Argument

Spies Are Fighting a Shadow War Against the Coronavirus

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

A janitor mops the floor at the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, on March 3, 2005.
A janitor mops the floor at the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, on March 3, 2005. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

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. U.S. intelligence, and its partners, will therefore have major roles in verifying their official figures. Some of this intelligence will come from espionage, the age-old tradecraft of recruiting human sources with access to relevant secret information. It will also undoubtedly come from technical intelligence, such as signals intelligence or imagery intelligence, indicating foreign state deception about COVID-19.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The third way that intelligence services will play a significant role in responding to the coronavirus, and future pandemics, is by countering disinformation. Beijing and Washington are currently engaged in a propaganda battle about which of them leads the world in defeating COVID-19 and, by implication, whether democratic or nondemocratic governments can better protect citizens. As U.S. infection rates rise exponentially, and as U.S. deaths now surpass China’s, Washington is losing that soft-power battle. To discredit the United States publicly, the Chinese government has promoted a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military was responsible for importing the new coronavirus to China. Whether the Chinese politburo knows it or not, its false claim is in fact a regurgitation of an older Cold War conspiracy theory developed by Soviet intelligence: that the U.S. military developed HIV. In Operation Infektion, the KGB spread disinformation that HIV was manufactured at the secret U.S. biological research institute at Fort Detrick—ironically, the predecessor to the facility mentioned above, now at the front line of the U.S. intelligence response to COVID-19. There is thus a sad convergence between previous Soviet disinformation about a pandemic and U.S. efforts to counter one today.

It is not surprising that in the face of a lethal new virus, without a cure, societies are confused, scared, and in disarray, and they are easy prey for state and nonstate disinformation. In such circumstances, human nature tends to search for explanations, and the hidden hand of a foreign government is an appealing way to explain the otherwise inexplicable. During the Cold War, the U.S. government devised a remarkably successful strategy to counter KGB disinformation about HIV. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan established an interdepartmental group to counter Soviet disinformation, the Active Measures Working Group (AMWG), whose strategy was threefold: report, analyze, and publicize. It discovered the KGB’s role in HIV disinformation from intelligence collection—probably from a spy. Armed with this information, the AMWG attributed the conspiracy theory to the Kremlin, and, in a series of high-profile meetings with Soviet leaders, the United States publicized the Kremlin’s disinformation operation. Soon after, in 1987, Moscow abruptly disowned the HIV conspiracy theory.

The same strategy is applicable for countering COVID-19 disinformation today. The United States could do well to establish a modern-day AMWG for countering disinformation. However, in the age of social media, its efforts would need to be accelerated and would need cooperation from largely unregulated social media companies, which now make it quicker, cheaper, and easier to spread disinformation than ever before in history. In the Cold War, the KGB spread disinformation about HIV by planting bogus information in obscure publications, enlisting pseudo-scientific so-called proof, which Soviet media and useful idiots in left-leaning Western media reported as established fact. Its disinformation operation succeeded when, in 1986, mainstream Western media picked up the story. However, it was a slow, laborious, and complex undertaking for Soviet intelligence. By contrast, all that is needed today to discredit the U.S. government are bogus social media accounts and online trolls. Another major difference between past and present U.S. responses to pandemic disinformation is the current White House’s own misinformation about COVID-19. Trump has delivered numerous false and misleading statements about the virus and its spread. Furthermore, unlike previous presidents, Trump has questioned whether any government is truthful about it. This week, he claimed that every country spreads disinformation about the virus—implying that doing so is no big deal.

The fourth and final way that intelligence can help counter COVID-19 and other pandemics is through surveillance. Here, authoritarian regimes like China have huge inbuilt advantages over Western liberal democracies, which respect the rule of law and civil liberties. China has deployed intrusive mass surveillance of its citizens to counter the virus, using digital IDs to monitor people’s movements and even offering rewards for informing on sick neighbors. By contrast, Americans have not yet started to have an urgently needed public policy debate about the extent to which they are willing to have their privacy infringed on to protect public health through infection contact tracing. One of America’s closest allies, Israel, has deployed a nationwide digital surveillance program using phone-tracking spyware technology, originally designed for counterterrorism, to map infections and notify people who could be infected.

Until a vaccine is found, which is likely to take between 12 and 18 months, Americans need to address whether they are willing to adopt similar intrusive surveillance as Israel—leaving aside that in China. Where does the balance for Americans lie between public health security and civil liberties? Would a digital dragnet be constitutionally legal in the United States, perhaps under wartime emergency regulations, and what safeguards should Americans demand for how collected data is used? These are not abstract ideas for debates in a comfortable law school seminar. They are urgent real-world issues. In Britain, former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption lambasted British police this week for publicly shaming people exercising in public parks against the government’s wishes. As Sumption noted, a police force that enforces the mere wishes of a government without following the rule of law is the definition of a police state.

The U.S. government has the necessary technological capabilities to create a domestic digital dragnet similar to Israel’s. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (by a slim 5-4 majority) that, generally, U.S. authorities need to obtain warrants for cell-phone geolocation data but that there are certain emergency situations when warrantless collection is permissible, like bomb threats, tracking down fugitives, or “to protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm.” The U.S. Congress needs to have an urgent policy and legal debate whether COVID-19 presents such an emergency—a debate that should include powerful warnings from history about U.S. government programs to collect bulk communication data. In the past, such U.S. programs enacted during wars have tended to roll on, in secret, even after those wars ended. If the United States creates a similar digital dragnet to Israel to protect public health against COVID-19, Americans should demand oversight and transparency about it, with U.S. authorities producing regular statistical transparency reports about the nature and scale of the digital data collected, similar to those that U.S. intelligence has produced after Edward Snowden’s revelations.

In any case, the above four ways are how intelligence services are certain to contribute to defeating COVID-19. When documents are eventually declassified about today’s health emergency, they will likely reveal that intelligence services were assisting their respective governments in another way—through deniable covert actions. Israel’s main intelligence service, Mossad, has reportedly conducted an undercover operation to purchase COVID-19 testing kits from overseas. It is not difficult to imagine other states mounting similar operations. Ultimately, intelligence services will always be the last refuge for sovereign states.

As for the future, governments around the world are sure to demand a new kind of counterpandemic intelligence to ensure they are never again caught by surprise. Countries that already have such resources, like the United States, will reward them with higher status. Just as previous U.S. national security disasters, like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, led to overhauls of U.S. intelligence to ensure they never happened again, so the coronavirus will do the same. Pandemic intelligence will become a central part of future U.S. national security, along with other areas like counterterrorism, counterespionage, and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, these fields may collide, as state and nonstate actors take advantage of the geopolitical fallout from the virus to conduct terrorism, spy, and launch cyberattacks. (Governments may soon even face bioterrorism of a new sort—terrorists infected with COVID-19 deliberately spreading it.)

Serious questions—and doubtless future lawsuits—will scrutinize whether Trump’s confusing and inconsistent public policy responses to the virus cost American lives. But among policymakers, one can hope there will be consensus that some of the most important parts of the U.S. intelligence community only become apparent during emergencies.

Calder Walton is the author of Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire and Director of Research of Harvard Kennedy School's Intelligence Project. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of Cambridge.

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