The Coronavirus is worse than the System Blinking Red

People wearing a face masks to protecting themself because of epidemic in China. Selective Focus. Concept of coronavirus quarantine.

Norman T. Roule served for 34-years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East.   He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 until September 2017.  As NIM-I, he was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policy makers in the National Security Council and the Department of State.

Former CIA Director George Tenet famously told the 9/11 Commission  that in the build-up to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “the system was blinking red.”  Government officials knew an attack was coming, they just weren’t able to put the pieces together quickly enough to stop it.

If 9/11 was a warning system ‘blinking red’, we’re already well past that with the coronavirus.  We’ve seen the warnings. We’ve experienced the SARS epidemic, and the scariest thing is that we – collectively –  still aren’t putting the pieces together quickly enough.

The international response to the COVID-19 coronavirus has killed thousands, disrupted economies, and may even impact elections as politicians are held accountable for their response.  The virus – most dangerous to the elderly and those weakened by existing medical conditions –has become a threat that is seen as capable of touching every home in America.  This is a new sort of national security threat, but lessons from history, to include our approach to terrorism and cyber threats offers important lessons.

Consider first what we can learn from our work against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.  The number of deaths and casualties from the coronavirus already exceeds the losses of that terrible day in 2001.  But today’s virus threat was not unexpected any more than the attacks by al-Qaeda.  Just as we endured the al-Qaeda attacks in Nairobi and Yemen that pre-dated 9/11 and knew of al-Qaeda activities in the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran, the possibility of a world pandemic has been frequently discussed following the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the 2012 Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreaks.

In an echo of today’s threat, the World Health Organization judged that the SARS coronavirus originated in China. SARS likely derived from an animal source, possibly bats, before spreading to other animals and then humans in the Guangdong province of southern China. Before the 2003 SARS global outbreak was contained, it had spread to more than 8,000 persons, killing almost 800.  Then, as now, China’s refusal to share information on the outbreak out of concerns over the economic and social consequences significantly contributed to its global spread.

Norman T. Roule, Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, ODNI

In the months prior to the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, the international community lacked the will to develop an effective collective architecture to prevent an entirely foreseeable major disaster. In some cases, a failure to act eventually magnified the scale of al-Qaeda’s impact. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan’s tolerance of al-Qaeda’s activity on their territory allowed it to establish training camps. Pakistan and Iran’s tolerance of travelers to these camps created a generation of violent militants. The irony is that whereas some have claimed it was a failure of imagination which contributed to our response against al-Qaeda before 9/11, the myriad apocalyptic films and novels depicting a post-plague world has somehow failed to spur the world to collective action against the inevitable.

The rise of China and its deep connections to global transportation hubs is a factor that cannot be ignored. Viral outbreaks in China are now a recognized threat to the world. Economies that rely on China inevitably risk becoming the routes by which viruses will migrate. Witness the outbreak of coronavirus on the U.S. West Coast, Italy, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.  Once there, the global connections of these countries accelerate transmission via millions of tourists and businessmen.  Iran’s isolation meant that it turned to China for trade in the face of sanctions.  Its authoritarian leadership then followed China’s path in hiding the outbreak until its own citizens and visitors from the Gulf and Europe carried the virus outside its borders.

As to what the future could hold, one need only compare travel in an airport in 2020 versus that same airport in 2000 to prove this point.  Imagine a similar response in 2020 where airports would be required to check passengers for symptoms of COVID-19 as well as for weapons.  Before one rejects this idea as unlikely, we should recall that in the early years of the 20th century, U.S. immigration officers checked every immigrant for the infectious eye disease trachoma. Tests were conducted in the U.S., but also at foreign ports that processed emigrants.  Absent an effective test, inspectors used their fingers or a buttonhook to pull back eyelids for evidence of the disease.  Misdiagnosis was not uncommon, but a positive diagnosis barred many (to include my grandmother’s infant daughter) from emigrating to America.  Given the consequences of overreaction, a careful approach is required to our handling of this long-term threat.

So, what should be done?  As with all global problems, it will take a mix of American leadership, international partners, and difficult engagement with adversaries to develop a solution.  This solution should draw upon the lessons learned in our counterterrorism and counter cyber actions.

