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Jacob Siegel (Part 1): 'Disinformation' Warfare: A New Weapon of Mass Destruction

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[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] Looking for PART TWO of this interview? Watch it here.

"You couldn't find a hundred people in Washington D.C. who could meaningfully talk to you about disinformation in 2014. Now, of course, there's a dozen of them in every room that you enter, because there's so much money and so much government power behind it."
Jacob Siegel is senior editor at Tablet Magazine, where he published “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century: Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation,” which documents the brave new information world we find ourselves in today.
"They're claiming the right to all of it—that anything that goes through your mind is now something that needs to be policed for public safety and national security reasons," says Mr. Siegel.
In this comprehensive two-part interview, we discuss how the concept of “disinformation” became a tool of deception, in which technocratic officials manufacture consensus and wage a “counterinsurgency”-style war on truth that has, according to Mr. Siegel, deranged our public discourse.
"Whatever you think of Donald Trump, it's not democratic, by any stretch of the imagination, to lead a bureaucratic, ruling-class coup against a legitimately elected president. That may be many things, but democracy it is not," says Mr. Siegel.
We also discuss "cognitive infrastructure" and "predictive analysis"—Orwellian concepts that have now become standard articles of speech in the American official class.
"The illusion was that if only you could give the machines enough information, they could tell you what was coming next. But of course, that only works if you get rid of these silly privacy laws and these silly constitutional protections that would prevent you from feeding all the data in," says Mr. Siegel.


Jan Jekielek: Jacob Siegel, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Jacob Siegel: Jan, it's a pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Jacob, we're going to talk about, “The Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century.” It’s almost definitive in this field of trying to understand what's happening with disinformation, censorship, the First Amendment, and a lot more as we'll learn. What actually is the hoax of the century? Because there are a lot of candidates for this moniker.
Mr. Siegel: The hoax is that there is a grave threat from disinformation, which is coming both from without and from within, which is so grave that it justifies a state of emergency in which unelected regulators and national security officials can violate the Constitution to protect individual American citizens, and the American liberal democracy itself, from disinformation. It's a hoax because this threat simply doesn't exist, or more precisely the threat has been so grossly overinflated to justify the power of this censorship bureaucratic apparatus that it eclipses the actual threat, such as it is, from foreign actors, some of whom may indeed be carrying out in a narrow technical sense what we would define as disinformation.
But the inflation of this threat has really very little to do with the technical standard of disinformation and much more to do with a clamp-down on democracy itself and on the constitutional protections afforded to Americans by people for whom no degree of absolute power is too much.
Mr. Jekielek: We keep hearing the term disinformation, and some people have even been suggesting to me, "You should stop using that term," because it means so many different things. But you actually have a very interesting definition. I'm going to read it, “Disinformation is both the name of the crime and the means of covering it up, a weapon that doubles as a disguise.” Wow, so please explain this.
Mr. Siegel: The crime is that disinformation itself is a lie. As I just explained, the supposed threat of disinformation, which originally was supposed to be coming from Russia, very rapidly evolved into an all-encompassing threat where supposed Covid misinformation was now part of the same category that once included deliberate state-backed deceptions by the Russian government. The crime in that sense was the use of this false pretext, the disinformation threat, to claim these powers over and above the will of the American people and over and above the Constitution.
At the same time, because that weapon is drawn from the worlds of espionage and military warfare, that's where disinformation comes from originally, it is a tool of deception. It works by confusing the public, by obscuring the truth, by breaking down the essential boundaries between public and private, and between war and peace, for that matter. Because the basic premise of the disinformation warriors is that the internet has made it so that we can be attacked from all sides at any time, and according to them, national borders are no longer a protection because Russian trolls can now infiltrate our electoral system.
We now of course know that all of these claims about Russia's interference in the 2016 election were either invented whole-cloth or were so wildly exaggerated as to essentially be inventions, but that claim essentially there is deranged public discourse in America. It made it virtually impossible to deal honestly with the facts of the political situation, and in a classic sense, it was itself an information operation.
