Information Power in Action: Salisbury, deterrence & the importance of attribution


Keith Slack is currently studying at the Defence Academy and with King’s College London. He is completing a Masters in Research on “information power” and has extensive experience in the projection of information power in current and past operations.

Possessing robust capabilities and communicating the will to use them are essential elements of deterrence. Unambiguous attribution is also crucial. If an aggressor knows they can get away with something, deterrence is very difficult no matter how potent one’s capability to respond might be. In the example of a nuclear attack, timely indicators and warnings to achieve attribution and initiate a response are essential to deter. But what of the information environment, where attribution can be extremely difficult indeed? Developing an ability to demonstrate capability and to communicate intent in the information environment could present key advantages in the new grey zone of warfare.  This article will use the employment of Novichok in Salisbury as a case study from which to discuss the thesis that attribution is essential to deterrence and it relies on “information power”.

On Sunday 4th March 2018 an event unfolded on the streets of a quintessentially English city in Wiltshire that could form the plot of a spy novel. Salisbury, with its cathedral, the world’s oldest working clock, a copy of the Magna Carta, and home of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, would arguably be a fitting location for such drama. But this was not a drama, or a novel. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found incapacitated on a bench and subsequently hospitalised along with Nick Bailey, a responding police officer. Later, on 30thJune, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were taken ill and Dawn tragically died in early July. They had all been exposed to a military-grade nerve agent of a “type developed by Russia”.  This localised event in Salisbury and nearby Amesbury rapidly escalated into a diplomatic crisis as battle was fought in the virtual and cognitive dimensions – primarily through the information lever of power.

A speech by Prime Minister Theresa May on 12th March implicated Russia directly in the attacks. On 14th March the PM criticised the lack of response from Russia and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. A day later, Germany, France and the United States issued a joint statement in which they declared the event “an assault on UK sovereignty” and that they “share the UK assessment”. During a speech to Parliament on 26th March, it was announced that 18 countries also attributed Russia and were planning to expel more than 100 Russian diplomats, the largest expulsion in history. To add weight to the UK’s narrative, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its report on 12th April confirming the UK’s assessment that the chemical used was a military grade nerve agent – a Novichok.

Writing in the Telegraph newspaper on 20thMarch, the Foreign Secretary outlined a series of conflicting Russian narratives.  The Russian Ambassador to the Hague, Alexander Shulgin, told Sky New she had never heard of Novichok, only to inform viewers of Russia Today that research to produce such poisonous substances was conducted in the Soviet Union.  On the same day, Maria Zakharova, spokeswomen for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Novichok was not a programme created by Russia or the Soviet Union, before accusing Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the US and the UK of conducting the attack.  Furthermore, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab claimed that pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts were trying to influence responses to a UK-based online poll.  An official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) stated that there had been approximately 28 different Russian narratives.

To achieve attribution the UK government employed the information lever of power, alongside diplomatic activity, economic sanctions and military deployments in support of NATO. However, it was information that offered new opportunities, but only if packaged and communicated correctly. Alex Aiken, Executive Director of the Government Communication Service, remarked:

“It took 13 days to pull together the authoritative, government response to the Salisbury poisonings, which involved the communication staff and all other elements of the national security establishment working together to declassify the intelligence where appropriate, and put together the case that would be understood”.

But what did the UK’s response achieve in the long term? Will Russia think twice about conducting similar attacks? Did Russia feel embarrassed? Did they feel they had been punished? Or, conspiratorially, did Russia want to be attributed to deter other dissident Russians living abroad? In short, will Russia be deterred from conducting such activity in the future?

