Washington Post columnist and New York Times bestseller David Ignatius’s new book “The Paladin: A Spy Novel” was released May 5. The novel tells the story of Michael Dunne, a CIA operations officer who gets involved in the world of deep fake, where adversaries use bogus news stories and events and artificially created media to divide people for political advantages. The novel describes Dunne’s encounter with this world and his revenge and redemption that follows.
To keep things fresh while also maintaining a realistic depiction of the current intelligence landscape, Ignatius uses his experiences as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal covering the Middle East in the early 1980s as inspiration for his stories. He based “The Paladin” on the modern concept of digitally driven intelligence.
On June 8, Ignatius and former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers held a virtual discussion hosted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress about Ignatius’ new book. The two dove deeper into the ways the novel’s concepts are relevant to fake information, polarization and the role of the military in the current intelligence climate.
In an era where technology drives much of the work within the intelligence community, it has become increasingly difficult for both individuals and the community to determine which information is real and what has been artificially created to serve a political purpose.
“How do we know what’s true?” Ignatius said. “How do we establish procedures for verifying that the information stream that comes at us isn’t polluted, hasn’t been deliberately shaped?”
There are several examples of this information being spread online. Rogers recalled a story Russia allegedly fabricated in 2017 about a teenage Russian girl being raped by German NATO soldiers stationed in Lithuania. The narrative was used to reportedly influence opinion and elections in the West, and discredit the presence of the NATO forces in Lithuania.
Rogers said he believes social media hold a responsibility to flag fake news, as they have become a vehicle for false information. But ultimately, it comes down to having the best technologies to apply to the problem of detecting deep fakes.
“I wouldn’t say we’re behind, but the technology is just one step ahead of our ability to say instantly, ‘that is a fake, we’re going to have to do something about it,'” Rogers said.
Ignatius also discussed the phenomenon of polarized media and its relationship to intelligence.
“I think it’s a job for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to establish a sound factual basis for their own actions,” he said. “But really, it’s a job for every citizen. Everybody consumes media, not to just follow one narrative or another, but just interrogate that information.”
Consuming more partisan media can lead to further popularization of partisan media and viewpoints, feeding into the cycle of politically polarized information, and U.S. adversaries are using these divides to their advantage, Ignatius said.
Rogers elaborated on what polarization means for the military. In military tradition, former officers typically don’t publicly speak on political matters, as “our adversaries will use these conversations against the rest of us in America in a way that we don’t fully realize yet,” Rogers said.
Ignatius responded that allowing the nation to question whether there are Republican military generals or Democratic military generals would be dangerous. He agrees with the military not taking political sides or challenging the commander in chief in public, but rather providing honest military advice in private.
“That gives me some hope that people can find a path where they preserve the traditional role, but also in private give the appropriate military advice,” Ignatius said.