By: Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith
Using false information to disorient and mislead an adversary is not a new tactic of contemporary warfare. In fact, false signaling is not even unique to the human species, for animals and insects predate us in using these techniques to feign weakness to predators and ensnare prey.
But what does set human beings apart in this regard, is the systematic production and distribution of false information to psychologically harm a target. Using broadcast media, cyberspace, printed media, and plain word of mouth, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
And as the threat and effect of psychological warfare becomes more pronounced in cyberspace, policymakers must address this burgeoning security threat. For if a foreign power can freely employ technical and political artifice to undermine core democratic institutions, then this is the way a democracy ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Thus, as a baseline to fortifying the psyche of the United States intelligence community, who in turn help inform and advise America’s political and military leadership, this article recommends a creative health-based approach.
Recommendation: Promote a Healthy Physical Culture across the Intelligence Community
At its core, psychological warfare is designed to impair the target’s cognition and critical reasoning capacity. Much like the hunting methods of a scorpion that first injects venom into its prey to paralyze it, and then consumes the body, psychological warfare also involves injecting false information into the mind of the target to paralyze its decision-making process, and then, if necessary, applying tactical force to overwhelm and destroy it.
So how can the mind be fortified against this threat?
One recommendation that could be readily implemented, is to establish a physical fitness program across the intelligence community that allows employees to take paid 1-hour exercise breaks during the work week. Why? Because it has been scientifically proven that exercise stimulates activity in the executive regions of the brain, and improves critical thinking, the best ‘natural defense’ might very well lie in promoting a healthy physical culture across the U.S. intelligence community. Furthermore, given that psych ops tactics work to establish a psychosis in the target to dilute their objective planning process and “shape the enemy’s initial situation estimate”, a new workplace fitness culture could help boost analysts’ performance to detect false intelligence and cunning foreign state propaganda.
According to a 2015 study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine, the majority of employees who exercised 30-60 minutes during the workday demonstrated an improvement in their overall cognition. Specifically, “employees said their time management skills, mental performance and ability to meet deadlines improved on the days they exercised. Workers in the study were less likely to suffer from post-lunch energy dips after exercising and also reported improvements in mood.” Other medical professionals, like Dr. Scott McGinnis of the Harvard Medical School, have also confirmed the nexus between physical exercise and enhanced cognition, stating that “exercise behaves like medicine to improve thinking skills.”
More recently in 2016, a team of scientists at the University of Arizona discovered that the mental demands of endurance running may enhance the way in which our brains process information, thereby improving executive cognitive function in areas like the fronto-parietal network. The types of cognitive function associated with the frontal lobe area include abstract reasoning, executive function, and attention and working memory.
To reap these cognitive health benefits, however, the exercise need not be intense aerobic activity. For example, in a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, scientists found that even moderate physical activity like tai chi, demonstrated the ability to “enhance cognitive function in older adults, especially in the realm of executive function, which regulates, controls, and manages other cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving, and verbal reasoning.” Thus, one method to building a stronger ‘cognitive immunity’ from psychological operations is to promote an exercise compensation program across the intelligence community.
Have other countries implemented civilian exercise programs to promote national security?
In March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law to revive the Soviet-era fitness program – “Ready for Labor and Defense” also known as “GTO.” The GTO was originally designed in the 1930s to promote physical health, defense readiness, and patriotism amongst the populace to fight for the Soviet Union. While President Putin has not publicly explained his rationale for re-implementing the GTO program, it is reasonable to conclude the decision was made in part to promote defense readiness and a healthy physical culture in schools and the workplace. Especially since the former Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko (now Deputy Prime Minister) recommended pairing an incentive program with GTO, such that “employers should offer additional paid vacation days to those who pass the GTO.”
As this article has explained, the promotion of a healthy physical culture has an impact on mindfulness. Overall, the benefits of promoting a healthy physical culture in the intelligence community can also have a positive cascading effect on those who rely on the informational expertise of this sector. To fortify the intelligence community against psych ops tactics, policymakers should consider implementing an inventive health-based approach.
This article was earlier published in Small Wars Journal on 25 December 2016.
Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith is an M.A. candidate in International Relations and Contemporary War at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. A former fellow of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, she received her B.A. from Wellesley College and J.D. from the University of California, Davis School of Law.
Image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/anatomy-biology-brain-thought-mind-1751201/
J. Zhanna Malekos Smith
Jessica ‘Zhanna’ Malekos Smith, the Reuben Everett Cyber Scholar at Duke University Law School, served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Before that, she was a post-doctoral fellow at the Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Davis; a B.A. from Wellesley College, where she was a Fellow of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs; and is finishing her M.A. with the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.