People I have interviewed as part of my research agreed that the UK’s response had been effective and that information, intelligence and strategic communications provided attribution and contributed to deterrence. Specifically regarding the deterrence value of the Salisbury response, Vice Admiral Tim Fraser, Chief of Joint Operations, stated: “if they know they are going to be exposed, they have got to try harder to cover up what they are doing or it will deter them from doing it”. An official from the FCO added: “what we can do is consistently raise the price for these actions through embarrassment but also providing information to our allies”. A senior MOD official also agreed, “the fact those responsible read what they inevitably knew to be true in the open press pretty quickly after the event exposed quite significant intelligence capabilities. That, in itself, is something of a deterrence”. Lord Peter Ricketts, former National Security Adviser, also added: “transparency is a very powerful tool. Although they won’t admit it, I suspect the senior Russian leaders are pretty annoyed that the GRU put themselves in that positon to be mocked, humiliated and laughed at with their stupid stories of going to Salisbury”. Regarding whether the UK’s response to Salisbury contributed to a deterrence effect, Alex Aiken argued that:

“We know it did and there are various ways to evidence that assertion. The public polling evidences the fact that the British public became more attuned to the threat from Russia, were more supportive of the British government’s position. The government’s credibility on national security issues is higher than many other areas. We have seen a reduction in efforts from RT, Sputnik, bots and trolls, to influence the debate”.

Lord Ricketts also drew parallels to President Macron’s response to claims of Russian interference in the French elections:

“Macron called it out, straight away, mocked it, laughed at it and when Putin came to Paris he berated him standing next to him. That was quite good, quite effective, because Putin doesn’t like to be made a fool of in public and Macron did it quite well. I think it is a very powerful lever and we should use it. The way it was done with Skripal was very effective”.

Proving a negative is of course very difficult. If there are no more grey zone or hybrid attacks for a year, has an actor been deterred? What about five years, or ten years? Or maybe exposing activities merely increases an adversary’s operational security to make attribution even more difficult. It is a very hard causality to prove. Regardless of these difficulties, the employment of downgraded intelligence will most likely continue to provide the UK Government with options to attribute. Post Salisbury, the National Security Communications Team (NSCT) regards harnessing “the incredible power of declassified intelligence” as a core role and that they, as a team, must “provide a stronger bridging function”. They also stated that the use of intelligence is “much more part of the discourse and discussion” and that “intelligence is there to be used”. There is a balance and its release is down to judgement, but “it is definitely on the suite of options”.

Looking at it from the intelligence agencies perspective, the NSCT also stated that “the intelligence chiefs see this as part of their job. Things have changed”. Therefore, effective intelligence architecture at home and abroad is crucial; however, there remain challenges and concerns. Domestically, there is a dichotomy in achieving the required level of information advantage and attribution necessary whilst protecting rights and liberties in a free society. CCTV provided crucial intelligence for the UK government during and after the attacks in Salisbury but too much monitoring could detract from core values. What price is society willing to pay in the name of national security?

More importantly, could the UK replicate its response to Salisbury? Thirteen days is a long time to build a case and officials seconded to the effort have since returned to their day jobs. But the communications architecture is considerably more aligned and coherent, Fusion Doctrine provides an overarching strategic framework and the national security architecture has more defined structures and processes. Emily Knowles, from the Oxford Research Group, agreed that “we got our act together on Salisbury, we are clearly capable” but she questioned why this cannot be the norm.

To do so, the information lever of power must be seen as a weapon that can be deployed to identify, expose, embarrass and humiliate actors who conduct Salisbury-esque, below threshold, grey zone or hybrid actions. Intelligence agencies collect information and conduct analysis but they also provide levers for power projection to attain a relative information advantage, achieve attribution and turn the ‘grey zone’ into a ‘black and white zone’. But it needs to be loaded and the trigger ready to pull. This takes investment in people, technology, processes and structures, as well as mechanisms to release intelligence without undermining security and source protection.

The lesson from Salisbury is that information power is a potent weapon in the government’s arsenal that can be deployed to great effect. However, we should constantly ask ourselves whether we focus on developing and harnessing this capability as much as we do our aircraft, submarines, warships and tanks. Similarly, outside Defence, are government communicators ever considered primus inter pares when compared to diplomats, ambassadors or treasury officials? Doing so might just achieve the required level of attribution and deter another Salisbury, maybe.

Image: via vimeo.

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