By: Katie Crotty, CEO
About the Author: Katie Crotty is the CEO of Praescient Analytics and is passionate about applying historical lessons learned to future security gaps that can be solved with a combination of skilled talent and technological augmentation. She chose to write about the lessons of the Tet Offensive as it poses a timely conversation, both professionally and personally, as her husband and children reside in Vietnam as part of the Department of State mission there.
January 30 marks the 49th anniversary of one of the US military’s most stinging defeats. Today, in 1968, North Vietnamese troops conducted joint surprise attacks against South Vietnamese military and diplomatic targets on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, the country’s most important holiday. Although US and South Vietnamese forces quickly regained tactical battlefield control, the Tet Offensive did irreparable damage to US public support for the war in Vietnam, often credited as the beginning to the end of the Vietnam War.
Tet Offensive Parallels Today
Why does this matter today? The lesson of Tet is that, in a democracy, public support is as much a valid military target as a soldier on the battlefield. Televisions, not tanks, won the day.
Today’s enemies continue to implement the Tet approach effectively. The Islamic State (ISIS) puts a premium on spectacular attacks, understanding that the more media attention they can garner the more powerful they will appear. North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies understood this lesson well, and ISIS has followed suit. Although Americans are more likely to be killed by their own furniture than a terrorist attack, the threat of ISIS dominates US presidential campaigns and foreign policy discussions.
The reverse is also true. Just as a shocking attack like the Orlando nightclub shooting or the Tet offensive can make an enemy’s abilities appear outsized in the American psyche, a media influencing operation can make a large-scale military invasion appear mundane. The Russian government managed to sow sufficient doubt during its invasion of Crimea to mute any outcry by Western powers until it was too late. Similarly, Russian plausible deniability regarding its interference in US elections has confused much of Washington’s political apparatus into paralysis.
The Role of Government in Collecting OSINT
Nearly 50 years after the Tet Offensive, governments continue to underestimate the incredible influence the public wields in state affairs. But thanks to the growing availability and exploitability of social media and intelligence from open sources (OSINT), it is becoming easier to take the pulse of public opinion and get a sense for ground truth. Government leaders often pay homage to the growing interconnectedness of the world, but many still don’t understand the role that OSINT can and should play in crafting policies receptive to public opinion.
Democratic government agencies are understandably reticent to conduct research on their own people due to public scrutiny over fears of civil liberties violations. But if our own government doesn’t understand the American public, our enemies will. Publicly-available information on US citizens is a growing target for both state and non-state actors. As such, we must find appropriate means to understand our public, and through this understanding, protect them.
When federal organizations appreciate the need for OSINT but are tepid to spearhead such initiatives internally, this creates an opportunity for public/private partnership where firms such as Praescient, that specialize in integrating new OSINT technologies and techniques into traditional military planning and analysis, can offer valuable insights. There is also a growing demand for Analysis-as-a-Service (AaaS) where government clients can access OSINT products within a subscription-based model, helping them assess changing opinions on a weekly, monthly or ad-hoc basis. Using such a model, Praescient analysts correctly predicted the escalation of violent incidents in the run-up to municipal elections in Mozambique stemming from the resurrection of the Renamo insurgency and correctly predicted where protests were to erupt in Brazil during the World Cup.
The US and its allies had every indication the Tet Offensive was imminent. Like today, data was messy, the environment politicized, and sources were of various levels of validity. But unlike in 2017, military leaders in Vietnam faced much greater challenges in understanding American public opinion in 1968. Cellphones and the internet were not ubiquitous means of communication. It’s understandable why the US did not comprehend what was going on in Vietnam, a country located literally on the opposite side of the world from Washington, DC. But today, access to information is universal. It simply requires those with the right skillsets and technical tools to translate noise into knowledge. Today, I believe we are obligated to work to avert Tet Offensive-like operations against our nation and our people because we have the preventative measures available to us. We can, and should, learn to use current and emerging open source tools effectively for good.