US Intelligence, the Coronavirus and the Age of Globalized Challenges

August 24, 2020

he US government’s response to the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has been one of the worst failures in modern US history. At the time of writing this essay, the coronavirus response has led to more American deaths than all US combat operations since the Korean War. It has also caused more damage — more quickly — than any contemporary hostile state or act of terrorism. The US administration’s catastrophic failure to provide an effective, coherent public policy response to the coronavirus represents a failure to recognize the changed nature of threats to national security in the twenty-first century — and the intelligence needed to counter them. This century, national security threats will come from great power rivalries, in particular between the United States and China, amid the “return of history” they represent following claims that history had ended a quarter of a century ago, after the Cold War. However, threats will also come from fundamentally new globalized challenges: biological threats, such as pandemics, and climate change. This century will be an age of globalized threats.

This essay makes three arguments. First, the US government will need to establish a coronavirus commission, similar to the 9/11 commission, to determine why, since April 2020, the United States has suffered more coronavirus fatalities than any other country in the world. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a watershed for what will be a major national security theme this century: biological threats, both from naturally occurring pathogens and from synthesized biology. Third, intelligence about globalized challenges, such as pandemics, needs to be dramatically reconceptualized, stripping away outmoded levels of secrecy. Reflecting the significance of open-source intelligence that already exists in today’s digital world, and will only increase as future societies become more interconnected, the US intelligence community will need to become more open-facing, like its underlying intelligence today. Just as the Central Intelligence Agency was established in 1947 to confront a new threat (the Soviet Union), the United States needs to establish a new kind of public-facing intelligence to anticipate globalized threats, such as pandemics, hiding in the open.

This century will be an age of globalized threats.

Given the scale of the coronavirus death toll in the United States, it will be imperative for the US government to follow in the tradition of past national security disasters (such as Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001) and establish an official bipartisan commission to investigate the public policy failures that led to them. A key issue for a future coronavirus commission to determine is what President Donald Trump’s administration knew about the coronavirus and when. The US intelligence community is known to have sounded the alarm about biosecurity threats, such as pandemics, since at least 2009. Each year since then, the US Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) has included pandemics in its annual worldwide threat assessment (Blair 2009, 43). The DNI’s January 2019 assessment was unambiguous: “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

According to public reporting, the coronavirus featured in the president’s daily brief — the US intelligence community’s most coveted document — on at least 12 occasions in early January and February 2020. At the same time, Trump was publicly downplaying the coronavirus threat. Trump has disputed this reporting. Establishing what intelligence, if any, about the virus reached Trump, and his close advisers, will be essential for the coronavirus commission, if only to learn from past mistakes and avoid similarly dangerous inaction again.

The coronavirus has exposed Washington’s failure to have a coherent, continuous strategy for countering biological threats to national security. As a concept, national security developed in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century in response to threats from totalitarian blocs: first, the fascist powers and then Soviet communism. After the Cold War, US national security was reformed to recognize the threat posed by globalized challenges, first from international terrorism, as revealed on September 11, and, more recently, from transnational actors in cyberspace. At the same time, another globalized challenge posed a threat to US national security: the development of synthesized biology and gene editing in the 1990s, and the emergence of naturally occurring novel pathogens, such as the coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the Zika virus. The effects of these diseases were exacerbated by rapid urbanization and population growth, loss of biodiversity, antimicrobial resistance, increasing world air travel, globalized transportation of food supplies and climate change. These natural and engineered biological developments blurred boundaries between public health and national security. Scholars, public health officials and the US intelligence community loudly warned that a pandemic would obliterate these boundaries (Franco et al. 2007; Walsh 2018, 41–51; Lentzos, Goodman and Wilson 2020). However, successive White House administrations failed to produce a coherent strategy in response. Three successive White House administrations in the first two decades of this century — led by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump — downgraded or removed senior US officials tasked with tracking biosecurity threats. Different US government departments have deep expertise in pandemic threats, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services preparedness and response team, the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service and the Natural Disaster Medical System. However, their expertise did not translate into a unified, coherent US policy response when the coronavirus struck.

