U.S. Intel Community Dropped the Ball on COVID-19, Congress Finds

But early missteps were made worse by White House inaction.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on COVID-19.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on COVID-19.
Then-U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a conference with members of the coronavirus task force at the White House in Washington on Feb. 26, 2020. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The U.S. intelligence community was slow to respond to the threat posed by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic in the first weeks of 2020, a report released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee concluded. It also said U.S. officials were slow to collect the kinds of intelligence required to inform policymakers in the early phase of the outbreak in China. 

The U.S. intelligence community was slow to respond to the threat posed by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic in the first weeks of 2020, a report released Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee concluded. It also said U.S. officials were slow to collect the kinds of intelligence required to inform policymakers in the early phase of the outbreak in China. 

The report, the result of a two-and-a-half-year review conducted by the Democrat-led congressional body, concluded that the sprawling U.S. intelligence community was ill-equipped to respond to the fast-moving crisis. 

“The intelligence community as a whole did not pivot quickly enough to train its unique assets at this deadly problem set,” committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff wrote in a letter accompanying the release of a declassified version of the report. 

The committee’s findings, detailed in an extensive declassified report, underscore how intelligence agencies have struggled to retool away from the threat posed by terrorism, a central focus of the past two decades, to the amorphous challenges posed by transnational threats, such as pandemics, which scientists fear could become more frequent due to climate change.

Despite multiple warnings from previous directors of national intelligence about the threat posed by infectious diseases, intelligence-gathering on health security and pandemics was patchy, the report concluded. The National Center for Medical Intelligence (which the report notes did “admirable work” early on) is tucked away within the Pentagon, where it struggled to draw the attention of the wider intelligence community, the National Security Council, and Congress. 

In January 2020, as the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, was forced into lockdown, U.S. intelligence reporting on the outbreak was based on “open-source reporting, diplomatic reporting.” As Beijing went to great lengths to downplay and stifle information about the severity of the outbreak, intelligence agencies were slow to train their clandestine collection resources to track the emerging threat posed by the virus. It was not until Jan. 29 that a directive was issued across the intelligence community to increase collection on the crisis. 

Despite a slow start, the report notes that by the end of January 2020, intelligence agencies were providing “clear and consistent warning” about the virus’s potential to become a pandemic—weeks before then-U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March. The report, which was based on interviews with intelligence officials and policymakers as well as reviews of internal assessments, challenges claims made by Trump in May 2020 that the intelligence community reporting on the emerging outbreak was “nonthreatening” or “matter of fact.” 

“The divergence between the intelligence community’s late January conclusions and the former president’s rhetoric is striking,” the report notes, adding that by early February, the president’s daily intelligence briefing warned that the virus had spread to such a point that it was unlikely to be contained. Since the outbreak of the pandemic—which the report notes has killed more Americans than all combat deaths of every war America has ever fought in—steps have been taken to place a renewed focus on the national security threat posed by global health challenges and biological threats, but the committee notes there is still more to be done. 

The report includes a number of classified recommendations as well as seven unclassified ones. It calls for the designation of a global health security center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to invest in the use of big data-driven, open-source intelligence gathering as well as better integration with public health agencies and for the intel community to recalibrate. After the intelligence community spent two decades fighting terrorism, the report suggests a slight shift in focus.

“Those threats traditionally labeled as ‘soft,’ including potential pandemics, can be just as, or even more, deadly than traditional national security threats, and the [international community] and policymakers alike cannot lose sight of that reality,” Schiff notes in the opening letter.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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