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Coronavirus may force the U.S. intelligence community to rethink how it does its job

A pandemic has killed more Americans in four months than died in all the wars in the past half-century while inflicting trillions in economic damage.
Image: Coronavirus Testing Site Opens At Six Flags In Maryland
Members of the Maryland National Guard guide traffic at a coronavirus drive-thru testing location at Six Flags America on May 29, 2020 in Bowie, Md.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Coronavirus is shaping up to be a watershed for the American intelligence community.

In the two decades after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the CIA and other spy agencies made terrorism their top priority, with the goal of preventing another 9/11. For the most part, they succeeded.

Now a pandemic has killed more Americans in four months than died in all the wars in the last half-century — 35 9/11's and counting — while inflicting trillions of dollars in economic damage.

It's a disaster that is already changing how the intelligence community views health threats — and how it defines national security.

"COVID-19 is a wake-up call," said Denis Kaufman, a former senior official at the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

During his Senate confirmation hearing last month, John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump's new director of national intelligence, pledged that the "immediate focus" of American spy agencies would be "directed to the geopolitical and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its origins."

Sue Gordon, the former deputy DNI and a contributor to CNBC, told NBC News, "The intelligence community has never been better than it is right now. The question is, is it good enough for the moment in which we now find ourselves? I think this moment exposed national security issues to which the intelligence community should consider applying itself."

In a small example of a brewing transformation, the spy world's cutting-edge research agency — known as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA — last week issued a call for research proposals designed to better predict and react to global pandemics.

Officials are seeking private proposals for developing new tools and technologies "that provide rapid capabilities against the current COVID-19 pandemic," the agency said in a statement, as well "as enhanced warning and response capacity for future similar events."

"Technology solutions for COVID-19 will require creative, multidisciplinary methods, paradigm-changing thinking, and transformative approaches," IARPA's deputy director for research, Dr. Catherine Cotell, said in the statement. "Our goal is to advance ground-breaking technologies that will help the intelligence community and the country prepare for and recover from pandemic events."

Former deputy national intelligence director Sue Gordon
Former Deputy National Intelligence Director Sue Gordon.Office of the Director of National Intelligence / via AP

The solicitation seeks new ideas for technologies in the realm of disease detection and sensing; supply chain management and integrity; location monitoring and mapping with privacy protection and modeling, simulation and predictive analytics.

One example: The agency is interested in technology that could diagnose COVID-19 through a quick breath test that could be deployed at airports and tools for tracking the virus through monitoring genetic material in wastewater.

The IARPA document also envisions "tools for widespread surveillance and risk estimation of animal-borne pathogens (before they ever come into contact with humans). Risk estimation might include potential to cross species barriers, transmission mechanisms, reproduction numbers, incubation times, duration of infectivity, virulence, mechanisms of human immune evasion and modification, pathogenetic mechanisms, and/or lethality."

The agency is also looking for new approaches to analyze "the future impacts of pandemic disease on political, economic, societal, and technological development at local, regional, national and global scales."

It is also interested in "Modeling to forecast the effects of social distancing and quarantine policies on the rate of infectious disease propagation."

In answers to written questions, Cotell said her agency's coronavirus research "could lead to the development of more reliable predictive analytic tools, giving the United States longer lead time to prepare for future events," and "could accelerate the use of sensors, detection methods and tracing approaches, along with other tools, to track similar outbreaks and support recovery efforts."

It's fair to wonder why the intelligence agencies weren't working hard on those things already, given that they have listed global pandemics as a significant security threat for years.

"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," said the 2019 worldwide threats statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But the reality is that medical intelligence has been something of a backwater in the vast, $80 billion American spying apparatus.

To the extent that germs were seen as a security threat, it was largely related to potential bioweapons, not naturally occurring diseases.

"In the past, medical issues took a back seat to weapon development and concerns about bioweapon research and development," said Kaufman, the former senior official at the NCMI.

Kaufman said medical intelligence experts submitted ideas for projects to help get early warning on disease outbreaks, "ranging from far-out stuff like monitoring body temperatures from satellite based platforms to more achievable stuff like studying behavior in and around hospitals [using satellites]."

There was also a proposal to monitor over-the-counter drug sales, he said.

"Most projects we floated never made the priority cut, or weren't sustainable," he added.

The NCMI operated what Kaufman called a "shoestring effort to analyze open source data, including news media, social media and scientific literature," that he said was fairly successful.

"It actually gave us a week or so early warning on a fever of unknown origin with unusual mortality in northwest Africa in early 2014, which was later identified as Ebola," he said.

Whether any such intelligence warning was collected from Wuhan, China in late 2019 remains an open question.

Kaufman said he believes IARPAS' efforts could pay off.

"What takes a lot of analysts' time is distinguishing signal from noise," in analyzing possible disease threats, he said. "If they come up with new detection and alert methods that shorten the time between identifying a perturbation and directing appropriate collection resources toward clarifying the situation, it will be a big gain. In something like Coronavirus, a few days, even hours, can make a huge difference."

Gordon, who was pushed out of her job by Trump this year as part of a purge of intelligence leaders, agrees.

The pandemic is one example of a new class of threats — including human migration, climate change and cyber disinformation — that may require more money and focus from an intelligence community whose main focus remains traditional threats such as Great Power competition, political and military threats, and terrorism, she said.

"Given that we know the massive effect on national security that this pandemic has caused — even if it’s a different definition of national security — and given that there likely will be other threats of this category, isn’t it time to look at different approaches to collection and analysis?" Gordon told NBC News.

It's possible that if the details about the origin, spread, and potency of the virus were known earlier, different life-saving decisions could have been made, she said.

"I don't see this as an intelligence failure," she said, but rather a question of how finite resources are prioritized."

In the weeks after coronavirus emerged from China in late November 2019, the CIA and other agencies warned about its potential effects, including in articles in the president's daily intelligence briefing book. But Trump has said he was first briefed orally on Jan. 23, and that his briefer did not describe a looming pandemic that could kill tens of thousands of Americans. No evidence has emerged to contradict him.

And if there was intelligence in December or January that predicted the impact, it wasn't conveyed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said on January 26 that coronavirus was not something Americans had to worry about.

It may be that nobody in the U.S. government saw the disaster clearly until it was upon them. That cannot happen again, current and former officials say.

"If it is a threat to national security, don't you need intelligence about it?" she said. "When the nature of the national security threat changes, intelligence must change."