I started writing this book in the fall of 2018, 12 years behind schedule. But with 12 more years of breaking news, I was beginning to connect the dots that neither I nor others were able to connect before. The eventual connection was made for us in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The investigation of Russian interference, cyber warfare, and political dirtytricks revealed the players, and the failure of American will, imagination and patriotism to anticipate the new type of war and take preventive measures. My goal has been to publish this book by the spring of 2019, in time to join the alarm bells to prevent the 2020 presidential election from being a repeat of the information terrorism war that unfolded in 2016.
I wanted this book to be as contemporaneous as possible, but I had to stop reading and analyzing every new revelation. There was no way to keep up with the 24/7 flow of news and get this book finished. And while there is new information every day, it has not changed the history of how we got into the situation, the present conflicts or the remedies.
In 2004, I was developing a methodology using internet-based data for improved macro-level analytics and leading indicators of social, political and economic and issues. In evaluating the content and context of net- sourced information, news, official reports, publications, blogs, etc., it was clear that any person could invent information and make it look authentic and from a credible source. There was too much data, emerging too fast, from too many sources and no fact-checking mechanisms in place. The traditions of institutional editorial ethics did not exist on the web. Not that intentional mischief was a universal goal, but the opportunity to do harm was available for those so inclined.
Propaganda and misinformation, now memorialized as “fake news,” are certainly nothing new. But the internet brought fake news to a higher level of sophistication and potential impact, with the ability to reach more people more quickly, and use the public responses as an effective feedback tool to further calibrate the messaging.
But I set the book idea aside to focus on my business, as I was not that interested in writing what I thought at the time was fiction.
The New Box of Dots
I was continuously conducting research to find internet sources of information for my big data, predictive text analytics methodology to forecast trends. Sometime in 2014, I found an obscure source of information that seemed relevant to my original idea that U.S. adversaries would infiltrate our media and communications to influence public opinion to manipulate political outcomes that would favor their interests. I found a paper from a small, international, academic group that was trying to use historical information to develop indicators that would have more accurately predicted the current global conflicts. The research group had acquired a variety of historical data in Russian, Chinese, German, French and English. One item caught my attention because the summary resonated with my original concept of how digital media could be misused for sophisticated propaganda. The summary listed a file of notes in Chinese, apparently from governmental sources, that laid out long-term plans to compete with the West and the United States. But once again, I put the information aside because of other priorities. I politely asked the research group for a copy of the Chinese files, and since they had no immediate use for it, I had the start of what has become this book.
Then 2016 happened. Then in 2018, special counsel investigations revealed that the Russians had indeed infiltrated our entire media systems and numerous organizations to meddle in the election. My wife, Andrea, and I were on vacation, in Bar Harbor, Maine, on beautiful August day, talking about all the new political and cyber revelations. Then Andrea said,“You better write that book, right now.” And so, I started.
I went back and looked at the documents I acquired from the research group in the context of what we now know happened. The group dismissed the Chinese information because it must have seemed mundane: for example, plans to grow the Chinese economy by becoming an outsourcing destination for Western countries to lower their production costs and improve company profitability. It seemed the analysts dismissed the Chinese information as being old news about obvious goals that had already been achieved. My deeper dive into the documents revealed that there was a much longer Chinese strategy about their future dynasties, and how they would be achieved through the use of subtle influences, rather than overt and warlike confrontations, to influence U.S. policies and psychology.
I was not sure what I had, and a bit skeptical, but I sensed something important in the data, so I became cautious about who to tell about what I had. Next, I had to get enough of the information translated so I could figure out the value, if any. I divided the documents into smaller sets and had each group translated by a different source so that no one group had access to the entire library. I had a few duplicate translations of segments from different sources, to make sure that the translations were reliable. I discovered that I had a chronological set of notes and fragments from meetings, agendas, personal comments, policy decrees and strategic statements that spanned almost 50 years, beginning shortly after the death of Mao Zedong. Most fragments were handwritten or typed, and to my untrained eye, the first 20-plus years of materials seemed to have been composed by just a few people.
