It’s been years since Newsweek has been a regular news source for large numbers of readers but it still occasionally produces good investigative reporting. In a long feature story titled “Inside the Military’sSecret Undercover Army” published in the magazine last month, William Arkin, author of a number of books on U.S. national security, revealed that the Pentagon and, even more alarmingly, private contractors working with it, have deployed thousands covert operatives at home and abroad. These covert programs are believed to have 60,000 operators, twice as many as the CIA.
As a quick aside, while it’s important in most cases to have sources on the record as unnamed officials all too often have their own agendas (something that we might argue has led to hundreds of thousands of dead in the Middle East to name just one easy to research example), considering his prior work and skeptical approach towards what’s revealed in his story, it’s understandable that those Arkin spoke to and quoted were kept anonymous with little background given that might lead to their identification.
To begin to understand the operations the reporter describes, it’s important to define a term that he says is classified: ‘signature reduction’. This seems to entail the ability of people working with covert identities to avoid detection or leaving a ‘signature’ that might reveal their true allegiances, including the very modern risks of exposure created by one’s prior online life.
One interesting aspect of signature reduction is the need to avoid or subvert contemporary methods of identification like biometric and facial recognition technology. As the author notes, this is much more difficult than in the past when a simple fake picture ID was often all an operative needed to go about their work.
An example that Arkin provides of this is the use of silicon gloves made with oils from actual human skin that can be used to provide an operator with unique fingerprints.
Outside of Arkin’s story, the only stab at a definition for the term that I found was a quote in Seapower Magazine from Maj. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the commander of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, who said, “Being able to stay in the shadows and having freedom of movement for our people on the ground or platforms in the air … or using cyber tools to move around freely, to be able to have full-spectrum signature management, that’s an area that everybody is shooting around the target but haven’t developed where you have some kind of assurance that you are going to be able to do that.”
Both convoluted and broad, to say the least, and not limited to just human assets.
Another way that Arkin explains the term is by comparing the methods used in creating covers to the way that new identities are given to people in witness protection programs, the main difference being that the latter are never expected to return to their old lives.
In terms of signature protection, a person serving in another country under another identity usually maintains their previous self through the work of others. In order to show how this is done, Arkin uses a source who he calls Jonathan Darby (not his real name), a former Army counterintelligence officer who did a couple tours in Africa and now works for a private contractor in Maryland focused on signature reduction efforts.
As Arkin describes it, Darby’s job is fairly mundane, travelling in a government owned car registered under a third identity to, “40 or so post offices and storefront mailbox stores in the DC Metropolitan area” where he both picks up and mails letters and packages from around the world. As the reporter goes on to explain, the most important part of Darby’s work, “is logging and forwarding the signature reduction “mechanisms” as they are called, passports and State driver’s licenses for people who don’t exist, and other papers—bills, tax documents, organization membership cards—that form the foundation of fake identities.”
While their work is by no means near as dangerous as those in the field, including in places like North Korea, probably the fastest growing segment of secret warriors featured in the report are some 20,000 people who work anonymously behind screens, where they collect publicly available ‘intelligence’ or work to influence others in the United States and beyond through social media while still being able to maintain their own identities outside of work.
One interesting thing about this is that much of this kind of work is already being done by the NSA, another vast bureaucracy with its own army of contractors, one of whom, former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden, earned fame and soon after, exile, as a whistleblower.
As most of us learned during the 2016 election, these kinds of operations are not unique to the United States or its allies. The one country most often brought up in terms of this kind of work is the Russian Federation and its famous ‘troll farms’ like the one run by the Internet Research Agency but other powers like China and Turkey are surely sowing misinformation and disinformation online in similar ways.
A couple of major limitations for these web based influence operations are language and cultural barriers, as many posts said to be from Russians are filled with spelling and grammatical errors and sometimes display a cultural cluelessness that can be quite funny. In this sense, despite the arguments made by conservatives, America’s multicultural diversity is a strength, with Arkin reporting that linguists are another important component of these secret armies both online and in the real world.
“We’re winning this war, including on the cyber side, even if secrecy about what we are doing makes the media portrayal of the Russians again look like they are ten feet tall,” Darby told the reporter.
It should also be clear that it’s fairly rich for the U.S. government to be scandalized by other nations trying to meddle in elections, something the country has done for decades.
Further, the use of terms like private military security contractors, further abbreviated to PMSCs, puts a benevolent spin on what these contractors, whether behind a desk or on a battlefield, are: mercenaries.
The potential problems that may result from the ever expanding role played by privatized soldiers and spies has been a subject the left has had to return to again and again this century, whether in wars like those in Syria and Iraq or in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where not only American but also Israeli mercenaries were used to protect the property of wealthy people. They’ve even been deployed to sites of protest like Standing Rock, where it was hard to tell the difference between Tigerswan mercenaries, some of them working undercover, and law enforcement.
As we might expect, the use of PMSCs has not been limited to the United States. In Yemen, the UAE put together an army of mainly Colombians, who they felt would have an easier time killing Muslims than members of their own military. In Syria, Russian efforts on behalf of that country’s government were bolstered by a homegrown PMSC, the Wagner Group.
This fits a pattern we’ve seen time and again. To use another example, the use of armed drones was sold as a way for the United States and its allies to avoid casualties on 21st century battlefields. It soon became clear that they would be used in places where war had not been declared, a further violation of long established international law, which also prohibits the use of for profit armies.
Many opinion writers not only claimed the use of armed drones would somehow make war more ‘humane’ but that this technology would remain the exclusive province of America and its allies. The absurdity of this was revealed in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan where the latter won significant victories through the use of armed drones supplied by Turkey.
While many American policy makers believe that their country is ‘exceptional’ and thus shouldn’t have to follow long established laws, including the supreme crime of engaging in wars of aggression, other governments see the precedents they set and act accordingly.