The claim that Russia was attacking the United States via disinformation very rapidly evolved into an even more ambiguous and all-encompassing claim that disinformation and misinformation were now coming from everywhere, from people who oppose lockdowns, from people who resisted getting mandatory boosters for vaccinations, from people who stated their objections to the war in Ukraine, all of these things fell under the rubric of misinformation and disinformation.
That was itself a kind of information war. It was a war on truth itself, and it was a war on the control over truth, and the control over sense-making. In that sense, it disguised the actual naked power-grab behind a veneer of public safety and of national security.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned Hamilton 68 in the article, this famous case where they just picked actual run-of-the-mill Americans who were talking about things that were inconvenient, and they basically became agents of Russian disinformation. In fact, if you can say that certain Americans either have believed or conjured up the same idea as an actual Russian disinformation campaign, can that be considered Russian disinformation and dealt with as such?
Mr. Siegel: It's a powerful tool to make that claim because it means that you can apply the weapons of warfare to your domestic political opponents. Indeed, what you just described, this kind of conflation of foreign actors and domestic political actors, that claim is the foundation of the war against this fraudulent war against disinformation. The lead figure behind Hamilton 68 is a former army officer and FBI analyst by the name of Clint Watts.
Watts, during the 2016 election, wrote a very influential article in the Daily Beast making the claim that the Kremlin's propaganda efforts through its troll accounts and domestic political speech by Donald Trump supporters had converged to a point where they were indistinguishable, which is to say if you followed that claim to its logical conclusion, there was a fifth column inside the United States made up of Trump supporters who he, Watts and his co-author for that piece, referred to derisively as Trumpkins.
Essentially, what he was saying is that they were the same as Kremlin agents, perhaps unwittingly, but nevertheless carrying out the actions of a foreign government hostile to the United States. They were committing at the very least, an act of gross disloyalty unto treason, and at the worst were carrying out an active campaign on behalf of Russia. This is before the official war against disinformation is launched as President Obama is leaving office, but that establishes the foundations for it.
Mr. Jekielek: What came of this intelligence community assessment around this question of who the Russians wanted to win, or what their political influence attempts were actually aimed at? Please remind us of that.
Mr. Siegel: An intelligence community assessment, often called an ICA, is supposed to represent the consensus view of the 17 different US intelligence agencies. It's not directly a product of the CIA or of the NSA. Therefore, it is supposed to equalize for the biases that might be present in any one intelligence agency by presenting only what they can all agree to. But the ICA that was released on January 7th, 2017, which was the ICA that concluded and presented to the American public the claim that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to help get Donald Trump elected.
It was the seminal official document in spreading the idea of Russian collusion, and spreading the idea as the official determination of the United States government that Putin had actively helped Donald Trump. That, which was declassified to release to the public by President Obama, that document was not in fact a dispassionate objective assessment reached by the 17 different US intelligence agencies.
What we now know from a series of subsequent reports and from people like Mike Pompeo, who later took over the CIA, is that it was effectively single-handedly the work of the Obama-appointed CIA director John Brennan, who made the determination to include the utterly fraudulent and debunked Steele dossier in the ICA. The ICA made it official that Putin had tried to help Trump, and was based in part on the fraudulent Steele dossier.
But it also was effectively the work of Brennan who handpicked certain analysts who had to support his conclusions, and as Pompeo later said, disregarded the conclusions reached by longtime Russia hands who had come to very different determinations, some of whom in fact believed that Putin actually favored Hillary Clinton because she was the more predictable candidate, not because she was a Kremlin stooge, but simply because Trump was considered a wild man and a wild card, and Putin thought that Clinton would be easier to control.
Brennan writes this assessment through his surrogates in the intelligence agencies, or creates this assessment, Obama declassifies it, puts it out into the American public discourse, utterly deranging our political discourse for the next four years as we chase after these illusions. This is what I mean by the ways in which disinformation is a disguise. We're chasing after shadows and conspiracies about the president being a Manchurian candidate instead of looking at the actual political reality.
There's one other thing that's significant to point out, which is that the same day that the ICA is released, the same day that the Russiagate conspiracy is injected into the bloodstream of the American body politic, another important thing happens, which is that the outgoing head of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, makes a determination by fiat to essentially push through a measure which had encountered fierce resistance from local actors.
