A year later, the Department of Homeland Security was created, absorbing 22 agencies and organizations and becoming the third-largest federal bureaucracy. Across the government, budgets were increased for counterterrorism operations. Congress enacted laws granting powerful investigative authorities to law enforcement. And the intelligence agencies pivoted off their Cold War footing toward a new “global war on terror.”
Now, three months after President Trump declared a national emergency because of the coronavirus, officials and analysts are again asking whether national security should be dramatically recalibrated, this time around the threat of pandemic.
“We need to treat this moment like we treated 9/11, recognizing that we have a massive vulnerability in which we have chronically underinvested,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who helped lead the government’s response to the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.
The Washington Post spoke to 29 current and former officials, lawmakers and experts to ask how the coronavirus pandemic would change U.S. national security. The officials have served in Republican and Democratic administrations in the White House, the military, the intelligence community and the State Department. Many of them claim no party affiliation.
Their responses showed areas of broad consensus.
Nearly to a person, they said the government should not create another big bureaucracy. It took years to fully organize DHS, a department which has since narrowed its focus mainly to immigration and border control, not counterterrorism. Large structural reorganizations would absorb time better spent making existing systems work more effectively, they say.
The United States did create new programs after the 2001 attacks to defend the country from pandemics. Public health, security and military officials have responded to less severe outbreaks over the years and simulated pandemics on the scale of the coronavirus. The intelligence community also has warned for years, in classified and public reports, that pandemic disease is at least as serious a security problem as terrorism, cyberattacks and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
None of it has seemed to make much difference.
“In terms of the needless loss of life, I think this is the biggest failure in American history,” said Gregory Treverton, who chaired the National Intelligence Council from 2014 to 2017. More people died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he noted. But modern medical science was in its infancy, and government leaders’ ignorance about how viruses behave led to wildly conflicting responses. “With covid-19, we knew lots of things we could have done, like producing tests early on so that we could track and trace the virus. And we just didn’t do it.”
Many former officials were pessimistic that the Trump administration would make meaningful changes or learn much from its response, which has been widely criticized as slow and inept. Trump all but declared victory over the pandemic at a Rose Garden ceremony on June 5, celebrating an unexpected drop in the unemployment rate.
Across the government, key security positions are vacant or filled by acting personnel who many believe are too inexperienced or too afraid to enact meaningful changes.
“The system now is set up to keep your mouth shut,” said Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who tracks vacancies in the security agencies that he says make the country more vulnerable to a disaster.
In Congress, the coronavirus has become a kind of national security Rorschach test. By and large, Democrats want to work with allies to share medical equipment and speed up research and development of treatments and vaccines. Republicans are more likely to see the pandemic as an alarm call about the rising power of China, the source of the novel coronavirus, and favor actions to blunt the expansion of that country’s military.
If the United States wants to save more lives and fend off economic ruin when the next pandemic strikes, leaders should take the following steps, the analysts said, while they still have time.
Don't reinvent the wheel
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was supposed to be the world’s premier epidemiological agency. The Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security have pandemic preparedness as part of their mission.
But those organizations responded too late to the coronavirus and were often at odds with each other, current and former officials said. They faulted the administration for dismantling the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the NSC and folding it into another entity. The directorate was meant to coordinate the overall response to outbreaks at the behest of the White House, and it should be restored and strengthened, many argued.
“If the national security staff apparatus around the president is doing its job right, it should be able to coordinate different elements of the government,” said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, who was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.
A White House coordinator would speak for the president and report directly to him. “The way to make stuff happen is to make somebody accountable for it happening,” said Kori Schake, who has served in senior positions at the State Department, the Pentagon and on the NSC staff, and is now at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is plenty of capacity in the American government to identify problems, to sound an early alarm and come up with a plan for solving the problem.”
Treat diseases like hurricanes
When acting deputy homeland security secretary Ken Cuccinelli lamented on Twitter in late February that he couldn’t access a Johns Hopkins University coronavirus model, it triggered several questions, chief among them: Why did a senior government official need an academic study to inform himself about the virus?
Cuccinelli later clarified that he did have access to CDC data, but the episode highlighted the government’s reliance on private models that are typically produced by volunteer academics. Projections about the disease’s severity and trajectory have varied.
In a recent paper, Johns Hopkins scientist Caitlin Rivers and former White House and intelligence official Dylan George made the case for a new epidemic forecasting center.
A federally funded body, it would provide decision-makers with real-time information that could save lives and, they said, yield improved forecasting capability over time. They likened the proposal to the establishment in the 20th century of the National Hurricane Center.
“When a hurricane comes and is about to hit the U.S.. . . . speed matters and lives are on the line,” George said.
The center — likely a government-academic partnership — would help guide decisions on when to reinforce the National Strategic Stockpile and create extra bed space at hospitals, said Konyndyk, now a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Konyndyk and other experts said that whatever format improved forecasting takes, it must be done on an unclassified basis to foster international collaboration, as is the case for scientists who study extreme weather events, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Change the U.S. relationship with China
Politicians of both parties have faulted Beijing for covering up crucial details about the initial coronavirus outbreak and not allowing U.S. disease experts into the country. China posed a major strategic challenge to the United States before the pandemic, which has exacerbated tensions and partisan division over what to do.
