By David B. Rivkin,
Jr., and George Beebe
31 March 2020 in The
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.
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 —
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”