As Johnson himself acknowledges, he pushes through a measure to place all electoral infrastructure in the United States, which includes something like 8,000 pieces of election machines spread across the country, to place all of that under the direct jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.
Johnson himself acknowledges that local electoral officials had fiercely opposed this measure, which they considered a usurpation of local sovereignty and regional control. He made this determination over the objections of those local officials on the same day, January 7th, 2017 when the ICA was released. So, it is a pivotal day.
Mr. Jekielek: It's unlikely that that was by accident.
Mr. Siegel: It seems unlikely that was by accident. It would be a tremendous coincidence if it was. The fact that Johnson acknowledges that this was an extremely unpopular measure, and that he pushes it through as the claim about Trump-Russia collusion is being broadcast to the American public is significant. What it also means, it also foreshadows what is to come, which is that having declared its jurisdiction over the entire national election infrastructure based on a claim about Putin's involvement in Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.
What ends up happening is that as the underlying claim that justifies that is debunked as report after report, as the Mueller Report and the subsequent IG report debunk the claim of Russian collusion in the 2016 election, the underlying bureaucratic authority, the bureaucratic coup remains in place. It doesn't matter ultimately that Putin didn't favor Donald Trump, and didn't interfere meaningfully in the 2016 election to get Trump put in office.
We can litigate that forever and cry about the injustice of it, but in the end, even after it's debunked, the power grab remains in place, and in fact grows. That decision to place the electoral infrastructure under the control of DHS is justified on the basis that DHS is responsible for defending the homeland from foreign threats. But what ends up happening is that this defense against foreign disinformation evolves around 2018 into an even more expansive defense against misinformation coming from within the United States.
Just as we're disproving the claims on which the whole thing is based about Trump-Russia collusion, now DHS is creating a new office, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency [CISA], and claiming that it has to police the electoral infrastructure, which now it determines includes not only voting machines but the entire internet, from domestic misinformation. That's the natural evolution of this system of total information control.
Mr. Jekielek: I believe they called it cognitive infrastructure. Whenever I hear that term, I get a chill up my spine.
Mr. Siegel: As well you should. It is sinister, and it's a term borrowed from dystopian 20th century literature with which many of us are acquainted and which we hadn't imagined could manifest so directly in the United States. Cognitive infrastructure is something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. It's something out of George Orwell. It is not something many of us considered becoming a standard article of speech in the American official class, and yet here we are.
That's the exact term that was used by the head of CISA, Jen Easterly. It is saying that the government has the authority to police our collective unconscious, essentially, as it's contained in or channeled through not only the public-facing internet, but also the private internet where our private keystrokes and searches are logged and collected into centralized databases that can be combed through by algorithms. They're claiming the right to all of it, that anything that goes through your mind is now something that needs to be policed for public safety and national security reasons.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the Daily Beast publishing this, and you used to work at the Daily Beast yourself. Please chart your career and why you know so much about these things.
Mr. Siegel: Sure. I got into journalism fairly late in life. I had been writing fiction, and I was in the army prior to journalism. I was a military intelligence officer for most of my time, and an infantry officer in the National Guard for part of my time. I deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2007 during the surge, and had a searing experience, but not one that was especially political. It wasn’t something I had to process in terms that were not directly political, necessarily. I did that by writing fiction and by traveling across the country. Then in 2012, I deployed to Afghanistan.
Despite being in most every measurable way, a much easier deployment than Iraq had been; shorter, less violent, less searing, it was a more political experience in the sense that it had a certain pace during what I thought was the end of the war in 2012. Because I was convinced the war was about to end, that allowed me to reflect on what we were still doing there and to really examine these enormous gaps I saw, this just enormous yawning chasm between the official accounts of the war in Afghanistan and what I observed on the ground.
That included what was being said about our training of the Afghan National Security forces, which had become the centerpiece of the U.S. mission in a total replay of Vietnam. This was the Vietnamization era of the war. In Vietnam, it had been the idea that the focus of efforts would be on getting the South Vietnamese forces to take over. In Afghanistan, it was a very similar thing. We were going to train the Afghan national security forces and build capacity as we quite euphemistically referred to it in the Afghan government and civil organizations, to a point where we could then extricate ourselves from the war. That was the claim, but I found it to be an absurd, implausible lie on almost every level.
