By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe
31 March 2020 in The Hill
Few people regard the novel coronavirus pandemic as an intelligence failure. And, judging by conventional standards, it is not one. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) was created to collect and analyze secret information about our adversaries’ capabilities and intentions that pose strategic threats to American national security. Despite allegations by some foreign propagandists and domestic conspiracy-mongers, COVID-19 was not dreamed up in some biological weapons laboratory and unleashed diabolically on the world. Its origins in Chinese “wet markets” were far more prosaic. Today’s rapidly emerging global dangers could not have been uncovered by intercepting secret Chinese communications or capturing their plans for biological warfare.
In such situations, traditional approaches to gathering and analyzing intelligence can only make limited contributions. They can help to determine what secretive governments, such as those in China and Iran, actually know about the spread of COVID-19 and its lethality, and to what degree they may be hiding the truth. And some spinmeisters, evidently intent on both polishing the IC’s image and tarnishing that of President Trump, already have been portraying classified briefings in January and February as an intelligence success because they did just that.
But the notion that Trump is guilty of failing to heed these briefings — or that Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), and other U.S. senators are legally and ethically culpable for allegedly dumping stocks in response to them — overstates how actionable they were. Anyone who doubts this should ask whether the CIA itself took early action to protect its own personnel and facilities from the coming wave of danger that it supposedly forecast.
Rendering the entirely unsurprising judgment that Beijing was failing to level with its people or the world is not the same as sounding urgent alarms about a global health crisis that could lead to world economic depression. And making a marginal contribution to scaling a deadly threat after it has emerged is not why American taxpayers devote tens of billions of dollars annually to our intelligence cadre. The fundamental purpose of intelligence is to warn effectively about incipient dangers before they become urgent realities, not to help measure their dimensions — or advance partisan political agendas — afterward.
In the context of this larger purpose, the emergence of the novel coronavirus crisis highlights some unacceptable weaknesses in American intelligence. Since its inception in 1947, the IC’s primary mission has been to warn of deliberate, secretly planned attacks by our adversaries, whether they are powerful state actors or non-state terrorists. This challenge endures, as great power competition intensifies, and terrorism persists. While the IC’s record on this is mixed, it is at least a task well-suited to high-technology intelligence collection and to analysis, breaking down a problem and studying its component parts individually.
Unfortunately, our globalized 21st century-world also produces national security threats of a different kind, those that arise when small, non-secret factors combine to produce a devastating cascade of knock-on effects that no one has planned or anticipated. Novel coronavirus turned into a crisis not because it is deadlier than the SARS virus that emerged in China in 2002 (its fatality rate is lower, though it has claimed more lives), but because it debuted in a more entangled but less trusting world, whose weaker physical and psychological antibodies were not up to the challenge. This is the type of a problem that requires synthetic rather than analytic thinking: examining interconnections and feedback loops that can cause small developments to mutate into big dangers.
As it stands today, the IC is ill-staffed and poorly organized for warning about such emerging “complex systems” threats, unfolding in a chaotic world, before they become unmanageable crises. The IC’s enormous cadre of narrowly focused analysts and collectors is ideal for handling traditional intelligence tasks, where uncovering hidden technical details can spell the difference between success and failure in dealing with foreign adversaries.
But large organizational size and narrow specializations can be real handicaps when the task is to bring together a wide range of disciplines and understand the interconnections among factors that could produce “perfect storms” of danger. And old cultural and regulatory barriers between foreign intelligence and domestic American affairs impede understanding the feedback effects between factors internal to the United States and those beyond our borders.
To meet this type of challenge, intelligence must operate on a smaller and smarter scale. It must rely less on secret information, and more on interdisciplinary teams of experts tasked with understanding the larger context of events. In cases such as the novel coronavirus crisis, it must assemble diverse groups of doctors, epidemiologists, economists, business leaders, data scientists, psychologists and other experts who are not typically central players in intelligence assessments.
And it needs to be much better informed about what American entities are doing at home and abroad, because these entities are often important parts of complex international systems. Intelligence experts cannot understand how perfect storms of danger develop beyond our borders — nor can American policymakers know how to deal with them effectively — unless they also understand the ways U.S. factors and capabilities affect them.
Rising to this challenge also requires a much more cooperative and trusting relationship among the IC, White House and Congress. To provide meaningful assessments, intelligence organizations must engage policymakers in their discussion of systemic variables and feedback loops early in the process. They must view their role as helping policymakers to identify variables they can influence, directly and indirectly, and to anticipate the possible impacts on the system of various policy options. They must help U.S. leaders strike an effective balance between punishing Beijing for hiding the true extent of COVID-19’s early spread — a necessary deterrent to future misconduct — and pushing it too far, particularly in an environment where the Communist Party’s reputation and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own sagacity have taken a beating, and adopting measures that might boomerang against our own national security.
None of that can happen when the IC is an active player in domestic political warfare. In this regard, press leaks about the IC’s supposedly perspicacious warnings about the novel coronavirus threat are actually indications of collective failure. Such internecine strife destroys the trust necessary for frank dialogue among those attempting to understand the dynamics of problems such as the novel coronavirus crisis, and those attempting to manage them.
Reckoning with these problems should be an urgent matter for the acting Director of National Intelligence, a position created to bring together diverse entities and foster collaboration across the IC. The cascade of developments flowing from the outbreak of COVID-19 is far from over. To one degree or another, the United States, Europe, Russia and China all will be wounded — physically, economically and psychologically. These wounds could very well contribute to a dangerous new phase of great power competition. Understanding the dynamics that could send it spiraling beyond manageable bounds into deadly warfare is a vital task for American intelligence.
David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst.
George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”