Last year, nine four-star generals sent a memo to top officials of the U.S. intelligence community, requesting they declassify information pertaining to the “pernicious conduct” of Russia and China. The memo, which is nicknamed ’36-star memo’ for the total number of stars of the signatories, was organized by the outgoing head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson and signed by eight additional regional military commanders.
The memo, which has not been made public but was reviewed by Politico, argued that such action could help America combat adversaries and garner support from allies in the 21st century. However, such efforts are currently being blocked due to strict rules on secrecy.
The memo points out that America continues to miss opportunities to “clarify truth,” thus failing to counter distortions and puncture false narratives. This contributes to a failure to influence events in a timely manner and allows adversaries to gain an upper hand in controlling the narrative in the battle of public opinion. It is unclear why the memo has emerged now.
As reported by Politico,“The Russians and the Chinese, in particular, have weaponized information…This is a significant concern that is being raised by military commanders and intelligence professionals…The combatant commands are out at the edge,” said Kari Bingen, who was a recipient of the memo when she was undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security. “Their forces are interacting with our allies and partners, and seeing what our adversaries are doing, on a daily basis. They need timely and relevant information to expose bad activity and to counter what they’re seeing.”
Defense officials have indicated that there is frustration among military commanders regarding the quality and timeliness of the intelligence they are receiving and also the high level of classification that prevents the sharing of pertinent information with allies, including satellite imagery.
The memo has triggered a response at the highest levels of American intelligence. In December last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) asked intelligence agencies to “review their existing procedures and extend support to the Combatant Commands at the speed and scale they desire,” said Matt Lahr, deputy assistant DNI for Strategic Communications in a statement to Politico.
Lahr added that David Taylor, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security and Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence “are reviewing the agencies’ progress and emphasize that countering malign influence remains a top priority.”
The ODNI recently published its annual worldwide threat assessment review, warning that America is facing increasing threats from countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Terming China as a “near-peer competitor,” the report warned that the communist nation will challenge the United States in multiple areas and push for changing global norms in its favor.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system. Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests,” the report states.
The report also highlighted cyber threats posed by Russia and China, calling them an “acute” danger to American national security. The four adversaries mentioned in the report are said to be providing a safe haven for foreign cybercriminals that target the U.S. It referred to the SolarWinds hack as a demonstration of Russia’s intent to attack and disrupt American private and public entities. China is described as having the capability to create “localized, temporary disruptions” to America’s critical infrastructure.
Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, warned at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the Chinese military’s nuclear prowess is increasing at a rapid rate and urged Congress to quickly upgrade nuclear infrastructure in the U.S. The admiral pointed out that Beijing has moved a portion of its nuclear forces from peace-time status to “launch-on-warning” and “high-alert” and mentioned that he can’t “get through a week right now, without finding out something we didn’t know about China.” With regard to Russia, almost 80 percent of its nuclear capabilities have apparently been modernized. He lamented that America is at zero percent regarding modernization of its nuclear capabilities.
At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral Richard detailed China’s expanding nuclear arsenal that includes a large number of intercontinental ballistic missiles which are highly mobile and travel around the country, making them very difficult to track. In addition, China’s solid-fueled missiles can be set up and fired more quickly than the older liquid-fueled missiles. Richard said America does not have the kind of truck-mounted missiles that China and Russia are fielding.
China is close to completing its nuclear triad and has deployed six second-generation ballistic missile submarines that ensure continuous deterrence in the seas while also providing additional strike capabilities against the United States. “You add all of this together, and [the Chinese] can do any plausible nuclear employment strategy regionally,” Richard said in a statement. “This will backstop their conventional capability and will potentially constrain our options. We’ll be the ones that are getting deterred if I don’t have the capability to similarly deter them.”