Three Questions for Investigators of the COVID19 Intelligence Failure

ODNI Threat Assessment
Rep. Adam Schiff
Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee wants a bipartisan commission to investigate the government’s response to the COVID19 pandemic.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks President George Bush stoutly resisted the creation of a committee to investigate of how the hijackers were able to penetrate America’s defenses. Only the congressional intelligence committees should investigate, Bush said, and only behind closed doors. Vice President Cheney said those who charged the attacks on New York and Washington represented an intelligence failure were “irresponsible.”

So we can expect President Trump, allies, cronies, and trolls to resist Rep. Adam’s Schiff’s call for 9/11 style national commission to investigate the response to COVID outbreak that emanated from China last December.

Bolton Twitter
National Security Adviser

John Bolton, Twitter addict and unemployed geopolitical provocateur, prefers the United States take punitive action toward China for Beijing’s bungled response. He’s not alone. The problem isn’t China, says Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, it’s the “Chinese Communist Party Virus.”

There’s no contradiction, however, between holding governments in Beijing and Washington accountable, as National Memo’s Joe Conason notes.

A serious investigation of the pandemic, its origins and its almost unimpeded swath of destruction would begin by identifying the actual source of the disease and examining how the virus jumped into the human population. Such an investigation would necessarily examine the Chinese government’s responsibility in having concealed the outbreak at the very beginning, when it might have been eradicated at relatively little cost.

And then the investigation would probe Washington’s ruinous neglect of the pandemic threat as it loomed over this country.

The goal is not to point fingers at individuals or countries (although that may be in order) but to overhaul U.S. national defenses, to rethink our definition of national security and to reorganize our the national security state accordingly.

COVID19 investigators can start by asking three questions.

  1. Who set priorities at the Office of Director of National Intelligence?
Pandemic warning on p. 21.
Pandemic warning on p. 21.

The ODNI was created after 9/11 precisely to create a body of intelligence analysts with a broader view of national security than any one agency. To its credit, ODNI cogently identified the danger of pandemic in its 2019 threat assessment.

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. Although the international community has made tenuous improvements to global health security, these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade,and regional climate change.

This warning is spot on. The problem is that it came halfway through a 42-page catalog of dangers facing the United States. For ODNI, the threat of a pandemic ranked slightly behind the dangers posed by Salvadoran street gangs and war in outer space.

On a Cipher Brief group call, I asked former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff if ODNI’s buried finding represented an intelligence failure. He ducked the question saying, “There’s always the issue of what the consumer [ meaning the rest of the government and the White House] wants to hear.”

In other words, other agencies worried about counterterrorism and Russian influence operations, so ODNI downgraded the danger of pandemics. That sounds like an admission that the U.S. intelligence community, which prides itself on “speaking truth to power,” chose not to do so in this case.

In the mental universe of ODNI, the poor gangsters of MS-13 represent a greater threat to the American people than an untreatable contagious illness. One can debate whether racism affected ODNI’s judgment but one cannot dispute that its muffled warning wasn’t much help to policymakers or the public.

The U.S. intelligence community is disturbed because Richard Grenell, a lightly qualified former press spokesman, now serves as Acting DNI. Grenell is indeed a hack. But Grenell was not responsible for ODNI’s faulty priorities. Former ODNI Dan Coats was. Coats needs to testify.

2) What did John Bolton’s dismantle the NSC’s pandemic office?

A second failure of intelligence occurred at the National Security Council.

In May 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton “streamlined” the NSC’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense right out of existence. The directorate had been created by the Obama administration after the Ebola scare of 2014, in which the deadly disease ravaged Africa. This hub for expertise and institutional memory was dispersed, as its last director wrote in the Washington Post.

Bolton saw a greater threat emanating from the besieged government of Venezuela. “Regime change” was a higher priority than “Global Health Security.” Bolton’s explanation for his re-organization needs to be heard, preferably under oath.

3) Why didn’t the Defense Department’s medical intelligence office show more leadership?

Another node of apparent failure was the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), which operates as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  The story comes from former U.S military intelligence officer Scott Ritter, writing in The American Conservative.

The mission of the NCMI is to serve as the lead activity within the Department of Defense (DoD) “for the production of medical intelligence,” and to prepare and coordinate “integrated, all-source intelligence for the DoD and other government and international organizations on foreign health threats and other medical issues.”

The office had proved its value before, Ritter writes.

…[I]n April 2009—two months prior to when the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared the global outbreak of H1N1 influenza a pandemicNCMI published an intelligence product, known as an “Infectious Disease Risk Assessment,” which predicted that a recent outbreak of the Swine Flu (H1N1) would become a pandemic. 

The coronavirus was clearly part of the NCMI’s remit, he notes

And yet its first Infectious Disease Risk Assessment for COVID-19 was issued on January 5, 2020, reporting that 59 people had been taken ill in Wuhan, China. This report was derived not from any sensitive intelligence collection effort or independent biosurveillance activity, but rather from a report issued to the WHO by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, dated January 5, 2020.

Ritter doesn’t point a finger at Trump. He asks, how will NCMI improve on its weak performance?

As President Trump noted on March 17, however, it would have been helpful to have had advance warning. That was the job of the NCMI, and they failed. This failure may have been a result of complacency, incompetence, or just a byproduct of circumstance. Regardless of the reason, the NCMI needs to learn from this experience, and reexamine the totality of the intelligence cycle—the direction, collection, analysis and feedback loop—associated with its failure to adequately predict the coronavirus pandemic.

