Former members of the Intelligence Community (IC) are lining up to say, “We told you so, a pandemic is coming.” But, did they, really, “tell us so?” Did the IC provide government decision-makers actionable predictive intelligence regarding the Wuhan COVID-19 pandemic with enough detailed information that would prompt taking some action? Furthermore – and this is crucial – did the IC identify what would become the real problem?
Dr. Paul Miller, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently said that when the IC was estimating what future threats might be, it took a 20-year broad view. As Miller put it regarding the projection, “… they knew that there was a possibility of a pandemic emerging from China, about which we would have very little warning and no immunity.” Okay, let’s unpack that statement. There’s a “possibility of a pandemic,” not a certainty. But, it’s reasonable in a 20-year projection that certainty would be elusive. The location would be China. China’s a big place and a “Great Power Competitor.” China as a locus for a pandemic is a reasonable call – and that’s without considering the many respiratory diseases the nation has generously shared over the years. The U.S. would have very little warning, and no one would be immune.
Let me get this straight: A pandemic may or may not come, but if it does, it’s coming from a big country that happens to be a competitor in the geopolitical arena with a history of beginning pandemics – and we won’t see it coming or be able to prevent it? Hey, that’s good to know, but what are decision-makers supposed to do with that dearth of detail?
Miller responds that Congress “within the last 15, 20 years” should have “adequately” funded the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. This sounds good in a radio sound bite, but what would be “adequate,” with the level of detail mentioned above.
In a March 21, 2020, Intelnews.org published an article titled, “US intelligence warned White House about COVID-19 threat in January, report claims.” The story points out that the current pandemic was “highlighted” in the IC’s Worldwide Threat Assessment in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
In the most recent Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, which was released on January 29, 2019 – well before the COVID-19 outbreak – what is highlighted can be found in the HUMAN SECURITY section on “Global Health.” The assessment reads, “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.” This caution is given as much space in the paragraph as an “ongoing crisis in Venezuela,” leading to reduced control of infectious diseases, “such as diphtheria, malaria, measles, and tuberculosis.”
The paragraph did raise the issue of the proximity of humans and animals, increasing the risk of transmitting dangerous pathogens. However, there is little in the Worldwide Threat Assessment that targets China or gives any real information about when the world should expect this plague. Information that would alert decision-makers to start developing plans of action.
Even within the IC, there were national security issues that often displaced pandemics for prominence. In the article, “Focused on terrorism, the intelligence community ignored prior pandemic warnings,” the message is that though some in the IC believed that there would be a global pandemic soon, other priorities within took precedence. The result is a vagueness about the cautions and, more importantly, uncertainty about what to do.
The IC did not ring the alarm bell on what would be the Chinese government’s cover-up. While the IC was resting on its Casandra-like pronouncements, the events that were taking place in China once the COVID-19 cat was out of the bag would have been useful intelligence to know. When the earliest indications of the pandemic emerged, China elected to cover up the gravity of what it was experiencing. Rather than sharing the information with the rest of the world, the government obfuscated the nature of where the infection started and what the magnitude of the spread was likely to be. China did not mention that on January 1, 2020, when the magnitude of the Wuhan infection went public and over 175,000 people evacuated the infection area on that day and about seven million left in January. The Chinese knew that something terrible was happening. The New York Times gave us the intel on the mass evacuation of Wuhan. On January 31, 2020, President Trump stopped all travel to and from China.
Additionally, the IC did not talk about what the world could expect from China’s behavior during the Wuhan COVID-19 crisis. Useful intelligence could have anticipated that China would blame the U.S. for the outbreak and that China would threaten to withhold pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, most recently, that China would apply export restriction to prevent the transportation of medical face masks, test kits, and equipment to fight the Coronavirus. In the latter instance, it was The Wall Street Journal.
The Intelligence Community is critical to the United States’ national security. We depend on timely reports to know what actions to take. The men and women who provide America this vital service are truly unsung heroes. But, before the IC starts telling this nation’s leadership that it did not listen to intelligence warnings with “I told you so,” there should be actionable information to listen to, to include some idea of how an adversary will behave.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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