“I think this is [about] freedom versus totalitarianism,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), echoing the Republican rallying cry to embrace a hard-line military and economic stance toward China. “Covid has presented to the world the reality of what we’re dealing with,” she said, arguing that China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative threatens America’s ability to secure resources it needs.
In response to the mounting U.S. death toll, Republican senators including Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) are proposing steps that would seek to hold Beijing accountable, including potential sanctions on Chinese officials.
The crisis also coincides with the Pentagon’s race to make good on its long-delayed objective of reorienting toward competition with China, which has made strides in recent decades in developing a more powerful, advanced military in part, officials say, by stealing American trade secrets.
Some lawmakers are now calling for an acceleration of the military pivot, including expanded basing and troop assignments in Asia.
“I think there is a chance that the damage that they have suffered will actually prompt the regime in Beijing to accelerate their plans towards dominance in the Indo-Pacific and their attempts to exercise coercive economic leverage internationally,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “We need to be ready for that.”
But Democrats have not linked the virus to the military effort in the same way, focusing on what they see as the Trump administration’s slow, disorganized response and their own vision for global engagement to defend against disease.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the pandemic underscored the need for a bigger diplomatic presence overseas and stronger international collaboration.
“Even though there is a real stigma attached to globalization, we’ll have to recognize that alliances, international organizations have to be strengthened so that . . . we can use our influence without military force directly,” he said.
“To prepare for the next pandemic, we will have to work with China,” said Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat who worked in Republican and Democratic administrations and was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. “To do something on climate change, we will have to work with China. Our political leaders have a responsibility to compete, but in a smart way and not drive this relationship into a ditch.”
Don't view the military as the panacea for everything
The military made important contributions to the domestic response. Personnel embedded in civilian hospitals, while the Army Corps of Engineers has overseen construction of field hospitals. Military laboratories are working to develop treatments and vaccines.
Some experts and lawmakers said the military could lend greater, or faster, logistics support as needed in future outbreaks. But others cautioned that this limited role should not give way to adding pandemic prevention or response to the Pentagon’s core security mission. The military is still recovering from the strain of two decades of counterinsurgency wars and making changes that defense leaders say are necessary to compete against Russia and China.
“One of the things that we’ve done, and I think mistakenly, in the last 20 years, is that we’ve asked the United States military to do all manner of things not really military in nature,” Hawley said.
Michele Flournoy, a former defense official who has long been considered a leading contender to lead the Pentagon in a Democratic administration, said Americans were likely to expand their notion of national security to include protection from future pandemics, meaning that national security budgets would be stretched to cover new initiatives.
“That’s going to set up a tougher competition for those dollars,” she said. “And that will be even more difficult in the wake of the economic situation that this crisis has engendered.”
Use the intelligence community to support public health
For decades, the intelligence community has warned members of Congress and policymakers in multiple administrations that infectious diseases posed a threat to U.S. national security.
“These diseases will endanger U.S. citizens at home and abroad,” a National Intelligence Estimate warned in January 2000. Nineteen years later, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the United States “will remain vulnerable” to a pandemic or large-scale outbreak “that could lead to massive rates of death and disability.” And earlier this year, intelligence officials warned the White House about the coronavirus in its incipient stages.
“The intelligence community knew absolutely that pandemics were a real thing,” said Sue Gordon, who served as the principal deputy director of national intelligence. “But intelligence is a bit like if a tree falls in the woods,” she said. It does little good if leaders don’t act on it.
Now that the government is alert to the threat of pandemics, experts said they see a new role for the intelligence agencies.
“It’s hard to take the apparatus of the intelligence community and point it at things that can tell you whether an outbreak is occurring,” said Rod Schoonover, who was the director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council under Obama and Trump. But the intelligence agencies have proved adept at marrying scientific discoveries with long-range forecasting to help policymakers weigh the risks of different security threats.
“My hope is the next administration really puts a focus on strategic forecasting — people who all they do is think about how terrible things may go and help guard against it,” Schoonover said.
Accelerate testing, treatment and vaccines
In the first weeks of the pandemic, the U.S. government and many states failed to aggressively test people for the coronavirus and follow up with contact tracing to learn who had been in touch with infected people. Those efforts have significantly improved and are now the cornerstone of state and local efforts to reopen businesses and get people back to work.
Experts said the United States needs to dramatically decrease the time it takes to develop and distribute tests, as well as develop treatments and a vaccine for the current pandemic and others.
“The simplest way to think about it is to see if we can find a way to cut in half or a third [the time it takes to develop tests, treatments and vaccines],” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has urged lawmakers to take up legislation on the matter before the end of the year. On June 9, he released a white paper laying out a foundation for legislation.
The Trump administration hopes that a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the formal name of the virus that causes covid-19, will be developed by the middle of next year, which would set a record. Vaccines normally take many years to develop, though treatments can be produced more quickly.
Alexander said that if the U.S. government invested more money in testing, as well as rapidly developing treatments and vaccines for more viruses, “we wouldn’t be spending $3 trillion to try to strengthen the economy. We know these viruses are coming. We’ve known it for years.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.