An Intelligence Failure? The COVID-19 Pandemic and the U.S. Intelligence Community
It has been over two years since the COVID-19 coronavirus struck the world. Over 900,000 persons in the U.S. alone have died while more than 6 million persons have died worldwide in “more than 150 countries and territories”. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. federal government’s response to it was marked by extreme carelessness and laxness, in spite of rising case numbers and statements from public officials. This has resulted in the worst global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu.
Now with the time to reflect upon the events that have occurred, there has been much debate about who is at fault. Some have pointed to the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) as being primarily at fault, calling the United States’ response to COVID an intelligence failure.
COVID-19 began in November 2019 in Wuhan, China and, by the time the World Health Organization was alerted to the possible threat in China in December of that year, the situation had escalated to, “a full-fledged outbreak”. From there, the pandemic traveled to other locations, including Japan, South Korea, and the United States, all being infected roughly around the same time, three weeks after the first reported cases in China. First, it may be helpful to examine how South Korea and Japan fared being that they were affected roughly around the same time as the U.S. According to the Brookings Institution, after the first hundred deaths, “the rate of progression increased drastically in South Korea and the U.S., and relatively less rapidly in Japan. Japan’s early success can partly be attributed to early social distancing measures like closure of schools until April and targeted testing of clusters. South Korea first cancelled all public events, then imposed an international travel ban even before the 100th case was reported. South Korea embarked on developing their own test and adopting a policy of stringent testing following by contact tracing. As of March 29, the U.S. has over 140,000 confirmed cases while South Korea has over 9,000 confirmed cases and Japan has over 1,800 confirmed cases”. While examining other countries like the United Kingdom, Singapore, France, India, Spain, and Belgium, the Institution essentially provides a great deal of evidence showing how being proactive in a global pandemic such as this is incredibly beneficial and results in a country being far better off.
What also is beneficial is showing when the U.S. government knew about the threat of the pandemic and what steps were taken in January and February of 2020, when the pandemic was on the rise and becoming a serious threat to the safety and security of the United States. According to a declassified 2017 report from the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had long been war gaming a scenario in which, “a pandemic brought on by a novel coronavirus,” affects the United States, explicitly noting that there would be, “shortages of masks, hospital beds, and ventilators,” and describing such a pandemic as being a, “most likely and significant threat”. This is not a major revelation as many people (including Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci) had been vocally discussing how the U.S. was unprepared for a pandemic on the same scale as in 1918 and that a global pandemic was not simply a possibility, but rather a likelihood. However, this shows that the U.S. was somewhat aware of the threats that pandemics, viruses, and other biological threats posed to the country.
As well, it has become apparent that the U.S. government became aware of COVID in late November of 2019. According to two government officials who granted interviews with ABC News, concerns about the pandemic were first brought to the ears of the U.S. government by an intelligence estimate crafted, “by the military’s National Center of Medical Intelligence [the main entity which tracks emerging diseases and bioterror threats]”. The estimate’s, “analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” with the source detailing that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the White House were all briefed on the report’s contents (though the Pentagon denied they were ever provided with such an assessment).
In December, Intelligence Community officials briefed members of the National Security Council and included warnings in the President’s Daily Brief in early January. While, “the intelligence reports didn’t predict when the virus might land on U.S. shores or recommend particular steps that public health officials should take…they did track the spread of the virus in China, and later in other countries, and warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak” and by January, the bulk of the briefing papers and intelligence estimates produced by the ODNI and the CIA was dealing with COVID. As well, the State Department was pulling personnel and assets out of Wuhan and bringing them home to the United States, “a sign that the public health risk was significant”. It is apparent that the U.S. Intelligence Community was very aware of the threat that pandemics (and COVID) posed to the United States and tried to inform the U.S. government and the White House of this threat.
In January however, while the Intelligence Community was telling national policymakers that COVID was a real threat, Trump informed the public via CNBC that, “we have it totally under control” and, in February, assuring the populace that once things got warmer, “[the coronavirus] miraculously goes away,” effectively equating it to the flu. Naturally, telling the public that things were not under control is a poor idea as that would increase hysteria and panic, however, downplaying the threat and equating such a deadly disease to the common flu is an immensely poor policy that allows the virus to strengthen. As well, Trump’s public comments contradict his private statements to Bob Woodward, in which he details that COVID is a real threat and is deadlier than the flu. The President, in this instance, is not diligently informing the populace about a public health threat and is, instead, forwarding misinformation to the public, which can have severe ramifications during a medical crisis. Trump's advocacy for hydroxychloroquine too is another example of how misinformation during a medical crisis, being spouted from someone who is in the highest position of authority in the United States, can result in wasted time and resources by medical professionals to deal with what is essentially a non-issue.