For one thing, by 2012, I could see that there were no unified Afghan National Security forces to speak of. Much of the on-paper strength of those security forces was not real. It was an administrative fantasy. In other words, if a particular unit was supposed to have X number of soldiers, maybe only a third of that mustered at any given time. Of those who mustered, some of them were only there to get a paycheck and then disappear.
In units that did have higher strength standing numbers, it wasn't because they were loyal to this national force that we were supposed to be building, it was because they were loyal to particular local commanders. Some of these soldiers, I should hasten to add, were brave, patriotic Afghan men who were trying to protect their families and fight a quite brutal enemy in the Taliban.
But that doesn't mean that there was a real Afghan national force, which is what the U.S. was supposedly investing in. I found this whole nation-building project to simply not exist, and it seemed to me quite obvious for anyone on the ground that it didn't exist. Anyone could see that the units that we were supposed to be training and assisting and advising, many of them were merely auditing tricks, tricks of paperwork. Others were already cutting deals with the Taliban, which made sense if you were in their position because they expected us to leave fairly soon, and they had to make their long-term peace in a country they were going to be stuck in after we left.
I was taking all of this in and I was trying to figure out, “What are we really accomplishing? Why are we still in this country? It obviously poses no direct threat to the U.S. homeland. We could deal with what Al-Qaeda presence there is remotely as we do in Yemen and in other countries. We don't need to have a garrison force. We don't need to be trying to teach feminist empowerment theory to Afghan girls as we were, in order to be carrying out counter-terrorism missions against Al-Qaeda. What are we really doing here?”
As I was trying to answer that question for myself, the other thing I observed as an intelligence officer was that while we couldn't answer these very basic fundamental questions; what are we doing at war, what are we trying to accomplish here, and how does this relate to the security of Americans in the homeland, we were simultaneously collecting as much data as ever existed in the library of Alexandria times 1,000.
We were collecting that much data on a daily basis through drone operations, through biometrics where we collected fingerprints and iris scans from Afghans, and all of that data was being fed into these centralized databases and systems like Palantir that were supposed to be performing what's known as predictive analysis.
Predictive analysis worked on the premise that if only you collected enough data and then fed it through the right algorithms, you could see what was coming next, and you could anticipate the enemy's next move. For that matter, you could anticipate the next move of the civilian population, how a particular U.S. program might sway public support one way or the other.
We were becoming these masters of information control, masters of databases, in a war in which we weren't making any progress and had no more reason to be there, and that lodged in my mind. That contradiction or what appeared to be a contradiction stayed with me and gave me the framework that allowed me to understand what was emerging in this counter-disinformation complex.
Mr. Jekielek: But somehow along the way, you became a journalist.
Mr. Siegel: Yes. I got back from Afghanistan in 2012 and pretty quickly took my first job in journalism at the Daily Beast, a newsroom incidentally that would go on to become a ground zero for a lot of the Trump-Russia collusion claims, and also for the disinformation beat that was emerging, and that some of my colleagues played a key role in propagating and became the spokespersons for. But I wasn't really thinking about that at the time.
I was trying to make sense of my experiences in a framework of still believing that the system was essentially sound, and had been manipulated. If only I could get the truth out to the American people, that would have some kind of salutary effect. By working through democratic processes, understanding what a lost cause Afghanistan was, we could, through public will and through our elected representatives, affect some kind of change.
The very first article I wrote for The Daily Beast was about the state of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. I believe the title was, “Afghan Good Enough.” I make a number of points in that piece that I just made to you that the training efforts were not amounting to much, and that Afghan security forces were cutting deals with the Taliban. Fast-forward, what I observed was that by 2015 and 2016, the mania over Donald Trump and the Russian collusion claims, and the sheer force and intensity of consensus manufacture around those claims astonished me.
That was somebody who was not a Donald Trump's supporter, and so was not necessarily sympathetic to the claim that he was being set up. I even found some of that far-fetched at the time. I thought, "Where there's smoke, there must be some fire. This is exaggerated, but surely there's something to this."
