National Security Archive Releases USCYBERCOM documents which shed new light on the campaign to counter ISIS in cyberspaceHistorians in the News
tags: National Security Archive, ISIS, FOIA, cybersecurity
Washington D.C., January 21, 2020 - Today the National Security Archive is releasing 6 USCYBERCOM documents obtained through FOIA which shed new light on the campaign to counter ISIS in cyberspace. These documents, ranging from a discussion of assessment frameworks to the 120-day assessment of Operation GLOWING SYMPHONY, reveal the unprecedented complexity of the operation, resulting challenges in coordination and deconfliction, and assessments of effectiveness.
In August of 2018 the National Security Archive combined FOIA released documents from we had received with those Motherboard to produce an in-depth timeline of the formation of JTF-ARES and the planning behind Operation GLOWING SYMPHONY. These documents represent the first time the US Government has officially acknowledged offensive cyber operations. The mission assigned to JTF-ARES was to counter ISIS actions in cyberspace while Operation GLOWING SYMPHONY specifically targeted ISIS use of social media and internet propaganda. JTF-ARES functions also encompass support to kinetic battlefield operations, a role which remains almost entirely classified.
While the documents used in the 2018 timeline went into great depth on the planning process, questions remained as to how the experience impacted broader USCYBERCOM operations. Some clues were released in the following years.
In an August 2019 interview with NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, General Paul Nakasone (Director of the NSA, Commander of USCYBERCOM, and original commander of JTF-ARES) revealed that the counter-ISIS campaign was informing how the US approached conflict in cyberspace. As Nakasone’s commands formulated their response to Russian activity during the 2016 US election, they looked at JTF-ARES and, rather than work through the Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber assigned to support US European Command, elected to form another task force called the Russia Small Group. “So this concept of a task force lives on. A lot of that thinking came from what we were doing in 2016. It's powerful to bring a number of different elements of a team together and be able to form something very rapidly to address a threat.”
The counter-ISIS mission also informed how USCYBERCOM operated on a more tactical level. A September 2019 National Security Archive posting revealed internal discussions from late November 2018 spearheaded by the command’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center – Combat Targets Division regarding the applicability of the US Military’s Joint Targeting Doctrine to offensive cyber operations. The briefing slides concluded with a note to “Incorporate C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] lessons learned into doctrine”. General Nakasone’s comments linking JTF-ARES and the Russia Small Group as well as briefing slides connecting the counter-ISIS mission to internal discussions of targeting procedures speak to the significance of JTF-ARES and Operation GLOWING SYMPHONY within the United States’ cyber-warfighting community.
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