National Intelligence and the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Given its profound impact, it is worth asking whether the coronavirus pandemic represents a collective failure of national intelligence agencies.

Intelligence failure refers to the inability of the intelligence process to prevent political surprise. Given the lack of preparedness the coronavirus pandemic has exposed in many nations and the enormous human, social, economic, political and national security implications it will have, it may first appear that the coronavirus outbreak is indeed an intelligence failure.

However, pandemics are not new and most governments have been highly cognisant of the threat they pose. In 2000 the US published a National Intelligence Estimate on the global infectious disease threat, the first time the intelligence community had examined pandemic threats. This has continued since the 2003 Avian Flu outbreak. For example, since 2010 the UK’s National Security Risk Assessment has recognised a major public health disaster, in particular pandemic influenza, as a Tier One threat to national security. Continued focus on preparedness followed this clear policy prioritisation in the UK’s 2017 National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies and its 2018 Biological Security Review. The latter outlines an Understand, Prevent, Detect, Respond framework, with the intelligence services and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) responsible for identifying the deliberate use of biological agents only. As such, most governments were aware of the risk of a flu-like pandemic and had taken measures to build resilience, but the scope of the impact of coronavirus  seems unlikely to have been uniformly predicted.

Why is this? In short, the precise impact of each pandemic is difficult to predict beforehand. The American philosopher Nelson Goodman once wrote that ‘the future is likely to be not so very different from the past’. This means that the future will often look like the past, but that it also will always appear in new variations and contexts. Hence humans have a bias towards thinking that the future copies the past. SARS, MERS and the avian and swine flu outbreaks, although very serious, were eventually contained or ran their course. By one reading, it is our collective underestimation of the scale and contagiousness of coronavirus that has exacerbated an ill-founded belief that history is simply a prologue of the future, reducing our collective ability to identify, understand, communicate and accept threats that transcend the limits of our habitual thinking and shared experience.

Indeed, much depends on how we define national intelligence and what products intelligence services are expected to supply to decision-makers. Traditionally, intelligence has been conceived as collection and analysis in a security context to assess the intent and capability of an adversary, in order to maintain national security. This remit is far removed from assessing global health outbreaks, which has traditionally been the responsibility of specialised public health bodies like the US Center for Disease Control’s Influenza Division, Public Health England, and their national equivalents around the world.

This traditional division of labour between intelligence and public health services, as outlined in the UK’s Biological Security Strategy, could potentially have contributed to a lack of integrated early warning in some cases. Similarly, initial report verification, Chinese obfuscation of the nature of the crisis (which intelligence will have attempted to penetrate), resource constraints and political considerations would have slowed responses. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the US intelligence community was warning about the major impact of coronavirus in January, but the warning was not heeded. This, despite what some have claimed, is clearly not a case of failure in the intelligence cycle. Fundamentally, the issues that may exist with detecting and understanding the coronavirus threat is due to how intelligence has been traditionally defined and tasked. Given where we are now, this may need to change.


We have already witnessed intelligence agencies quickly adapt to the coronavirus threat. So far this has primarily been focused on the response to the pandemic. In China, the authorities deployed a mobile phone surveillance mobile tool to quarantine those who may have been near someone who had tested positive. Israel is using antiterrorism phone-tracking technology to map infections and track patients. South Korea has deployed a central tracking app, coronavirus100m, to alert citizens close to a confirmed case, although this has been criticised for the public display of location data. The city of Toronto is also ‘obtaining cell phone data from wireless carriers to help it identify where people have assembled in groups’.  Reports suggest health officials and scientists in Britain are aiming to introduce a voluntary app that will alert people who had come in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, and another app tracking symptoms has already launched. The voluntary nature of these apps contrasts China, highlighting the wariness in democracies about government surveillance. Yet both Israel and South Korea have mitigated these somewhat by pledging not to keep any data whilst addressing location privacy concerns too.

As these actions indicate, national intelligence in an epidemiological context is different. It consists of intelligence institutions’ ability to understand how epidemiology and pandemics affect human behaviour, and consequently how the collection, retention, processing, understanding and distribution of human behaviour metadata can strengthen early warning and reduce the threat from pandemics. Some signals intelligence organisations have the capability to collect large scale data sets about population behaviour on line and the impact of these for epidemiology analytics. This is data which is sorely missing from even the most advanced coronavirus models that policymakers have been using in recent weeks. Such a use of intelligence would require new skills, and mark a major detour from the traditional definition of intelligence, notwithstanding the important fact that both seek to minimise threats to national security.

The coronavirus tragedy teaches us that pandemics will continue to be a threat to national security but that they will appear in different forms each time. Data processing capability and capacity is very important in trying to detect and understand pandemics, because each virus has general similarities and unique differences. Collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of enormous amounts of metadata is needed to fight pandemics to the best of our ability, and due to their experience and capacity, some intelligence institutions are well placed to do this. Stored metadata for comparison would further enhance this capacity, subject to strict legal conditions.

Crucially, however, democratic publics will only accept this adoption of intelligence tools to pandemic analysis if the collection, storage and review of the data is strictly limited to epidemiological purposes. Any suggestion that this data can be adapted for other security or commercial purposes should be strictly forbidden as a matter of law.

Last week, G-7 leaders called for ‘real-time information sharing to ensure access to the best and latest intelligence, improving prevention strategies and mitigation measures [including Non G-7 nations] ... [in order to] pool epidemiologic and other data to better understand and fight the virus’.

In terms of international response, case-based task forces where nations pool information and coordinate response have proven successful in the past. Therefore, our recommendation is to create a Global Corona Intelligence Analysis Center (GCIAC) as soon as possible. It may also help to track the potential for rogue states and terrorists to weaponise pandemics. Nevertheless, national intelligence alone is not enough to fight the virus. Coronavirus will ultimately be brought under control if tracing, testing, and quarantining efforts are globally coordinated, comprehensive, and ideally informed by the best data available.

Michael Chertoff is a former Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. He is Executive Chairman of the Chertoff Group and the author of Exploding Data: Reclaiming Our Cyber Security in the Digital Age (Grove Press, 2018).

Patrick Bury is Senior Lecturer in Security at the University of Bath, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow examining counter-terrorism transformation and the author of Callsign Hades (Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2010).

Kjetil Hatlebrekke is Associate Professor at the Norwegian Defence Intelligence School, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, and the author of The Problem of Secret Intelligence: Intelligence, Surveillance and Secret Warfare (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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