Return to

Jan. 9, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Trump and information warfare
Few question that President Trump has emerged as a master of the use of social media to communicate to mass audiences and circumvent traditional media outlets, most of which spend a disproportionate amount of ink and electrons criticizing him. Every tweet by the president triggers news reports and reaction, sometimes at the highest levels of foreign governments.

Mr. Trump, however, set off a firestorm of controversy with a tweet threatening to attack cultural sites in Iran.

In a post on Saturday, the president noted that in the aftermath of the bold drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani that Iranian officials were talking about targeting American assets in revenge.

He stated: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

Critics pounced on the tweet suggesting even before cruise missiles were fired that what the president was advocating was a war crime. Iran has plenty of noncultural targets for military planners, including 14 large refineries pumping an estimated 2.8 million barrels of oil daily.

Top articles

Military analysts see the tweet by Mr. Trump as a clear example of a new type of warfare rarely used in decades by political or military leaders: information warfare. By declaring that cultural sites have been targeted by U.S. military planners, the president put the Iranians on the defensive.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted in response Sunday that “through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries.”

“Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall,” he stated.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said he was sorry that the president of the world’s sole superpower does not know that attacking cultural sites is a war crime. Iranian Information and Communications Technology Minister Javad Azari Jahromi said the threat was similar to those by the Islamic State, Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked about the president’s targeting of cultural sites, assured reporters that all targets in any conflict with Iran would be bombed lawfully.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a former Air Force deputy judge advocate general and Duke University law professor, said cultural sites may be targeted if a military objective is behind it.

“Actually, although international law does provide special protection to certain cultural sites, attacking them (or threatening to do so) is not always a war crime,” Mr. Dunlap stated in a blog post on Lawfire (

Mr. Dunlap said the military cannot lawfully target anything that does not qualify as a military objective and declared cultural sites off limits.

“Any defensive response must also be limited to scope of the threat,” he said. “Whether or not striking ‘52’ targets would lawfully be within the ambit of self-defense depends upon the specific facts.

“That said, it is simply inaccurate to suggest that an attack on cultural property is inevitably a war crime because there are, in fact, circumstances that could render such property a lawfully-targetable military objective.”

Military analysts note that among the various ways of using force, one method is known as “expressively” — the use of force without a specific objective meant for domestic purposes or simply to cause pain to the enemy.

“Trump has shown himself to be a master of information warfare,” said Rich Higgins, a former White House National Security Council strategic communications specialist.

Targeting cultural sites contributes to Iranian military fears because it signals to the rulers that the United States is not above targeting things considered sacred by the theocratic regime. Additionally, the declaration further diminishes support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which seeks to control Persian culture for Islamist ends.

Mr. Higgins also notes that the warning will signal to the Iranians that attempting to place weapons and forces inside mosques or other religious sites will not prevent them from being struck.

China’s government has been engaged in the practice of foreign hostage-taking in retaliation for legal action against Chinese officials.

After Canadian officials arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top executive of China’s Huawei Technologies, at the request of U.S. law enforcement officials, China retaliated by detaining nearly a dozen Canadians.

Two prominent detainees are former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and business executive Michael Spavor, who have spent a year in jail as the United States seeks Ms. Meng’s extradition to face criminal charges.

The Canadians detained in 2018 were not the first hostages. In 2014, a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, were imprisoned after authorities arrested a Chinese hacker named Su Bin, who would eventually be convicted of stealing valuable military technology from Boeing. Mr. Garratt was held by the Chinese for over a year.

Americans until recently have been largely immune from the retaliatory detentions despite a major U.S. crackdown on Chinese spying that has included the first-ever arrest and prosecution of a Ministry of State Security intelligence official, Xu Yanjun.

In September, a Chinese official was arrested in New Jersey on charges of visa fraud as part of a scheme to obtain sensitive U.S. technology from universities.

In apparent retaliation, as reported in this space Oct. 16, Chinese authorities that month arrested two Americans, Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen, on questionable charges of illegally moving people across borders. The Americans are English language teachers and are being held at a detention facility in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai.

The link to Jiangsu is what has let American officials know that the detentions are retaliation.

Asked about Chinese retaliation in the form of hostage-taking, a senior Justice Department official said the United States will not be coerced by such actions.

“It’s really important that we not be held hostage, that our laws and our companies not be held hostage out of fear,” the official said.

Chinese officials have been warned that if they attempt to retaliate against American officials or intelligence personnel, they will be making a mistake.

Concerns about retaliatory targeting of American intelligence officials were raised after five People’s Liberation Army hackers were indicted in 2014.

“So the signal we have been sending [to China] pretty strongly since the 2014 case is, if you retaliate against an American company or an American person for cooperating with the American system, that is a whole other order of magnitude of illegitimate behavior,” the senior official said. “If you were to go to a company that’s working with us on the Chinese and try to coerce them not to work with the Justice Department, that is an additional egregious offense.”

The senior official said that so far no U.S. intelligence officials or American business people have been detained — other than the two teachers.

The State Department recently warned all travelers to China about the threat. In a Dec. 31 notice, the department said Americans may be detained without access to U.S. consular service or information about their alleged crimes. “U.S. citizens may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention for reasons related to ‘state security,’” the warning states.

The danger is especially acute for Asian-Americans of Chinese descent who face “additional scrutiny and harassment.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned this week that computer security administrators and others should be on alert for Iranian cyberattacks amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The agency noted in an alert of “Iran’s historic use of cyber offensive activities to retaliate against perceived harm.”

Iran is known for conducting damaging cyberattacks such as the one against the state-run Saudi Aramco oil company that damaged computer networks throughout the company.

A new worry among security officials and analysts is that Iran could conduct a new type of cyberattack: “spoofing” GPS systems by using a radio transmitter near the target to interfere with legitimate global positioning signals.

Defense and military sources say the government wants to hear any reports of jamming or spoofing of GPS or other electronic positioning, navigation and timing equipment. Iran could attempt to use jamming or spoofing to cause accidents by ships or aircraft.

Any GPS or PNT disruptions should be reported to U.S. military or civilian government agencies as soon as possible.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to