I remember thinking that with Adam Schiff in particular, "This sounds a bit far-fetched, but surely no member of the United States Congress could just invent this kind of thing whole-cloth." Once you realize, yes, a member of the United States Congress could invent this kind of thing whole-cloth, once you realize this Steele dossier was not a tragic error of assessment, a mistake made, not an intelligence failure, but was a paid-for political product coming out of the Clinton campaign, once you start to realize that, you have to reexamine some of your foundational assumptions. I did that and gradually over time, I started to put these pieces together. It was some years later, after I left the Daily Beast around 2017, when it really began to click for me.
Mr. Jekielek: Let's take a look at the anatomy of this system that has emerged. One of the things that strikes me as I read, “The Hoax of the Century,” is that it didn't all happen at once. But yet all the architecture was all present to be able to facilitate this whole society structure that emerged.
Mr. Siegel: That's exactly right. One of the things I learned in the army that always stuck with me, and it was a very useful lesson. You can accomplish a great deal with only task, purpose, and commander's intent. In other words, if you give a group of motivated, decently-trained American soldiers, just those three things; a task, the specific thing you want them to do like build a fort, a purpose, build the fort to defend against an invasion by barbarians, and then the commander's intent, you're defending against the invasion of barbarians so that we can hold onto the key city, you can accomplish a great deal. You don't need a complicated schematic telling you how to build the fort, precisely where to lay the foundations. I would say that's basically what was in place in 2016.
You had a cohesive sense among a number of people at high levels of the U.S. government, the Democratic Party, and the anti-Trump resistance, which included both Democrats and Republicans, they had a task, which was to discredit Donald Trump and to prevent a repeat of the kind of insurgencies that not only Donald Trump, but that Bernie Sanders and Brexit represented, and their intent was to stay in power.
It wasn't necessary to have a detailed diagram of how a conspiracy would be executed. Much more powerful and much more effective was this natural cohesion around shared class interest. They were common members of a ruling class that already shared cultural assumptions, certain guiding principles, even cultural tastes and affinities. They had a very clear sense of who their common enemy was, and of what the stakes were. With all of that, then you had this gradual evolution.
The counter-disinformation people refer to themselves over and over again as a whole of society effort. The lead organization in this whole of society effort is the Global Engagement Center [GEC] in the State Department. The Global Engagement Center was begun in 2016 to combat ISIS messaging, essentially, jihadist messaging, and in particular the messaging online on social media coming from the Islamic State. It already had a mandate focused on information operations, and it was headed up by a former Navy Seal and counter-terrorism official named Michael Lumpkin.
That same organization was essentially re-missioned at the end of 2016 by President Obama as the lead government agency in the fight against disinformation, which is a term that barely existed except in the annals of Cold War-era documents prior to late 2015. You couldn't find 100 people in Washington DC who could meaningfully talk to you about disinformation in 2014. Now, of course, there's a dozen of them in every room that you enter because there's so much money and so much government power behind it.
The GEC became the coordinating hub of the counter-disinformation effort. Then, as I mentioned previously, once the DHS outgoing Chief Johnson declared control over the nation's electoral infrastructure, which evolved into the internet itself because they later declared that the internet counted as electoral infrastructure, because political messaging was spread over the internet, now you had a DHS mission, which evolved even from that point with the growth of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, in 2018 into policing cognitive infrastructure. That's the government piece at the federal agency level.
At the same time, you have the intelligence agencies who are essentially providing the justification for this unprecedented, extraordinary expansion of unaccountable, undemocratic administrative power by their credentialing of the Russiagate hoax. You have the FBI, the CIA under John Brennan, and other agencies by silent assent going on with this. You have the security and intelligence agencies providing the justification for this power grab, and at the same time installing new task forces inside the social media companies themselves, like the Foreign Influence Task Force that the FBI installed inside of Twitter's headquarters in 2017.
With this direct linkage between the FBI and the social media company, they can now have instant access to say, "These are the things we want censored. This information is Russian disinformation. You better censor it." They can also coordinate with other intelligence agencies like the CIA, so there's effectively a merger between the social media companies, which represent what the top-level power brokers, both in the intelligence agencies and I would say in the Democratic Party going all the way up to President Obama, view as the nerve centers of politics in the 20th century.
