Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Spies Are Fighting a Shadow War Against the Coronavirus

| Apr. 03, 2020

Intelligence agencies will play a growing role in keeping their countries safe during the pandemic—by any means necessary.

The coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping across the world is more than a public health emergency. It poses unprecedented threats to national and international security, and fighting it, as the leaders of several countries have stressed, will resemble a major war involving similar numbers of fatalities. Intelligence services will have a major role in this struggle, just as they have in previous wars throughout history. That role will largely be played in the shadows—but it will be no less significant for its secrecy.

There are four ways that intelligence services will contribute to the war against COVID-19. First, they will provide policymakers with assessments about the virus's spread and impact. The U.S. intelligence community already has a dedicated facility now at the front line of fighting COVID-19, the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), based at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Staffed with epidemiologists, virologists, and other experts, the NCMI acts as a clearing house for all-source U.S. intelligence about the virus. Building on its Cold War predecessor, the NCMI has been America's eyes and ears when it comes to biological threats since 2008, up to and including COVID-19. According to public reporting, in January and February this year, the U.S. intelligence community warned the Trump administration about the threat of the virus spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where it originated, and becoming a pandemic.

President Donald Trump reportedly dismissed those intelligence warnings. But this initial mishandling of COVID-19 was not a U.S. intelligence failure in the sense that the U.S. intelligence community failed to deliver warnings to policymakers. Instead, it was a policy failure—if today’s reporting is correct, one of the worst and most dangerous policy failures in U.S. history.)

The second way that intelligence services will contribute to fighting COVID-19 is by stealing secrets. Spying, as such stealing is commonly known, is concerned with uncovering information that others want kept secret. With the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. intelligence will be able to provide Washington policymakers with unique information—unavailable from any other source—about foreign state secrets concerning the virus, including whether their official government infection rates are accurate. These secrets will be particularly important to discover in closed regimes like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, China concealed the extent of its initial viral outbreak, while Russia had suspiciously low official levels of COVID-19 infections at first but has now imposed draconian lockdowns....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“Spies Are Fighting a Shadow War Against the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, April 3, 2020.