As I read the documents, I found the threads of Chinese concepts and plans that aligned with my hypothesis, and which has now been validated by fact. Not every one of fictional ideas was in the documents, but the underlying foundations were clear. China had a long-term vision to create a new dynasty for the inevitable modern realignment of nations, and the U.S. was both the model and the target. Now I could start to work.
We (I eventually formed a small research group to investigate the documents and the known events) had thousands of fragments, but the majority were nonessential to the hypothesis. We relied on the texts about strategy, tactics, results of actions, and set aside the simple reports about schedules, travel and gossip. Fortunately, the most important content was a relatively small portion of the materials available, and there were months between relevant content.
Most of the materials had dates, and I was able to assemble them into chronological order. Where dates were missing, we placed the material based on physical location in a pile with chronological context.
Because of the nature of fragments, minimal commentary and cryptic notes, we decided to rewrite the translations in familiar English, filling in logical blanks. We are telling the story of the Chinese plan as we interpreted it, to communicate with clarity and consistency the essence of the materials.
In writing a book like this, we were concerned about the format. It’s not first person or third person; it’s not a litany of historical facts. The style is closest to a tale; from the information we’ve collected, we are telling you, the reader, the citizens and institutions of the world, a simplified story of what we’ve learned, how we’ve interpreted it and suggestions for the future. We believe the Chinese plans and related Russian actions, fit our diagnoses of current conditions and our hypotheses. We do have suggestions for how to set up protocols to monitor the 24/7 news over which we have little control. We have ideas about how to set new levels of validation, confirmation and vetting, and filters to help establish the accuracy and legitimacy of the information we receive every hour of every day.
Next, how could we analyze all the information? I started by trying to trace the Chinese events chronologically and matching them to known events, but that required more of a historian, and I’m an analyst. But we knew many of the apparent results, so what were the activities and events that led to the situations that we know? I decided the most practical approach was to reverse engineer how the U.S. and the West got into the current mess as of 2016, which is continuing in 2019.
Our Research Plan
Reverse engineer from observed events.
- We know the current economic, political, social, technological and global relationship conflicts.
- What U.S. and global events, policies, etc., have occurred that are linked to current crises?
- Who are the past and current adversaries of the United States and Western societies?
- What are the known intentions of these adversaries about the critical issues affecting the U.S.?
- What did our adversaries do? How did they do it? What have been the outcomes?
Our research process was similar to the murder mysteries on TV, movies and books. The story opens with the discovery of a crime. The detectives investigate the scene, look for clues, backtrack every possible step that led up to the crime, look for motives and possible suspects.
The margin of error diagnosis is similar to the criminal investigation, but we are starting with far more information than a typical crime story. We know:
✓ The crime: the outcome of the 2016 presidential election
✓ The likely perpetrators: the adversaries of the United States, primarily Russia, China and to a lesser extent, Iran and North Korea
✓ The likely motives: the intentions of our adversaries about economic, political and global influence, and specifically the 2016 presidential election
✓ The obvious weapons used in the crime: mass media, social media, hacking of digital files
✓ All the basics of the crime have been confirmed by the first investigation team: we have confirmation from U.S. intelligence agencies about the scope and actions of external “meddling” in the U.S. elections, which continues.
But we don’t know exactly how the crime was executed, because it went undetected for so long and yet was successful in the outcome.
So, our mystery is not a whodunit, or why they did it, or what weapons were used. Our mystery is how those weapons were brought into our space undetected and used so effectively?
The second important issue from the familiar crime story is: Is the perpetrator still on the move? Are we still at risk for another similar crime? The answer is yes.
The Raw Materials for the Margin of Error Hypothesis
We had a 50-year history of Chinese documents and a few related to Russia and other countries. As with all discovered historical records, there is no proof that they are accurate and truthful, they could be somebody else’s imaginative portrayal of something that did not happen. But the known actions and outcomes belie any fiction in the records. We have pieced together the available records to create a continuous narrative that is supported by the records.
You have to judge what you believe about our diagnosis and proposals, but you can’t disagree with the current state of global conflicts. The conflicts are real; the identities of terrorists on all sides are not in question. Most of the tools, tactics and actions are documented. This book is about how it happened, and in retrospect, how easily it happened, and what we 12
can do while we still have time to regain parity with our adversaries and for the United States to regain success in being the global leader.