In documenting the response to COVID, many have criticized the U.S. government’s response. In interviewing over a hundred persons from various fields (including the national security, academic, and medical professions), Ed Yong, a reporter for The Atlantic has documented how these specialists and experts have dealt with the pandemic in a “predictable and preventable” way. The fact that the President had also completely gutted the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to respond to biological and nuclear threats and also removed “a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency” in July of 2019 too indicates a severe lack of awareness about national and human security matters as well as a misguided understanding of how to make America a safe nation.
While individual U.S. agencies (like the CIA, DIA, and CDC) were alert to the national security threat and did their utmost to alert policymakers and officials at the national level, the response to COVID was a failure on the executive and legislative level. Had U.S. government officials listened better to their intelligence community, medical professionals, and acted more proactively, then the U.S. would not have over 80 million cases of the virus and nearly one million dead.
What this case indicates though is not the importance of accurate intelligence as accurate intelligence was clearly there and present. Furthermore, this is not an incident in which intelligence officers neglected to speak their minds, as can be seen in past cases, most notably with the Korean War. Instead, this was a failure on the political level. Aki Peritz, a former counterterrorism analyst with the CIA and Adjunct Instructor at American University, wrote about this exact issue in an op-ed for the Washington Post, writing, “It might be tempting to add the coronavirus crisis to that roster of shame — but that would be a mistake. The intelligence community basically exists to assist the people in charge to make the best decisions possible, given all available actionable information… the intelligence community fulfilled its primary purpose of warning policymakers that something terrible was about to occur. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the decision-makers — in this case, the president, defense secretary, commanders in the field and others — to actually choose to take the steps to protect the nation”. Peritz goes in depth and shows that the U.S. Intelligence Community did adequately inform policymakers about the COVID-19 outbreak, utilizing standards set by both academia and within the intelligence realm.
Still, while many disagree with Peritz’s assertion, my view is that Peritz largely is correct in his assertion. The primary job of an intelligence officer (and the intelligence community as a whole) is to collect accurate and up to date intelligence (to the best of their abilities), corroborate that with outside, verified information, and provide these reports to policymakers with their section’s, agency’s, or community’s total assessment, all based upon solid information. At no point did the Intelligence Community fail to predict the COVID-19 pandemic or write off these biological developments as a minor item; at no point did they conceal information from the Executive or Legislative branches that would have made ignoring the virus easier. However, they were dealing with an administration that did not desire to listen to established voices, decided lying and concealment was a better strategy than being forthright, and took steps to try and downplay the virus while simultaneously blaming any other party beyond themselves.
The Intelligence Community provided the best intelligence they had working within the constraints that had been put in place by the Trump administration. They, as a whole, in the initial days and going forward with COVID, have performed quite admirably and effectively. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 virus has been an intelligence failure, yet not on the part of the CIA, CDC, or other signatory agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community; it is instead the fault of high-ranking members of the Executive Offices of the President and Vice President in addition to other members of the Executive Branch, chief among them being President Donald Trump.
Going forward, however, it is important that the Intelligence Community recognize where exactly the Executive and Legislative branches failed, how to preempt this, and where the IC can better perform to effectively instruct policymakers. Erik J. Dahl, a former U.S. Naval intelligence officer and Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, discussed this for The Conversation, writing, “…the U.S. national intelligence community should consider steps such as boosting the visibility and importance of the National Center for Medical Intelligence… the U.S. may need to create a true national intelligence center focused on infectious disease, biological terrorism and other health issues” which would certainly help in stopping the proliferation of diseases and other biological threats before they cause serious harm.
Dahl, however, predominantly calls upon the international community to take a more proactive issue on intelligence matters suggesting that “providing the World Health Organization with significantly greater authority to enforce individual nation reporting requirements, such as by revising the International Health Regulations – the international treaty that describes what WHO member states must do – to give the WHO inspection powers similar to that of the International Atomic Energy Agency” in addition to “developing a global early warning system for infectious diseases and other health threats that would integrate the global hodge-podge of disease surveillance systems that currently exists, and provide a worldwide system similar to those already in place to warn about earthquakes and tsunamis”.
If another global pandemic were to occur during the Biden presidency, or a new, deadlier strain of the COVID-19 virus, it is my view that Biden would react far differently than Trump has, responding more proactively and cautiously and working with respect (possibly even deference) to trained medical and intelligence professionals. However, if the administration were headed by a Commander in Chief, be they of any political persuasion, who disdained the Intelligence Community or the medical profession, finding them to be often inaccurate or believed themselves to know more about a certain issue (as has effectively occurred with the Trump administration), then that could spell disaster for the nation. It is important that the Intelligence Community make a stronger effort to raise awareness and the publicity surrounding the NCMI and make a stronger effort to collate and share information amongst other signatory members of the Community in regards to disease and bioterror threats.
Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the electorate to elect a Chief Executive who is intelligent, listens to those who are more well versed in certain areas than them, and is capable of listening to information that may be unsettling or otherwise negatively impact the United States.