 1793. The patience of the United States began to end the next year (1794) with a Congressional authorization to build six ships of the line. But a peace, sometimes popular at any cost, was reached the next year (1795) with the Dey of Algeria. The terms required annual tribute of over $500,000 and the gift of a state-of-the-art 36-gun frigate. But appeasement seldom works, and, as a result of envy, the Bashaw demanded even greater payments and his own new American warship. Although U.S. reaction was delayed by the conflict with France, it was clear that the situation was intolerable, as evidenced by the 1799 letter from U.S. Counsel William Eaton to the Secretary of State in 1799 where he wrote that "… there is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror."

And How Was the Piracy Brought to an End? By 1801 it was equally clear that the Bashaw had misjudged the new President Jefferson when he continued his demands, tore down the U.S. flag at the embassy and effectively declared war at that time. Jefferson promptly ordered the deployment of U.S. naval forces. Unfortunately, the 38-gun frigate Philadelphia ran aground outside the Tripoli harbor and was seized by the Bashaw's forces. Not one to surrender to the moment, the U.S. commander ordered a raiding party under Lt. Stephen Decatur into action, but without land forces, the United States could not take the city. Congress dithered and the problem continued. Four years later, the United States was forced to launch one of the first special operations. A U.S. Marine-led Arab army marched across 500 hundred miles of desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to Tripoli and seized the fort and palace of the Bashaw – thus giving rise to the commemorative line in the Marine Hymn "to the shores of Tripoli."

But the United States was unable to install a permanent and more agreeable government there, and the troubles continued. Five years later, in 1810, the Algerians declared war on the United States and another naval expedition was launched, which attacked Algiers in 1815 and secured the release of American prisoners and the end of tribute there.

The final resolution of this problem of international terrorism was not achieved until the world powers, acting in concert after the Napoleonic wars, ended piracy by force of arms, and the French captured and occupied Algiers in 1830. By that time this notable case of international terrorism – with state sponsorship, religious direction and substantial harm to U.S. commercial interests and civilians – had occupied America and its armed forces for some 45 years. It demonstrates further that short-term military successes may well not resolve intractable problems of this nature; rather it requires international commitment and a comprehensive destruction of the war-making capacity of the enemy.

Changed Threats and Responses – Information as Today's Prime War Tool

The present circumstances facing the United States are remarkably similar, yet even more intractable than the historical precedents. Against one prime enemy (the Taliban government of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden), there are neither strategic infrastructure targets nor substantial government or military targets. Even the terrorist target hides in the shadows.

In sum, we do not have a contest between roughly symmetrical forces where we can effectively use the methods and mechanisms of historical military contests but an asymmetric war that requires new tools, foci and strategies. This we must not fear. Addressing change should not be considered traumatic or unique inasmuch as the necessity for military force changes and the prescience to recognize the needed change has been presented and successfully answered in the past and will be so today:

      "The methods and mechanisms of warfare have altered radically in recent times and they will alter still further in the future. But the United States is singularly fitted, by reason of the ingenuity of its people, the knowledge and skill of its scientists, the flexibility of its industrial structure, to excel in the arts of peace and to excel in the arts of war if that be necessary." – Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and President Roosevelt's Science Advisor, June 1940.

New Tools, Foci and Strategies

The new tools for today's war? Information, information network theory and information technology. As senior representatives of the Department of Defense have said , "This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine. I think it is going to put us to the test in many ways. It is going to require a new mindset." The foci? The diplomatic, economic and financial theaters. The strategies? Many, but one critical one comes from the Information Age we live in – information network theory. That is, if we are fighting a dynamic, amorphous network we must look to information, information theory and information technology tools to aid us in our struggle. This approach translates into three discrete functional assignments:

    1.  Understand the basic elements of an information network and the flow of information in that network.

    2.  Ascertain the specifics of the network in question; and

    3.  Use information network (i.e., organizational) theory to disrupt the network.

Understanding the Elements of an Information Network

Information networks consist of and can best be understood in terms of people (i.e., nodes) and the flow of information. The nodes can take one of three forms: Some are actors – people who do things and whose skill bases range from experts to clerical support. Others are the directors – people on the throne or subthrone and whose importance and role will range from titular to truly influential and motivating. And others are perhaps the most important, I call them gateways and they affect (and effect) the flow of information and activity; they are the key people in getting things done. These gateways, one might call them routers in information technology networks, take two forms. First, there are pure gateways , people who have the information or assets or know where to find them. These people have many relationships (i.e., links) both formal and informal; they may or may not have a position and de jure authority but they have de facto power. Second, there are gatekeepers, the people around the throne who control access to the throne and often manipulate the decisions of the throne. They often know (or assume) their importance, and their value is often their access rather than their knowledge or abilities.

With respect to the operation of the network – the flow of information – there are three primary models in which the described nodes may be arranged. The first is a chain or hierarchical network where information moves – and must move—sequentially through a series of nodes; this is the old business model. The second is the star or hub network where a number of actor nodes are connected directly to a gateway or manager node and where information between actor nodes must go through that central node; this is typical of sophisticated criminal enterprises. The third is the multi-channel network where every node is connected to every other node; this model is collaborative in nature, quick acting and effective, but can be difficult to maintain given the high-level of communications required. It is the network of the information age and, when organized by terrorists, can be very effective (can launch multiple, repeated attacks from different points), very difficult to identify (is it acephalous or polycephalous?), and very difficult to destroy in its entirety (nodes are redundant).

Often, those in an organization do not think in terms of a network, do not understand the forms of a network and the flow of information, and do not characterize their personnel in terms of the previously described nodes. But it is critical to do so in business and war and there are now centers and tools for just such purposes. Today, we use this theory to help understand and better manage an organization especially in times of downsizing or in efforts to increase efficiency. It follows then that there is no reason why this theory might not be used to disrupt an organization; in other words, one might intentionally introduce internal conflicts or process inefficiencies in order to degrade organizational efficiency. With this approach, one does not need to arrest or kill every member of a terrorist organization; rather, one may target and remove key gateways or otherwise interfere with the flow of information and assets through the organization via key people. With this approach our task is significantly more finite and the work of replacement becomes a difficult and time-consuming task for the enemy; no longer can the terrorist organization survive simply by a ready flow of raw, often illiterate recruits from a disaffected population.

Ascertaining the Specifics of the Network in Question

How does one collect the necessary information about a highly secretive, insular organization in order to use this theory of disruption? In my judgment, the potential for direct recruitment of members of dedicated terrorist organizations is limited. Human collection in this arena is probably best directed toward working with the intelligence services of relevant countries who have much better knowledge and access than the United States will ever have – in other words, liaison relationships. And certainly, the traditional technical intelligence tools including imagery and communications intercepts will continue to be of use, but disclosures of U.S. capabilities in the media are harming their continuing utility.

There is, however, great potential in the use of existing and developing Internet technology. For example, there can be active attacks where a software agent planted electronically or physically (i.e., a virus) does no damage and does no mass mailings, but rather, does a little selective data collection and a single discrete mailing. Imagine! Just getting the address book from a PC used by a node in a terrorist network would be a gold mine to understanding the network. And, what about the sent mail? Or cookies written to the hard drive by virtue of the terrorist's visits to websites? Or a keystroke monitor, a technology tool that is in current use in the business community and with the FBI against organized crime targets.

Another technique to gather this key information about a specific network would be in the form of a passive attack where software agents deployed throughout the Internet would merely monitor the transfer of data and e-mail between nodes. In such an effort, even encrypted messages that could not be broken would yield valuable counter-terrorism data in the nature of traffic patterns. Then, with such raw data, it becomes a relatively simple matter of analysis, using existing software tools, to manage that data in real time and discern network patterns and relationships that are not visible on the surface or are otherwise buried in a morass of data.

