Who really bombed the oil tankers in the Persian Gulf two weeks ago? Was it Iran, as the Trump administration assured us? Or was it Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel—or some combination of the three?
Here’s a confession from two former senior government officials: For days after the attacks, we weren’t sure. Both of us believed in all sincerity there was a good chance these actions were part of a false flag operation, an effort by outsiders to trigger a war between the United States and Iran. Even the film of Iranians hauling in an unexploded limpet mine from near the side of tanker, we reasoned, might be a fabrication—deep fake footage just like the clip of Nancy Pelosi staggering around drunk.
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Perhaps you felt that way too. But for the two of us, with 30 years of government service and almost 20 more as think tankers between us—this was shocking. Yes, we are card-carrying members of the Blob, the all-too-conventionally minded Washington foreign policy establishment, but we weren’t sure whether to believe our government or not.
This was more than a little disconcerting. Imagine waking up one morning and catching yourself thinking that alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was making good sense, that perhaps the Sandy Hook shooting was faked or that the 9/11 attacks were really an inside job? Imagine what it might be like to be in the grip of a conspiracy theory, when you’ve spent your whole professional life being one of those policy mandarins who could smell a conspiracy theory a mile away?
And we weren’t alone. In conversations with former colleagues—ambassadors, undersecretaries and the like—we found that plenty of others also bought the notion that the tanker attacks were a false flag op. To these eminences, it seemed plausible that the Saudis or others had staged the bombings. After all, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has practically been cheerleading for a conflict, and the idea that the Iranians would risk a U.S. attack seemed risible. It wasn’t obvious why Iran would court humiliation in a military showdown, or, for that matter, attack a Japanese tanker while the Japanese prime minister was visiting Tehran.
After conversations with other colleagues still in the government whom we trust and who attested that beyond a doubt, the Iranians were behind it, we came around to the official position. The narrative that Iran was, through the attacks, trying to prod other countries to pressure the U.S. to relax its sanctions makes sense—it is not far from the kind of stunts North Korea has pulled in the past.
But the whole unsettling episode opened our eyes to a deeply troubling reality: The current fake news epidemic isn’t just shaking up U.S. politics; it might end up causing a war, or just as consequentially, impeding a national response to a genuine threat.
Thus far, public discussion of deep fakes—and fake news more broadly—has focused on domestic politics and particularly elections. That was inevitable after the Russian interference on President Donald Trump’s behalf in 2016—the dimensions of which were laid out in the unprecedented joint assessment of the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation in February 2017 and the Mueller Report.
But fake news’ implications for foreign and security policy may be as far-reaching—and even more dangerous. Misinformation in geopolitics could lead not only to the continued weakening of our institutions but also to combat deaths. Sure, fake news has been a feature of international relations for a long time, but it’s different now: Advancing technology that can fabricate convincing images and videos combined with the chronic, exuberant dishonesty of the commander-in-chief and his minions has meant that no one can feel confident in assessing life or death choices in foreign policy crisis. For a democracy—one with global interests—this is a disaster.
The history of falsified or manufactured pretexts for war is a long one—and even implicates our heroes. Paul Revere, in his famous engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre, depicted an organized line of British soldiers firing point blank into a crowd of Bostonians, portraying the scene as more of a mass execution than the confused and inadvertent shooting it actually was. In the 1840s, the not-so heroic James K. Polk administration wanted to expand slave-holding territory and sought to expand the borders of the United States in the southwest at Mexico’s expense. Mobilizing an army for this purpose proved difficult, despite lavish incentives for recruits. Polk reckoned that he would have to whip up war fever by engineering a Mexican attack, so he had General Zachary Taylor—who would later ride his war record to the White House—deploy a force into territory claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, effectively daring the Mexicans to attack the Americans. The Mexicans took the bait, starting a war that ended up cost them their foothold in what is today the United States. Skeptical citizens did push back against such gambits. A first-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln introduced a series of resolutions demanding that Polk declare whether the “particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed” was American or not. His fervent efforts earned him the nickname “Spotty Lincoln,” which remained with him until he was elected president.
