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A nation must think before it acts.
Many questions remain about the precise source of the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), and yet there is one thing of which we can all be certain: there will soon be a collective rush to identify those responsible for our country’s systematic failure to get in front of the pandemic, and to assign blame for the lost lives and ruined economy. As in previous national crises, including September 11 and Pearl Harbor, some fingers will be pointing at the Intelligence Community (IC) for its perceived failure to provide adequate warning. Unlike 9/11, the IC is unlikely to receive a surge of funding to build its capacity to gather pandemic-related intelligence around the world, as our country focuses primarily on the homeland and seeks ways to cover the cost of the CARES Act and other coronavirus-related spending. This is, however, an international crisis that has yet to play out fully in much of the world, including in the developing world, where its impact may be most acutely felt due to poverty and lack of adequate medical resources. Accordingly, the capabilities of the IC are more important than ever to track the pandemic’s geopolitical impacts—large and small—that could ultimately affect the U.S. economy and national security.
The IC plays the same role in a public health crisis as it does in any crisis: It collects and analyzes information and intelligence, that special category of information that is secret and timely, so that policymakers can understand complicated situations, avoid surprise, and make sound decisions in planning and responding to potential threats. It is important to note that the IC only provides intelligence analysis; policymakers must determine whether and how to act on that intelligence. Unfortunately, history abounds in examples of intelligence that was ignored: a recent example being the infamous August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief that warned of impending al-Qaeda terrorist activity in the U.S.
This crisis is different from many others because information about the pandemic has been widely available via governments, international organizations such as the World Health Organization, and academic institutions such as Johns Hopkins University. The IC’s analytic role is particularly critical now given the vast amount of information openly available and the need to help policymakers sort through and understand the data, draw conclusions, and make appropriate decisions. With today’s technical tools to analyze and make sense of large quantities of data, open source intelligence (OSINT) is more important than ever.
The key issue is determining the accuracy of all this data, including what is being withheld and what might be altered by governments and interested parties to further their own agendas. There is also, sadly, deliberately false information and outright disinformation being spread by governments and adversaries either to shield or re-direct blame for the outbreak. While analysis can spot inconsistencies and anomalies in the data, a credible human source is one of the most effective ways to vet and provide context to open source data. HUMINT, the type of intelligence derived from human sources, is critical to the analysis and interpretation of all this openly available data. In most cases, only a human source can tell you the future plans and intentions of leaders and adversaries, and whether and when they are lying, which is particularly important in this crisis. For instance, when the Chinese government and its leaders make pronouncements about the number of cases in China or the extent of the spread, a human source can put this in perspective and highlight any discrepancies.
Vetting information is a persistent challenge, and there long has been a debate about which type of intelligence is the most trustworthy. Back when SIGINT (Signals Intelligence or intercepted communications) was relatively new and novel, policymakers used to say that “SIGINT doesn’t lie” and posit that it was more accurate than HUMINT. We are much more savvy now and understand that an intercept may correctly capture what a foreign government official might say or write. However, people lie all the time. They lie on the telephone. They lie in their correspondence. They lie in their text messages. They lie in all these modes of communication that are captured by intercepts. While human sources are certainly capable of lying and of reporting truthfully the things they heard that were actually lies, a human source is more likely to be able to provide context and an assessment of whether an individual or a government is telling the truth. They will also be in a position to witness and report on inconsistencies and atmospherics.
HUMINT involves the recruitment of sources, which in most cases is an essentially social activity. It’s about building trusting relationships to the point that a potential source is willing to provide sensitive information beyond what his government or employer would normally sanction. It would be very difficult—although not impossible—to develop a trusting relationship solely via Zoom or other impersonal means. A crisis also can be used to a case officer’s advantage to deepen a relationship. I served in several locations where crises occurred, such as attempted or actual coup d’etat and civil unrest where the situation on the streets was dangerous and uncertain. In such situations, it is possible to deepen a relationship by offering and/or providing support to a potential or already recruited source and having the shared experience of going through a crisis together. Bonding experiences such as these generally enhance the relationship between case officer and source.
Certainly, street operations will be more complicated during the COVID-19 crisis. The streets of most cities are deserted when they would normally be packed with cars and pedestrians. As a case officer, one tactic is to blend into the crowd (Criminals do this too, although one would hesitate to draw this comparison). It is hard to disappear into a crowd when there is no one on the street except a case officer and her source. A case officer overseas is always trying not to stand out or attract the attention of the local security service or police, and it is hard not to stand out when you are the only one on the street. The last thing in the world a case officer wants when going to meet a source is to be stopped and questioned.
