Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The intelligence community got the pandemic right. Then politicians botched it.

An intelligence officer’s first responsibility is to warn those who have the power to act. The next steps aren’t on them.

Robert O'Brien listens as President Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 12.

The American national security establishment is routinely criticized for “intelligence failures.” The United States didn’t predict the fall of the Shah of Iran, stop 9/11, or determine that Saddam Hussein lacked WMD. It might be tempting to add the coronavirus crisis to that roster of shame — but that would be a mistake. The intelligence community basically exists to assist the people in charge to make the best decisions possible, given all available actionable information. By any reasonable standard, then, this pandemic has been an intelligence success. It just happened to be a tremendous policymaking failure as well.

President Trump knew that covid-19 was going to crash upon America’s shores at least as early as late January, according to reporting from Bob Woodward. As national security adviser Robert O’Brien told him Jan. 28, “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency. … This is going to be the roughest thing you face.” He had received an intelligence briefing on the pandemic five days beforehand, on the 23rd. The president seemed to absorb this news, telling Woodward 10 days later that the coronavirus was in fact far more lethal than the flu. “This is deadly stuff,” said the president.

The system’s lights were blinking red. But the intelligence community fulfilled its primary purpose of warning policymakers that something terrible was about to occur. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the decision-makers — in this case, the president, defense secretary, commanders in the field and others — to actually choose to take the steps to protect the nation.

An intelligence officer’s first responsibility is the “duty to warn” those who have the power to act: The enemy is about to cross the border, the terrorists are about to detonate their bombs, or a pandemic will reach our shores shortly. So did the U.S. intelligence community’s warnings to policymakers about covid-19 meet the grade?

One way to answer this problem would be to use a rubric the late sociologist Harold Wilensky created in his classic 1967 book “Organizational Intelligence.” He argued that six general points determined whether the body of intelligence that went to decision-makers were, in his term, “high-quality.” First, intelligence must be clear, which is to say it should be understandable to those who need to understand it. Second, it must be timely, or presented on a schedule that gives those in power the ability to act on it. Third, the information must be trustworthy to outside observers and could be viewed in the same way, or reliable. Fourth, it should measure or capture reality in ways that assure it is valid. Fifth, it must be adequate, or framed in its proper context. Finally, Wilensky holds that intelligence should inform policymakers in such a way to allow them to best confront the challenge, making it wide-ranging.

On each of these fronts, the U.S. intelligence community seems to have risen to the occasion.

It was without question clear, since the WHO, NPR and The Washington Post’s reporting suggested that even the details-averse president understood the pandemic’s severity by January. Likewise, coronavirus intelligence appears to have been timely: Press reporting indicated that the National Security Council was repeatedly briefed on the topic in December, and beyond the in-person briefings to the president, a coronavirus-related article appeared in the president’s daily brief in early January. On Capitol Hill, Intelligence analysts drafted products and held staff-level briefings for both the House and Senate intelligence committees that month as well. The Senate Health and Foreign Relations Committees held a briefing for all senators on the 24th. Only 14 senators showed up.

Even if few were paying attention to it, that intelligence also seems to have been reliable, thereby meeting Wilensky’s third benchmark: Multiple parts of the government had reported to the White House about this terrible pandemic. The CDC began screening for covid-19 at San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City airports Jan. 17. Beyond any classified information, the fact that China canceled its Lunar New Year celebration in Wuhan and Beijing — like axing Christmas and the Super Bowl simultaneously — by Jan. 23 meant that something terrible was brewing that Chinese authorities were struggling to control.

Further, the intelligence appears to have been valid, seemingly using basic concepts of epidemiology and capturing the reality of a pandemic. The CDC on Jan. 21 confirmed the very first case of a patient with covid-19 in the United States after alerting clinicians earlier that month to be aware of patients with respiratory problems who had traveled to Wuhan, China. The United States believed the warnings were valid enough to pass along to our NATO and Israeli allies.

As best as we can tell, the intelligence presented to the president and other policymakers was also adequate, based on the multiple warnings from military, intelligence and health sources. Presumably, still-classified diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies and consulates in China indicated much the same. Moreover, the intelligence community appeared to participate at the highest level — for example, Trump tweeted Jan. 29 that he received a coronavirus briefing, and provided a series of photos from the Situation Room. If one looks closely at the images of the video teleconference screen that he tweeted, one can see representatives from CIA, NSA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the discussion.

Lastly, it was wide-ranging. This country hasn’t faced a civilization-changing pandemic in more than a century, but all the warnings pointed to the fact that the virus was moving, and moving fast. And thankfully, the United States had a “pandemic playbook” that detailed the steps required to handle such an catastrophe.

Indeed, the intelligence community had long assessed that this kind of pandemic could occur. Months before the virus even existed, the intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment indicated that the United States and the world “will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

The trouble is that we don’t actually live in a world where analysts are also Jack Ryan-esque super soldiers who fast-rope from helicopters and stop crises all on their own. Intelligence is only as meaningful as the action that flows from it, and those actions mostly come from policymakers, not from the intelligence community itself.

As we all know, during the winter and into the spring and summer, the president publicly denied that anything was happening, despite the ample information available to him. On Feb. 26, he insisted that the covid-19 case total “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” He also claimed, “it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” On March 9, he tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

And on and on.

Repeatedly warning the United States about this crisis before it happened fulfilled one of the intelligence community’s core goals. Covid-19 will probably be studied in the future as a huge intelligence “success.” But as we’ve seen over the past several months, it also shows what happens when senior policymakers are fundamentally unwilling to use and exploit the intelligence they receive.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.