But the deception didn’t stop with Polk. In 1898, the William McKinley administration exploited the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor to justify war with Spain and America’s first imperial thrust. The Cubans had been seeking independence from Spain since 1895; the USS Maine had been sent to Cuba to underscore Washington’s interest in the conflict and safeguard American lives and property. After an explosion sent the ship to the bottom of the harbor along with 260 sailors, a Naval commission of inquiry determined that a Spanish mine was to blame; but two of the Navy’s own leading experts, who thought the fatal detonation was due to an accidental internal explosion, were not consulted. (Today, experts agree that the explosion was accidental and not to due a mine.) McKinley, to be fair, had been working to restrain Spanish repression in Cuba—Madrid had established reconcentrado camps where ordinary Cubans were penned up to prevent collaboration with Cuban rebels—and was making diplomatic progress. But given the commercial pressure to protect U.S. business interests in Cuba and war fever ignited by the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst, the Navy’s erroneous determination that the USS Maine was destroyed by a Spanish mine made war all but inevitable.
The modern history of the fraudulent casus belli begins in 1964, on the cusp of the Johnson administration’s initial escalation of the Vietnam War. During a tense period off the North Vietnamese coast, North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer quietly gathering intelligence in international waters. The North Vietnamese mistakenly believed the Maddox was there to support South Vietnamese commandos raiding nearby island installations. Two days later, in the midst of a storm, the crews of the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, thought they were under attack, mistaking the sound of their own propellers for incoming torpedoes and charging patrol boats amid the crashing waves and high winds.
After unleashing a barrage of hundreds of shells into empty seas, the commanders concluded that they might well not have been targeted. But the incident was manipulated by Washington officials to appear as though a battle had taken place, with signals intelligence falsified to support this conclusion. Congress gave LBJ what he wanted, which was broad authorization to use force. This in turn enabled the Johnson administration to build up the U.S. presence in South Vietnam and expand the scope of U.S. combat operations without having to return to Congress for authorization. Gloating about the resolution, Johnson said, “It’s like grandmother’s nightshirt. It covers everything.”
In 2003, it was George W. Bush’s turn, as his administration used flawed intelligence assessments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and imagined links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda to justify a war with Iraq that was essentially unrelated to the crisis surrounding the 9/11 attacks. In that case, the administration went so far as to set up a parallel intelligence operation within the Pentagon to put the right spin on the information the CIA had deemed unreliable and left on the cutting room floor.
Starting wars under false pretenses is bad business, but the corrosive belief that the government habitually lies to the public on issues of war and peace poses its own set of dangers. We also have some direct experience here. In August 1998, we were working on counterterrorism at the NSC when two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed by al Qaeda. The Bill Clinton administration acted on the basis of credible intelligence and targeted terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the al-Shifa chemical plant in Khartoum, where it was believed Osama bin Laden’s organization was developing chemical weapons.
The attacks were controversial, because of contradictory information about the targeted plant, public skepticism about the terrorist threat and because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton was accused of trying to distract from his troubles at home by attacking abroad. But in the aftermath of 9/11, the strikes look like a prudent action in the face of worrisome intelligence.
Then, in December of that year, Clinton again took a thrashing in the press for allegedly “wagging the dog” to distract voters from his political troubles one again by launching a four day intensive air campaign against Iraqi WMD sites.
Today the question of when and whether to trust the government is becoming exponentially more difficult. Sure, the U.S. has always exploited or contrived pretexts for war, and we are hardly alone in that regard. But right now we are dealing with emerging technology and a leader for whom truth is not a meaningful discursive category that taken together will profoundly complicate judgments relating to the commitment of military force.