There is also the issue of increased efforts by governments to monitor the population, especially in pandemic conditions. The export by China of its Safe Cities surveillance and data collection and tracking capabilities around the world had already posed privacy issues that could affect a case officer on the street.
Now, with the current pandemic, many countries have instituted increased surveillance, tracking, and contact tracing—all of which could potentially expose a case officer’s activities and contacts. In the old days, a surveillance team was composed of human beings, both on foot and in vehicles, and they would track an officer’s whereabouts. Technology has greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the need for human begins to conduct street surveillance. And nowadays, everyone carries a smart phone, which is a miniature tracking device, complete with camera and microphone. If a case office is going somewhere without a smart phone, that alone could be alerting to a security service and invite extra scrutiny.
Books such as The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman describe the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) past operations in Moscow—an operational climate that those in the business would call a “denied area,” where the CIA’s operations must be elevated to a whole new level of clandestinity, using impersonal communications such as dead drops and signals such as chalk marks on the sides of buildings. While there is much less actual interaction in these environments, there are usually still occasional face-to-face interactions, even if only for a fleeting few seconds, and perhaps some quick whispered conversations. That is hard to do when you are six feet apart and shouting at your source, which does not enhance clandestinity, especially when you are trying hard not to be noticed.
If the past is any indicator, there will be the inevitable after-action reviews and commissions stood up to investigate what when wrong and issue policy prescriptions. No doubt, there will also be a call for government re-organizations and the creation of new bureaucratic structures to ensure we get it right next time. Pearl Harbor and WWII gave rise to the National Security Act of 1947, which ushered in the National Security Council and the CIA, and 9/11 brought us the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
Some still question whether the consolidation of multiple agencies into DHS helped or complicated national emergency response and whether the creation of the DNI to “connect the dots” and bring together the disparate parts of the IC actually resulted in more efficiency or just a new layer of bureaucracy.
Post 9/11, new federal spending skewed toward the IC and defense. That is unlikely to happen now given the U.S. focus on domestic impacts of the pandemic, including massive government spending to shore up the economy. Unfortunately, intelligence is not a tap you can quickly turn on or off. It is also not cost effective, in the ways that the private sector would measure profit and loss. Developing intelligence sources and networks, particularly in the realm of HUMINT, takes a long time—months or even years.
Historically, the intelligence community has vacillated between global coverage and more limited coverage of high priority regions and issues. This vacillation depends on the degree to which policymakers (and the citizenry) feel under threat, and global coverage is costly. Spending on intelligence, which prior to 2007 was classified, has waxed and waned according to the level of concern about national security. For instance, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, intelligence spending fell in the 1990s as a result of the so-called “peace dividend” and the perceived reduced threat from Russia and the former Warsaw Pact nations.
In 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan even introduced legislation to abolish the CIA. Initially unsuccessful, he re-introduced similar legislation again in 1995, following the arrest of CIA officer Aldrich Ames for spying on behalf of the Russians. Senator Moynihan’s efforts, while ultimately unsuccessful, were a gauge of the country’s waning fear of foreign threats.
To compensate for the budget cuts in the 1990s, the IC employed a concept called “surge capability.” Lacking the budget and personnel resources to provide a presence in every corner of the world, it was thought that developing a surge capability would suffice, i.e. teams of officers who could go into a region when a crisis erupted and immediately stand up a HUMINT intelligence capability. Most would agree that this concept, while well intentioned, did not work as well as hoped. Human relationships require tending, and absence does not engender trust. Such relationships are built and grow stronger over time and wither when not given regular attention. As previously noted, intelligence, particularly that derived from human sources, is not a tap that you can turn on and off.
There will no doubt be increased U.S. government spending on domestic public health-related research and preparedness, and it is possible that the IC could be an aggregate loser in this contest for funding. This would be the flip side of what happened post-9/11 when there was a huge influx of money into the IC to develop new capabilities to address international terrorism. U.S. policymakers would do well to remember that a pandemic is an intrinsically international event with widely felt and often unanticipated consequences and repercussions that could have both short- and long-term impacts on our economy and national security. A well-resourced IC will be essential to provide policymakers with the necessary intelligence to anticipate and deal effectively with these coming challenges.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.