And Ritter asks an epidemiological question: Did the virus originate in animals or in humans? Multiple government statements say it came from animals. But Ritter reports

that the Joint Field Epidemiology Investigation Team, a specialized task force working under the auspices of the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC), found that the COVID-19 epidemic did not [emphasis added] originate by animal-to-human transmission in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as originally believed, but rather human-to-human transmission totally unrelated to the operation of the market.  

That’s certainly not the conventional wisdom. So, who’s right? Where did the virus come from? That’s one more question that needs to be asked and answered by the coming COVID19 investigation.

 Source: The Staggering Collapse of U.S. Intelligence on the Coronavirus | The American Conservative

China’s Intelligence Service Warns of Backlash over Coronavirus


Reuters admits that it has not seen this report generated by China’s Ministry of State Security but says a source has described its findings: in the wake of the pandemic, China is expecting the worst, geopolitically speaking, perhaps even war with the United States.

The MSS assess that

 Beijing faces a wave of anti-China sentiment led by the United States in the aftermath of the pandemic and needs to be prepared in a worst-case scenario for an armed confrontation between the two global powers, according to people familiar with the report’s content, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. The report was drawn up by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security.

Source: China warned of Tiananmen-like backlash over coronavirus: report | USA News | Al Jazeera

Trump Amplifies Uncertainty of Intelligence Findings on COVID19 Origins

Richard Grenell
Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence.

“I will tell you, more and more, we’re hearing the story [that the new coronavirus emerged from a Wuhan lab],” President Trump said on April 15.

On April 30, Trump said he had a “high degree of confidence” the new coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Trump said he was “not allowed” to revealed his sources, according to Reuters.

Facing Republican criticism and declining polls numbers for his belated and chaotic response to the pandemic, Trump has changed the subject to China. He cut off funding for the World Health Organization, charging it is Chinese dominated and is exploring sanctions against China for its handling of the outbreak. Amplifying the uncertainty around the origins of the virus is a political imperative for an agitated president.

Locating the origins of the virus is no easy matter, notes the Washington Post. The Wuhan lab cannot be ruled out as a source.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the first 425 patients, only 45 percent had connections to the market. A separate Jan. 24 analysis published in the Lancet found that three of the first four cases — including the first known case — did not have market links.

Daniel R. Lucey, a pandemics expert at Georgetown University, put it simply: “In my opinion, the virus came into the market before it came out of the market.”

There were warnings. Post columnist Josh Rogin revealed two 2018 cables in which State Department officials warned of safety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory studying bat coronaviruses.

The scientists interviewed by the Post would not rule out the possibility of a laboratory leak but most said they considered it “highly unlikely,” based on the molecular characteristics of the virus. Others are not so certain.

“It just seems like such a remarkable coincidence that you have an outbreak of a coronavirus in theory from a bat in the same city where there is this high-level BSL-4 laboratory, where not only are there foreign concerns about its safety, but there are Chinese articles about the safety protocols not being sufficient. And obviously there’s no smoking gun,” said Emily de La Bruyère, a China expert with Horizon Advisory. “It’s all circumstantial, but it’s pretty remarkable.”

Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that “the weight of evidence” points to natural causes.

On Thursday, the Office of Director of National Intelligence, now headed by Trump loyalist Richard Grennell, weighed in with a promise to investigate further.

“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security. The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

More investigation is always appropriate. But since Grenell has zero intelligence or scientific credentials, some U.S. officials suspect a political agenda behind the Trump administration’s investigation.

The New York Times reports:

Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.

Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.

Former Times reporter Tim Weiner comments:

Still, it is impossible to say that Trump is wrong, which gives a president cornered by the virus room to fudge the facts.

The Spies Who Predicted COVID-19 

James Clapper
ODNI Threat Assessment
ODNI Threat Assessment

Former CIA spokesman Kent Harrington runs down the history of warnings from the intelligence community about pandemics. There were quite a few. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama paid attention.

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.”

One of the spy chiefs who got the pandemic threat right was James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under Obama and frequent Trump critic. Clapper has his failings as a public servant. He supported the Iraq war and he dissembled about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs to Congress. But he was spot on about the danger of a pandemic.

Harrington explains:

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 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 [Clapper’s successor Dan] 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.”

Harrington concludes:

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.

Source: The Spies Who Predicted COVID-19 by Kent Harrington – Project Syndicate

Pakistan Using ISI Spy Service to Track Suspected Covid-19 Cases

Faiiz Hameed, chief of Pakistan’s ISI.

Pakistan’s powerful spy services, Inter-Services Intelligence, just got a little stronger. Prime Minister Imran Khan has given ISI a lead role in tracking people infected with coronavirus.

“It (tracking system) was originally (meant to trace) terrorists but we’re using it to tackle corona,” Khan said during the live Ehsaas Telethon to raise funds to support the people worst hit by the pandemic. He said that “tracking and testing is the only way to reopen businesses”. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. In 1950, it was officially given the task of safeguarding Pakistani interests and national security, inside and outside the country.

Source: Pakistan Govt Using ISI’s System to Track Suspected Covid-19 Cases: PM Imran Khan