Especially after Hillary Clinton's loss, which they blamed on Facebook, they see social media itself as the key terrain to deciding who wins political contests. They install task forces inside of the key terrain, essentially conquering the key terrain, and yoking the key terrain to their own agenda. So far, we have the federal agencies like the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the social media companies.
The other big piece is the combined power of the narrative-forming and decision-making apparatus, which you might say is the media and the universities and the nonprofits. I'm lumping all of them together for the time being as a shorthand, because this is the other big industry as it were, the narrative-forming industry. They all get brought into this two ways, all of these being institutions that had been predisposed to favor Hillary Clinton and to view Donald Trump as an illegitimate candidate.
In some sense, they're naturally predisposed towards accepting a resistance orientation, but they're also swayed by the money coming into this emerging counter-disinformation complex in what is otherwise in the case of journalism, an industry in free-fall. Journalism is losing money. The establishment media is not only shedding credibility with the public, it's also losing money to upstart media companies, to social media, to challengers that will emerge like Substack and the non-gatekeeper media as it were.
For better or worse, they are responding to that rather than improving their own product, doing better reporting, and trying not to get big events wrong like they did with 2016. Instead, they respond by lashing their function as news gatherers to the imperatives and prerogatives of the security state. They volunteer themselves essentially as enforcers and experts in this new counter-disinformation industry.
Somebody has to define what disinformation is, and that job ultimately falls to the combined power of the nonprofits, the universities, and the media. The nonprofits and the universities provide the expert analysis, then that gets mainstreamed by the media.
What all of these various arms represent is a single, coordinated, unified effort, which is precisely what the original founding vision of the GEC called for. They said, "A whole of government effort won't be enough. We need a whole of society effort." This is not conspiracy, this is what the GEC itself had called for, and it has obvious precedence, and the historical precedent is wartime mobilization.
In wartime, we expect to see industries nationalized. A factory that had been producing widgets was nationalized and ordered to produce munitions because there was an immediate wartime need for that, we know that model. In this case, we're seeing effectively the same thing, except that the war itself is a ruse, essentially. Rather than nationalizing physical production, what's being nationalized is social media with opinion production and perception production.
Mr. Jekielek: I have a confession to make actually, which is when I first saw the legislation that would go out to establish the Global Engagement Center, I was actually thrilled, because for the first time I saw the United States taking seriously the need to provide counter-propaganda to what the Chinese Communist Party had been doing through the United Front and many other similar operations. It was Senator Portman at the time who introduced that legislation. I didn't even have it in my frame of reference that this structure would be used this way.
He also referenced this in the piece. But what Mike Benz calls the switcheroo happens where things get switched from this focus on external threats to America to focusing on internal threats.
Mr. Siegel: I'm glad you bring that up because I definitely don't want to seem like I got this right all along. I think you and I were in very much the same place. I didn't even register at the Global Engagement Center when it was christened, so I didn't have an opinion about it one way or another. But certainly, I shared the general belief that some kind of counter messaging could be effective targeting jihadist groups, which seemed to have, especially with ISIS, presented this very attention-grabbing new form of social media propaganda.
I wrote an article about this when I was at The Daily Beast in 2014, the title of which was, “ISIS is Using Social Media to Target You,” meaning you, the American public, you, the global audience. The counter-terrorism official who I cited in that piece was none other than Clint Watts, who I found to be a very intelligent analyst of these things, and who produces some intelligent analysis.
Then the question is, “Did we get it wrong or did something happen? It’s probably some of both. I've gotten plenty wrong in my life, so I don't feel too bad about it, but I have to disagree with Mike Benz's framing of this as a switcheroo. Benz is one of the authoritative sources on all of this, so I take what he says quite seriously.
But when I look at the evolution of the counter-disinformation complex from being focused on foreign threats to being focused on domestic political opponents, that was merely a question of sequence. Its orientation was always clear from the very beginning. In fact, you can see the evidence of that in statements made by Michael Lumpkin, the original head of the GEC and a former Navy Seal and counter-terrorism official. In 2016, he gives an interview to a defense industry journal in which he criticizes or takes issue with the restrictions placed on the counter-terrorism, counter-information operations structure in the United States, the restrictions placed on it by the 1974 Privacy Act, which he suggests is outdated and antiquated, and placing a dangerous obstacle in the way of the necessary counter-disinformation, counter-terrorism work of the United States. What he says essentially is that the internet has made obsolete the separation between an American citizen and a citizen of Bali for the purposes of information operations.