While national security threats have expanded since the Cold War to include globalized challenges such as pandemics, the intelligence needed to counter them has not sufficiently followed suit. Since the Cold War, there has been a revolution in the nature of intelligence, from closed to open sources. It is estimated that, during the Cold War, 80 percent of US intelligence about the Soviet Union was derived from secret sources and 20 percent from open sources. In today’s digital age, those proportions are thought to be reversed. The massive reform of intelligence from secret to open sources necessitates fundamental rethinking about the nature of intelligence today and the secrecy surrounding it. There will always be a need for traditional secret intelligence collection, such as human intelligence (espionage), which is as old as governments themselves. However, the value of open-source intelligence in the twenty-first century means that last century’s shackles of secrecy should be cast off to reflect the new reality of open-source intelligence. In short, the US intelligence community, like others, will need to become as correspondingly open-facing as its intelligence. Its assessments about globalized challenges should be geared toward public dissemination, while protecting sources and methods. When it comes to threats to public health, intelligence is too important to be confined solely to policy makers, who could neglect or censor it for political purposes. The US intelligence community already has a “duty to warn” principle, by which if it learns of a threat to a US individual or organization, it has an obligation to disseminate that intelligence. Material is scrubbed so it can be conveyed without endangering sources and methods. US intelligence agencies also have a “no double standard” principle, whereby they cannot warn US government workers of a threat and not the public. Both principles will become increasingly important this century as intelligence about national security and public health are blurred.

An illustration of how the US intelligence community can disseminate valuable public health intelligence occurred in 2014, when the US Geospatial Intelligence Agency used its unique collection platforms (from satellites) to produce a publicly available map of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which provided valuable information for health and rescue workers. This kind of intelligence will become increasingly needed in the twenty-first century as governments face globalized threats impacting public health and national security.

The US intelligence community is specially placed to integrate public health and national security. It has unique capabilities to collect and analyze intelligence about biological threats, both from its foreign clandestine collection sources and from open sourcing. These assets make the US intelligence community the natural bridge between national security and public health. Doing so would follow the path already set by America’s closest intelligence partner, the UK government. In May 2020, it announced the creation of a new body, the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), modelled on its counterterrorist centre, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). The JBC is closely associated with Britain’s intelligence community: its founding head was an MI6 officer, Tom Hurd, and it is currently led by a former director of the National Cyber Security Centre (part of Government Communications Headquarters), Clare Gardiner, who has a background in medical statistics and epidemiology. The JBC has two functions: first, to provide independent analytical function about coronavirus infection outbreaks and, second, to advise how the British government should respond to spikes in these infections.

A future US coronavirus commission should consider the benefit of the US government establishing a similar body to Britain’s JBC. Doing so would follow in the tradition of the 9/11 commission, which recommended the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center to respond to the globalized challenge of terrorism. It would be advisable for a future US national centre for biosecurity (or a similarly titled body) to be based within the intelligence community, inside the DNI, so it could be integrated with other US intelligence agencies, but its primary customers would be outside the community: the public health and private medical sectors. Creating such a body would give a single entity responsibility, and ownership, for bridging national security and public health. The body would need to be sufficiently funded and resourced to reflect the nature of low-probability — but high-severity — threats such as pandemics. The US intelligence community’s current “eyes and ears” for pandemic threats, the National Center for Medical Intelligence, based at Fort Detrick, Maryland, is relatively poorly resourced: it is estimated to have a staff of just 100 officials.