The scope for manipulation is enormous. One can easily imagine the havoc caused by falsified video that depicts foreign Iranian officials collaborating with terrorists to target the U.S. Or by something as simple as invented news reports about Iranian or North Korean military plans for preemptive strikes on any number of targets. The universe of possible counterfeiters is large and growing: The Russians are not the sole purveyors of such corrosive material—the New Yorker, for example, has reported on an Israeli firm hired by California businessmen to deploy computer-generated lies about candidates for local office. The defense and intelligence establishments of numerous countries, as well as plenty of private entities, are likely able to do this kind of deception now.
Governments, if they so choose, could rely on one fabrication upon another to provide the pretext for war and the confirmation of the rectitude of their actions. Imagine living in virtual reality game, and you’re not far off. In the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, intercepted North Vietnamese communications were cut, pasted, combined and falsely dated to provide “evidence” of the nonexistent attacks on the Turner Joy. With techniques now available, experts could combine these forgeries with vivid images of ships carrying out attacks and voice recordings to mesh with the rigged intercept transcripts. Leaders of other countries could be falsely portrayed in tangible ways to be discussing plans to attack U.S. interests. Or opponents of a president’s belligerent policies could be similarly “caught” in treasonous discussions with adversaries.
Advances in lip-syncing and manipulating physiognomic contours to match speech patterns and content will make such videos extremely compelling, especially when viewed on the small, comparatively low resolution displays on most telephones or tablets. Computer generated images of large military formations could be woven into aerial photographs of open spaces on contested borders, raising the risk of wars that would benefit the party disseminating the graphics. The seamless construction of such images is already business as usual for Hollywood productions. Remember the January 2018 false alarm of an imminent ballistic missile strike against the Hawaiian islands? In the 38 minutes it took for authorities to disavow the alert and reassure the public, life on Oahu was thoroughly disrupted by the large scale movement of a panicked population. Suppose the civil defense network were hacked to reproduce this chaos by enhancing the automated alert message with a generated image of a senior government official warning of an attack? Even if such mischievous warnings could be falsified within a few days, their effect would nonetheless be immediate and difficult to reverse.
Complicating matters is the very real artificial intelligence arms race already underway pitting the fakers against detectors, each developing increasingly subtle and complex ways to thwart the other. As in other strategic settings, offense and defense will alternate as front runners. At the moment, computer scientists give the edge to the offense, but the competition between fakers and detectors is bound to be volatile. Counting on the dominance of defensive capabilities would therefore be deeply imprudent.
All of this would be challenging enough in the best of times. What makes the current situation so ominous is that the technology of confusion is being augmented by the human-generated falsehoods of Donald Trump. The relentless dishonesty of the commander-in-chief is bound to undercut belief in the “official version” coming out of Washington—as we found out with the tanker attacks—and it also has a disorienting effect. Even for people who are well grounded in reality and not susceptible to conspiracy thinking, it is increasingly difficult to find one’s way toward a reasonable understanding of current events.
In their new book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiricism and the Assault on Democracy, political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum speak of “the radical disorientation most people feel when confronted with a steady stream of ungrounded conspiracist claims.” Now, wielding the enormous capacity of artificial intelligence to propagate shocking but completely concocted images to mobilize public opinion and stigmatize adversaries, unprincipled actors like Trump can move beyond the verbal scene-setting of a contrived conflict. They can steer the nation into conflict if they think it will advance their political fortunes—and the press, and possibly our own intelligence agencies, would be challenged to find the fraud. With Trump’s base now believing him against all contradictory reporting, the public opinion impact would be assured.
Most have already recognized the danger to the constitutional order posed by the combination of technological advances and dirty politics. The strategic order is in serious danger as well. Trump’s deliberate, programmatic subversion of the public trust in national security institutions, especially the intelligence community, has undermined confidence in the accessibility of truth itself and has crucial implications for our security. The more our leaders in the White House and Congress dedicate themselves to dismantling this trust, the more we will be hostage to technologies that no one knows how to control.