Apr 17th 2020

The Spies Who Predicted COVID-19 

by Kent Harrington

 

Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. 

ATLANTA – Intelligence agencies are used to making headlines when they fail to do their job. But after months of US President Donald Trump ignoring their warnings about COVID-19, and after years of his administration discounting their alerts about the danger of a pandemic more generally, it is time that intelligence professionals receive the credit they deserve.

It should come as no surprise that Trump repeatedly dismissed intelligence about the threat of the coronavirus throughout January and February. Trump has long made clear that he has no patience for those who don’t pander to his views. When intelligence leaders contradicted him on several issues in their annual briefing to Congress last year, he told them to “go back to school.”

This year, the bill for Trump’s war on intelligence is coming due in the form of lost lives and overwhelmed health-care systems. US intelligence agencies had sounded the alarm and even provided the enemy’s battleplan, detailing precisely how a novel coronavirus pandemic would unfold. Still, the wannabe wartime president did nothing. Res ipsa loquitur – the negligence speaks for itself.

Most Americans will never see the raw intelligence and in-depth analysis that the president receives every day, nor can anyone who is not on the front lines appreciate the sheer breadth of national-security challenges that intelligence analysts and officers must follow. That is why the public briefings by intelligence leaders are so important, especially when they expose the president’s own willful ignorance.

Obviously, public briefings cannot lay out every detail about the issues the intelligence community tracks. But as someone who worked on dozens of unclassified briefings at the CIA, I know that professional analysts do their utmost to portray classified findings accurately, even as they protect their sources and methods.

Consider the annual threat briefing to Congress, which has been postponed indefinitely for this year. In delivering the assessment, the Director of National Intelligence offers a unified perspective drawn from a wide array of agencies whose primary job is to find facts and track their implications. In the 2019 briefing that so upset Trump, then-DNI Dan Coats reaffirmed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, and warned that Trump’s bromance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had not diminished that country’s nuclear ambitions.

More to the point, the DNI’s annual briefing has repeatedly warned about the risk of a global pandemic. The intelligence community first raised the alert immediately after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, when then-DNI Dennis Blair testified that, “The most pressing transnational health challenge for the United States is still the potential for emergence of a severe pandemic, with the primary candidate being a highly lethal influenza virus.” Following the 2009 H1NI (swine flu) outbreak, Blair doubled down in 2010, highlighting the potential for a pandemic to disrupt the economy. A “lack of consistent surveillance and diagnostic capability for diseases in animals,” he said, “undermines the United States’ ability to identify, contain, and warn about local outbreaks before they spread.”

Blair’s successor, James Clapper, delivered the same message in March 2013, but also refined the US assessment of the threat with prescient detail. Pointing to the growing danger posed by zoonotic viruses, he warned that “an easily transmissible, novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than one percent of its victims is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak would result in a global pandemic.”

In foretelling the COVID-19 pandemic exactly, Clapper made clear that, “This is not a hypothetical threat.” Trump received the same message in May 2017, when Coats highlighted a World Bank assessment predicting that a pandemic would cost the world around 5% of GDP. Coats then issued the same warning in 2019, testifying 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.” Is anyone surprised that Coats’s successor isn’t bothering with a briefing this year?

But the DNI’s annual assessments aren’t the only unclassified briefings that show the extent of Trump’s negligence in the face of the pandemic. Every four years, the National Intelligence Council, the US intelligence community’s senior analytical body, produces Global Trends, a forecast of the forces likely to shape the decades ahead. The timing isn’t coincidental: the strategic outlook appears when administrations change, offering presidents a long-term international perspective with which to fashion or refurbish their national-security goals.

Trump has described the COVID-19 pandemic as an “unforeseen problem” that “came out of nowhere.” The authors of the past three Global Trends reports would beg to differ, as would the hundreds of experts whom they consult in constructing their analyses.

Consider the 2008 report, “Global Trends 2025,” which was all but oracular. “The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic,” the authors warned. The threat, they added, would likely emerge “in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China and Southeast Asia.” Even with limits placed on international travel, “travelers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents.”

From peddling disinformation about the virus to disbanding the National Security Council directorate overseeing pandemic threats, Trump has squandered multiple opportunities to get ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. The health and economic consequences that we are now experiencing have long been predicted. US intelligence analysts were warning about precisely this scenario for at least 12 years. But even they could not foresee that America would end up with a president willing to sacrifice so many lives on the altar of his ego.


Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "The war on Yemen begun in 2015 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been a failure militarily and a vast drain on resources that, in the age of Covid-19, neither country can any longer afford. Not only has the war been Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, it has inflicted untold human damage on Yemenis. UNICEF has a new report out warning that millions of Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation. Yemen, with a population of about 28 million (think Texas), is one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, with a citizen population of some 21 million, is one of the richest. The United Arab Emirates, with a citizen population of a little over 1 million, is likewise very rich. Both have waged a high-tech air war on the indigenous Yemeni Houthis, but in the past year have pitched their Sunni proxies against one another."
Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."