International partners are already energized but they need to increase collaboration.  The war on terror saw some of its greatest progress when the U.S. expanded its sharing of threat information with international partners and wealthy Gulf states attacked the funding and ideological lifeline of extremism.  Today, we need both to accelerate information sharing as well as to endorse and learn from the actions of state and non-state actors.  Singapore has fought the virus with activity maps, tracking data, and even an experimental antibody test. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have undertaken stringent measures to limit the contagion.  A virus proliferating at Mecca or Madina could quickly spread throughout the world. The Emirates have become one of the world’s most popular tourist locations.  The Saudis have temporarily barred religious pilgrims and the UAE has halted unnecessary gatherings.  We should applaud their efforts and determine how best to encourage regional cooperation.

Information must be shared, and collective action must be immediate.  Unfortunately, many countries respond to virus threats much as some businesses and banks treat cyber-attacks.  Concerned over their reputation and economic losses, commercial entities lock down information, allowing cyber weapons to proliferate or operate undetected elsewhere.  The model we should consider is found in the collective actions of U.S. power companies in the wake of hurricanes.  In such situations, an established network rapidly shares damage details.  Power companies across the U.S. and Canada immediately respond with equipment and personnel, knowing that they will benefit from similar support in their own crisis. This model has already proven to be successful against cyber actors.  The difficulty will lay in autocratic powers (e.g., China and Iran) which have yet to demonstrate the political maturity to open outbreaks to international experts out of a concern that doing so will damage national pride, economic progress, or fragile social fabrics.  In other cases, a lack of diplomatic relations can delay a response.  A response to the coronavirus in the Middle East could only be enhanced by close and immediate cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, particularly those in the Gulf.

The public and private sectors need to cooperate.  The Bush administration recognized early in the war on terror that it needed to provide information and support to the private sector to enable it to play its role against the challenge.  This partnership has grown considerably since 2001 and now includes growing collaboration against cyber threats.  Governments need to develop deep alliances with a myriad of external partners including medical firms, airlines, and academic institutions.

Technology is a powerful enabler.  Technology has become a ubiquitous tool in the war on terror as well as in our fight against cyber actors.  Similarly, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools may be the single most decisive response in our efforts to combat pandemics. AI and the search for new technology are also the best paths to encouraging greater private sector involvement against this threat.  China and Singapore have already used such data to track the disease. One can imagine the United Arab Emirates – one of the few countries with a Ministry of Artificial Intelligence – playing a large regional role with this tool.

More resources will be needed, but resource management should be considered first.  The war on terror commanded a vast amount of resources.  In some cases, the funds were excessive or unnecessary. One report claimed that between fiscal years 2002 and 2017, the U.S. spent 16 percent of its discretionary budget on counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved $8.3 billion in emergency spending in response to coronavirus, more than triple the amount requested by the White House. The time has clearly come to discuss with our international partners how to allocate aid which must resource activities at home as well as actions abroad to limit the spread of the virus.

We should ensure that critical response industries are not allowed to fall under the control of potentially unresponsive foreign actors.  Unsurprisingly, many countries announced export embargoes on medical goods deemed critical to their own response to the virus.  We should ensure that the U.S. maintains an indigenous production capacity for such items as well as ensuring that vaccine production is focused either in the U.S. or in partner countries (e.g., Europe, Canada, Australia, Israel) where we can be assured of high production standards and equitable distribution.  We may need to review the complexities of intellectual property safeguards associated with research. No one doubts China’s desire and capacity to steal such property for its own commercial advantage, but we should be careful not to deny the world the benefit of Chinese scientists. Similarly, Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia are eager to employ a new generation in non-oil industries.  Riyadh and other capitals should be encouraged to develop biotechnology industries as they restructure their economies to address employment requirements.

Coronavirus may well fade out like the Zika threat, concerns over Mad Cow Disease, and the Y2K challenge.  But if so, we will have had one more experience warning us of an inevitable attack which unlike terrorism’s focus on political and symbolic targets, will wipe out the weakest among us.

Read more expert-driven insights, analysis on opinion in The Cipher Brief.

 

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