Targeting the Specific Network

Now that we understand the network, what do we do? The answer is using organizational theory to disrupt the operations and activities of the target information network. Now despite what corporate trainers will tell you, often in the context of selling expensive organizational improvement courses, this concept and specific approaches are not all new. Machiavelli and others have spoken eloquently about disrupting organizations by sowing the seeds of dissension (i.e., divide and conquer) or by eliminating needed support elements. Thus if one understands the information network – the organization – one may do many different things to reduce the effectiveness:

  • Disrupt communication links. There is one objective here and several approaches. The objective is to impede communications – the flow of information – and thus increase costs and reduce efficiency. The first type of approach is a form of active attack that uses software agents to subvert the integrity of the target's communications by impersonating authentic communiquιs. The second is a form of passive attack that intercepts communications or otherwise deprives the target from the use of particular channels. Here the intent is to force the target to use some other form of communications, perhaps slower, perhaps less effective, perhaps one that may be easier to intercept or that may provide more information on intercept. An example of the first form of attack would be the insertion of counterfeit communications to cause terrorist nodes to identify themselves. An example of the second form of attack would be the preclusion of certain electronic banking transactions hence requiring the network to use more informal transfers through cash brokers. Such transactions are clearly slower, more subject to fraud, may also be more subject to interception and, if intercepted, may provide greater information as to the details of the transactions.
  • Make cooperation too costly. Every organization, and especially terrorist organizations, makes extensive use of outside resources – banks, brokers, suppliers, charitable organizations. While the reasons for cooperation may vary from profit to fear, making it too costly can end that cooperation. For example, money laundering could end tomorrow if the banks in question knew that their bottom line would be devastated by continuing cooperation and there are infinite ways to impose such a penalty.
  • Exploit the best and the worst. All nodes in an information network are not created equal and do not perform at the same level. Specifically, every organization has a plethora of seemingly capable but generally ineffectual people – often apparent only to those on the outside. It is not in our interest to eliminate the "weakest links" in a target organization; rather, we should undertake actions to exploit them and learn the network's plans and objectives; to the extent possible, we can advance and thus maintain their utility to U.S. intelligence. In effect, the weakest link becomes an unwitting agent. Conversely, we must identify the best and cause them damage (e.g., plant evidence to cause the organization to question their loyalty). Money laundering, an activity that proceeds on trust and few written records presents wonderful opportunities in this regard. The point is that the world community cannot neutralize every member of a terrorist organization and hence we must focus our resources against the key members.
  • Weaken the story of the terrorists. The foundation of every organization is the people who support it with resources and ideological commitment. To the extent we can destroy the credibility of the organization, we can weaken the support among the people and thus plant the seeds of destruction. This approach includes not only positive information about the United States but also negative information about the terrorist group and its members. We can raise questions about their actions, origins and bona fides; make them appear alien and harmful to the culture where they exist now. Everything from propaganda operations to good works to moral appeals should be considered. Examine the range of prior covert actions to ascertain activities that could be beneficial here. Remind the audience that the vast majority of the Islamic community does not support terror and that America has been a steadfast defender of Islamic peoples from Bosnia to Somalia to Kosovo. We can convince the majority of Afghanis that America is a better friend than an alien who does not speak their language and brings only continued misery and war. In sum, put information in the hands of the people and advance the truth – steps which, after all, served as the foundation of our democracy.
  • Harness the resources of foreign governments. Foreign intelligence and security services will always know more about and have better access to information concerning terrorist organizations operating in their territory. Combine this knowledge with their territorial authority and it follows that alliances here are critical. Certainly there are political risks given the potential for different cultural and human rights standards but these must be balanced against our national security needs.
  • Support the indigenous opponents. There is a subtle difference between support and manipulation for the latter may give rise to a government that contains the seeds of collapse. But a study of American covert action as well as overt foreign policy over the years demonstrate that support can produce permanent change that is in the interest of the indigenous people and the United States. In sum, indigenous groups deserving of support need not embrace Western society or support in totality American foreign policy; it is sufficient that they stand against terror and for the social and governmental norms in their region.
  • And learn from history. Battles with secretive organizations – whether predicated on economics, ideology or religion – all have precedents that can provide critical lessons. We can and must learn from our former enemies (e.g., the USSR) about historic and very effective means to penetrate and destroy hostile organizations that threaten a nation's survival. One such technique would be to establish our own anti-Western organizations that could make "common cause" and thus gain access to the real enemy. The model for this approach is "The Trust" which was officially known as the Monarchist Union of Central Russia and which appeared to be an anti-Bolshevik group dedicated to and well-resourced for the overthrow of Lenin. In short order, it attracted real anti-Bolsheviks by the hundreds; in actuality it was a front for Soviet Intelligence that had been created by Feliz Dzerzhinsky for the purpose of luring anti-Bolsheviks to them and then arranging their death.