Another subject for the future US coronavirus commission to consider is the benefit of the US government establishing a pandemic public alert system. Doing so would reflect the new reality of blurred boundaries between public health and national security. Some commentators have termed the US government’s coronavirus response an “intelligence failure” in the sense that intelligence about the virus failed to translate into US policy response. The orthodox view of intelligence and policy making is that intelligence agencies are, in fact, powerless to change policy in this way: a bright line exists between them and the decisions of policy makers (the “consumers” who receive intelligence). Traditionally, it has been heretical to suggest that intelligence services should cross over this line and become involved in policy making (Cradock 2002, 296–97). The Trump administration’s failure to act on intelligence about the coronavirus was thus not an “intelligence failure” because the intelligence community had no capability to alter the administration’s policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, necessitates heretical thinking. When it comes to threats to public safety, such as pandemics, it must be questioned whether it is sufficient for the US intelligence community simply to provide warnings to policy makers, at which point its duties are discharged. Creating a pandemic public warning system would be a way for US intelligence assessments about public safety to transcend the confines of the executive branch and reach the public, who both the executive branch and the intelligence community ultimately serve. While the government has a duty not to worry its citizens unduly, a citizenry informed about threats to public health would provide greater policy accountability. It is not difficult to imagine that if a US pandemic public alert system had been operating in early 2020, and it had issued a warning about the coronavirus, there would have been an acceleration of US policy responses as US citizens held policy makers accountable.

If the US government were to establish a pandemic alert system, it would again follow the United Kingdom’s path, which has already instigated an alert system for communicating COVID-19 risk levels to the public. The JBC is responsible for collecting and analyzing data about the coronavirus, which Britain’s chief medical officer uses to set coronavirus alert levels for England — with expected expansion for the rest of the United Kingdom. Britain’s coronavirus public alert system is based on its public terrorist threat level system, administered by JTAC and the Security Service (MI5). Britain’s coronavirus alert levels range from level one (COVID-19 is not known to be present in the United Kingdom), to level five (COVID-19 is in general circulation, transmission is high or rising exponentially, and there is a material risk of health-care services being overwhelmed). It remains to be seen whether Britain’s system is successful and what lessons the US government can derive from it. The US government can also usefully learn lessons from its own largely unsuccessful public terror warning system, whose experiences reveal the importance of providing clear, timely and specific information to the public in order to avoid warning fatigue (Freedman 2005, 379–88; Cohen and Shapiro 2007).

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolding today represents a wake-up call to the US government about the new nature of national security threats, and the intelligence needed to meet them, during the coming age of globalized challenges. Today’s “Bio Revolution” under way will offer unprecedented benefits for societies and economies, but also unprecedented threats as biotechnologies turn science fiction into reality — gene editing, bio-machinery and biocomputing are all coming. As a recent study about the Bio Revolution put it, “once Pandora’s box is opened, we could have little control of what happens next,” with the real prospect of creating new mutated, self-sustaining, self-replicating and interconnected biological systems, affecting entire ecosystems or species. At the same time, all governments will need to address the most severe threat ever to face human civilization: the climate crisis. As with all other national security threats, anticipating and understanding the security implications of climate change will require good intelligence. Climate change will, however, require a different kind of intelligence than hitherto existing.

Works Cited

Blair, Dennis C. 2009. Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. February 12.

Cohen, Dara Kay and Jacob N. Shapiro. 2007. “Color Bind: Lessons from the Failed Homeland Security Advisory System.” International Security 32 (2): 121–54.

Cradock, Percy. 2002. Know Your Enemy: How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World. London, UK: John Murray.

Franco, Crystal, Eric Toner, Richard Waldhorn, Thomas V Inglesby and Tara O’Toole. 2007. “The National Disaster Medical System: Past, Present, and Suggestions for the Future.” Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science 5 (4): 319–25. 

Freedman, Lawrence. 2005. “The politics of warning: Terrorism and risk communication.” Intelligence and National Security 20 (3): 379–418. 

Lentzos, Filippa, Michael S. Goodman and James M. Wilson. 2020. “Health Security Intelligence: Engaging across Disciples and Sectors.” Intelligence and National Security 35 (4): 465–76.

Walsh, Patrick F. 2018. Intelligence, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.