If you are a terrorist doing terrorist propaganda work online, what does it matter if you're in Bali or in the United States? The internet respects no borders. Therefore, privacy laws that tell counter-terrorism officials, they can do warrantless surveillance on this person, but not on that person, these are themselves antiquated, because how can we uphold privacy laws that respect national boundaries and national borders when the internet itself effaces those?
It's inherent in the makeup of this system, and it's inherent in the orientation of digital counterinsurgency itself, which seeks total information control. The original framework perhaps to understand this is a program that was suspended in 2002 called Total Information Awareness. Total Information Awareness was an attempt to set up the ultimate database, the database to end all databases, in which every bit of information about individuals, their phone records, their metadata, their behavioral patterns, their doctor's visits potentially, would be entered into a centralized database that could then produce what's known as predictive analysis. To come back to what I was talking about in Afghanistan, the idea and the illusion was that if only you could give the machines enough information, they could tell you what was coming next.
But of course, that only works if you get rid of these silly privacy laws, and these silly constitutional protections that would prevent you from feeding all the data in. It's not necessarily that the system had to evolve into what it is now. Decisions matter. I'm not a determinist in that sense, but you can certainly see how inherent in the merger of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism and this information war approach without very strict legal and constitutional protections, that it was going to end up here.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the election of Donald Trump and Brexit as insurgencies earlier. You make the case that this whole operation is running as a kind of counterinsurgency operation. They view the MAGA Republicans, the health freedom people, or any other significant deviation from the consensus as an insurgency. I find that whole framework incredibly disturbing. Is that what you're arguing here?
Mr. Siegel: I would agree that it's incredibly disturbing. I'm arguing that that's how these political developments were seen by what had become a global, technocratic ruling class. Global is maybe a bit too strong, but certainly it’s a technocratic ruling class that was centered in the United States that had its capital in Washington DC, but has satellites in the other Five Eyes countries and other NATO allies of the United States. Brexit, for instance, was viewed very much in the same terms as illegitimate, as a threat not only to the ruling class itself, but also to the legitimacy of the political order. This was a brilliant trick of the technocratic rulers, to have identified themselves with political legitimacy.
You could replace one centrist technocratic leader with another; Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney, or you could replace Barack Obama. Somebody outside that class representing a threat, not simply to an individual ruler, but to the overall system erected to protect certain class interests and the prerogatives of a particular class became synonymous with a threat to the legitimacy of the political system itself, and with a threat to civilization for that matter. People often marvel at the defenders of democracy being so utterly hostile to and contemptuous of the will of voters. How do you make sense of that? How are these people at the Washington Post saying that democracy dies in darkness? These great experts on democratic legitimacy, after presenting themselves in those terms, turn around and then cast aspersions on the results of a democratic election and say, "We believe in democracy. That's why we have to undermine the presidency of Donald Trump."
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, it's not democratic by any stretch of the imagination to lead a bureaucratic ruling class coup against a legitimately-elected president. That may be many things, but democracy, it is not. Yet, it could be presented in those terms because through the information war, the ruling class had claimed power over language itself, and over meaning itself.
This is to come back to this idea that the information war is both a crime and a disguise, a weapon and a disguise. By claiming absolute power over language where you can determine what's true, what's disinformation, and what needs to be censored. You can just alter the meaning of words like democracy, for instance, to fit your own moment-to-moment prerogatives, and that's what happened.
Jan Jekielek: Coming up next on American Thought Leaders.
Jacob Siegel: The single most significant whole of society initiative carried out by the counter-disinformation enterprise was the 2020 Election Integrity Partnership.
Jan Jekielek: In part two of my interview with Jacob Siegel, we dive deeper into technocratic information control, exploring how the Election Integrity Partnership and US agencies colluded with media and big tech to socially engineer the populace, using anti-democratic means
Jacob Siegel: We need to permanently end the relationship between the federal government and the technology sector as it exists now. The danger is that in competing with China, we become like China, and that's what has been happening so far.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.