Application and the Legal and Political Implications

These are merely some of the ways that information and information theory may be effective war tools in this new century and against this new enemy. Together these techniques are known in intelligence as disruption and, while proven successful in many instances, will not provide guaranteed or 100% success. But, I am firmly convinced that we must employ these new approaches because history has shown two things – that the United States has been prepared to fight the previous war and that resolve is needed to win any war. The issue then becomes not so much "what can we do" but rather what political will and alliances can we muster in this fight. We can find bin Laden, his people, his assets, his associates, his tools and his money. We can "take them out." But, we must have the political resolve to realize that it will be costly in terms of the involvement of innocents, of our view of the United States as a beacon of immigration, and potentially of our civil liberties to some degree.

In saying this, the question invariably arises as to the legal and political implications especially when the use of intelligence information and theory is in a covert and targeted lethal capacity. Readers may well recall the Congressional investigations of 1974 when the Church and Pike committees, in the Senate and House respectively, investigated CIA-directed assassination plots against five foreign leaders under the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon administrations. A principal determination was that the decisions authorizing such action were "so ambiguous that it is difficult to be certain at what levels assassination activity was known and authorized." As a result, Executive Order 12333 was signed by President Reagan in 1981, regulating intelligence activities in great detail and specifically forbidding assassination; that order does not, however, define the term, and remains in effect. More recently, according to published media reports, ("CIA Weighs 'Targeted Killing' Missions," Washington Post, A1, 28 October 2001) President Bush has received legal opinions that the order does not preclude his taking lethal action against individual specified terrorists (defined, of course, as nodes in this paper) under his Constitutional authority and responsibility for the national defense. At least in part, those legal opinions would be based on the clear authority of a President to modify any Executive Order at any time, with or without public disclosure.

This authority then presents the question of execution: which nodes and what instruments? Again, according to the same reports, there is substantial support for the approach outlined here – identification of the key gateway nodes such as financiers of al-Qaeda. As for instruments, the problem is more complex. Quite simply, the business of lethal force is not one for which American intelligence officers are trained. Almost certainly, any such action would be carried out by foreign nationals or assets of foreign intelligence and security services with the requisite training, familiarity and access to the targets in question.


The challenges for information professionals presented by this war are several. Some will play key roles in the collection and exploitation of relevant information – providing direct support to the war fighter on the battlefield or in cyberspace. Others will continue in research and development of new tools to assist in collection and exploitation. And each of us must commit as citizens to the struggle for the survival of our democratic government in the force of extremism. I submit that this war should be neither an issue of domestic politics nor an issue of religion; rather it is a classic issue of good versus evil no less than that faced by a former generation. The subversion of Islam to a religion of hate, war against non-believers and abject subjecation of women is an evil that cannot be allowed to stand unanswered.

Additional Readings

"Old Madness, New Methods: Terrorism Evolves Toward 'Netwar."' Rand Review , Winter 1998/99.

Perret, Geoffrey. A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – The Story of America's Rise to Power. Random House, New York, 1989.

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