Yes, the truth can be more alarming than fiction.
What I found was startling — East meets West, but in a different context. As we worked backward from known outcomes, we saw the connected and unconnected dots of the Chinese program of learning how to compete with the United States, exploit its weaknesses and achieve what they called their next dynasty, the Cicada Dynasty. The Chinese documents were not about China alone, but also were how to work with other anti-U.S., anti- West countries including Russia, North Korea, Middle Eastern, Latin American, South American, and African countries. China would exploit any country, or party within a country, that had a grievance against the U.S., and they found no shortage of allies and proxies for their anti- Western plans.
This book is about how the internet enables what I call information terrorism, which is becoming the dominant form of warfare today and into the future. Then the 2016 U.S. presidential election pulled aside the curtain for all to see. The Chinese long-term plan was preempted by the opportunistic Russian actions for 2016. We don’t know for sure, but fromwhat we’ve read, it seems that the 2016 election exceeded beyond Russia’s expectations; not just the successful outcome, but that their efforts escaped any serious detection or counter by the U.S.
One important note that hopefully will not be taken as unpatriotic: China and Russia succeeded because the United States opened the door and laid down the guest mat. The U.S. has created its addiction to short-term, selfish and superficial measures of success and prosperity while giving away or ignoring the fundamentals for long-term security. The Chinese (for most of the analysis in this book, the inclusion of the Russians is to be assumed) only exploited what we gifted them. Most experts agree that the United States has been aggressive and effective in a wide range of espionage and information terrorism activities. So, in terms of morality, maybe it’s a draw. In terms of success, the Chinese are ahead. The U.S. has been losing without even being aware that it was fighting the war.
The state of war did not happen overnight; it developed over the decades. Now we can see more clearly how the dots could have been connected with a bit more imagination and a lot less of the raging divisiveness in our politics, economics, and social and cultural ideologies. So, pick your sports analogy, the game is not yet over.
Commentary: Is it time for First Amendment Version 2?
We are believers in free expression in the United States and every society. But like many of the rules and laws in the United States, they were created at times that had zero anticipation of how the information world would explode into unknown capabilities and quantities. The rules of public communications have to be modernized to preserve free and useful, expression. When unfiltered information under the guise of the First Amendment results in illegitimate, criminal, harmful acts and outcomes, that freedom of expression is not what was intended. The original intent was that a minority of unacceptable free expression would always be countered, outweighed and corrected by the broader, lawful intentions of society. Society would be able to identify, judge and contain free, but harmful expression. That situation no longer exists.
The original societal consensus of free expression is gone, unmanageable and out of control. Every aspect of society now reacts instantly, incompletely and often irrationally to the overwhelming unfettered information. We have to recognize that there is a minority producing dangerous information, and with the leverage of technology, dishonest communications can no longer be contained by existing information policies. Information management is not the only topic that needs updated policies for a more complex and interconnected world, but it might be the most critical. Information drives every decision regarding economies, politics, the environment, business practices, and social and cultural beliefs. In the foodie world, there is a movement called Slow Food, the idea being to take the time to appreciate and savor wonderful food and the traditions that produce them. There is no luxury of trying to live slow in the hyper-information world.
Food is usually a matter of choice, but the information is dumped on us. We need more and better education about the nature of information creation, distribution and use before we are overtaken by those who wish information to be used for narrow interests rather than the greater good.
We are engaged in what we are calling the “margin of error war.” I had the original concept for the book, but the title became evident later in our analysis. The traditional types of conflict, propaganda and war have few surprises. The real surprise was how our adversaries learned how to manipulate American communications in the smallest of increments that would eventually roll up into significant changes in outcomes. Our adversaries were both clever and lucky in being able to use digital communications to alter the raw ingredients of our information and decision-making capabilities, in a way that might be disappointing to some people accepted as possible results, within the margin of error.
This might be our last wake-up call. Is it too late, or have we been given one more chance?
As Daniel Defoe said, “It’s never too late to the wise.” But it will be too late if we do not change our individual and institutional priorities, values and practices.