Loose Lips Sink Democracies?
Russia has started using the West’s own reporting against it. Here’s how to respond.
It looked like an unimaginable goof by the Swedish Navy: This October, a leading Swedish newspaper reported that a sonar signal the Navy had chased during a 2014 hunt for an enemy submarine was, in fact, the signal from a buoy belonging to the country’s meteorological agency. Readers not familiar with the details of the famous hunt could only conclude that the Navy had made an embarrassing mistake and then stayed mum about it for five years.
Such readers—that is, most Swedes and indeed non-Swedes—might be unaware that the buoy was only one of 300 pieces of evidence pursued by the Navy during the hunt, and that the Swedish armed forces had discounted it in their official investigation into the submarine episode in 2015. In that report, the Army had looked into 150 of the 300 pieces of evidence, classifying 21 as “particularly interesting.” After closely examining the 21 pieces of evidence, and then discounting one more, the armed forces concluded that it was “beyond all reasonable doubt” that a submarine had, indeed, transgressed into Swedish waters. Although the military didn’t identify the sub’s country of origin, everyone suspected Russia.
In short, the weather buoy was beside the point; there was plenty of other proof confirming the submarine, and the Army had recognized that it was not actionable evidence years before. The way the Svenska Dagbladet report was written, though, suggested that the whole episode pointed to amateurism on the part of the armed forces. That take swiftly made the Swedish media rounds, leading to plenty of jokes about the Navy—and a dent to its credibility.
Inevitably, Russian media, too, gave the buoy news plenty of attention. “Sub Intelligence: ‘Russian Submarine’ From 2014 Turned Out to Be Faulty Weather Buoy – Swedish Media,” Sputnik gleefully reported. Even the Moscow Times, ordinarily not a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin, covered the news, announcing that “Sweden Spent $2M Hunting for Nonexistent ‘Russian Sub.’” The potential for hostile countries to exploit the West’s free press has Sweden’s defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, concerned. News media need to be prepared for crisis situations “so they’re not in a position where they’re being exploited for hostile powers’ purposes,” he told Sveriges Radio.
And it is not just sloppy journalism that can be turned into propaganda and mockery. Truthful information can, and does, meet the same fate. “The armed forces have received complaints about soldiers who relieve themselves next to a day care center,” reported the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation during Trident Juncture 2018, NATO’s massive exercise that primarily took place in Norway. Only a couple of days later, the Russian outlet RT recycled the story in a piece of its own with the headline “Pooing troops, empty bars, sinking frigate and other takeaways from NATO largest drills.”
RT was also mightily concerned about Dutch troops during Trident Juncture, following up on news by Dutch media that Dutch soldiers participating in the exercise had not been provided with enough long underwear and would have to go shopping on their own. “Cooold War: Dutch troops have to buy winter underwear on their own ahead of major NATO drill,” RT announced. It displayed similar glee over the fate of German soldiers. “Soldiers have to wait up to one and a half years for new boots,” the German daily Der Tagesspiegel reported in August. RT spread the news on, announcing that “German Army struggles to equip soldiers with… BOOTS, tells them to wait till 2022.”
Retired Rear Adm. Anders Grenstad, who was until earlier this year commander of the Swedish Navy, has experienced the developments up close. “All news reporting that’s done about what the armed forces do wrong can be used by anybody,” he told me in November. “It’s a real dilemma. What’s the right balance between protecting our open societies, including free speech, and the fuel we’re giving our adversaries?”
Tero Koskinen, a Finnish former investigative journalist, directs Mediapooli in Helsinki, which trains journalists in what he calls “media resilience”: how to better protect sources, say, and how to be prepared for information-influence attempts from other countries. Like Grenstad, he sees a dilemma between the increasing need for national security agencies to protect their information and for journalists to exercise their right to free speech. But, he said, “traditional media is mostly not the problem; new fake news sites and social media platforms are. But there are fewer and fewer traditional journalists left.” Even traditional journalists, however, may lack the time to investigate the provenance of a particular piece of information, which could well originate with a hostile government or could not quite capture the whole story.
But, Grenstad said, the fault mostly lies not with journalists but with the armed forces. “Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, we, the armed forces, were very quiet. Our staff knew that they shouldn’t talk a great deal, because doing so would help the adversary,” he said. “For the past decade we’ve been far more open. In Afghanistan, for example, we wanted to show what Sweden is doing abroad. Sharing top-secret information with outsiders has obviously always been prohibited, but during those years it was fine to talk about less sensitive matters. But now the security situation has changed. If you discuss issues that are below top-secret but are still sensitive with journalists, it’s a risk, because the journalist can get it wrong, and of course anyone can use what he or she writes.”
Grenstad’s account reflects the reality of most Western armed forces: the coziness of the Iraq and Afghanistan war years, when a slight misrepresentation by an embedded journalist would not imperil the mission, is no longer tenable. “We have to throttle the information flow,” Grenstad said. “But turning the military around is like turning an aircraft carrier around.”
Last year, the Danish government introduced an all-government action plan that includes intensive monitoring of disinformation and an offer of “dialogue” with news media. It also announced it wanted to work with social media companies to limit disinformation—and proposed cooperation with public-service media.
Journalists and members of the public understandably resent shifts in access to the armed forces. Indeed, the independent voice of journalists is needed to hold the armed forces to account. Journalists also have the right, the responsibility even, to go after the truth about vital matters. Yet it is also true that information gathered about national security details is aiding the West’s adversaries in a way that simply was not an issue in years past. Countries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are simply more formidable adversaries than the Taliban. Whether or not they like it, today journalists are part of national security.
That means that journalists must also get better at defending themselves against disinformation. Mediapooli, for example, has already trained more than 800 Finnish journalists. So far, it is a unique initiative.
Reconciling truthful reporting and national security needs is trickier. The military could, for example, provide training to a wide range of journalists, and not just about the latest in military equipment but about the wide spectrum of today’s national security threats and what sort of information helps the adversary. (Finland already operates a related service, the Advisory Board for Defense Information.) Conversely, journalism schools could begin offering national security specializations: There is clearly enormous need for such expertise, and it will only grow as relations between major powers become more tense. Sweden, in turn, is considering another initiative: a government agency for psychological defense. Swedish news media need to be better prepared for a serious national security crisis, Hultqvist told Sveriges Radio.
It’s an uncomfortable thought, though: the fourth estate reining in its freedom for the sake of national security. No reporter cherishes the thought of forgoing juicy bits of information, let alone an entire article or television segment. But no supporter of Western democracy cherishes Russian or Chinese influence either. If the West wants to keep aggressive competitors at bay, its societies have to face them with a united front—one that occasionally includes journalists.
Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw