A Washington Post article Friday night reported that the U.S. intelligence community issued multiple classified warnings throughout January and February about the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus from China to other countries, the Chinese government’s initial efforts to play down the severity of the looming crisis and the increasing likelihood it would reach America’s shores. Throughout this time, President Trump continued to play down the threat in public.
Of course, there’s much we still don’t know. Nevertheless, Trump’s apparent decision to ignore his own intelligence experts’ warnings in the early stages of this crisis — to say nothing of the warnings from other experts and organizations — has important implications for how we think about the relationship between policymaking and intelligence broadly, and with respect to public health in particular.
The intelligence community and public health
For much of the Cold War, the U.S. intelligence community’s top priority was assessing information about America’s chief rival, the Soviet Union, and its activities around the globe. Infectious diseases and pandemics did not garner much systematic attention. In at least one chronology of the 1976 swine flu outbreak in the United States, for example, U.S. intelligence agencies are not mentioned at all.
Here’s why this changed. As the Cold War receded, transnational threats, including terrorism and pandemics, began to occupy a more prominent place. Although one of the first U.S. unclassified Annual Threat Assessments (now called the Worldwide Threat Assessment) from 2007 makes no mention of terms such as “disease,” “pandemics” or “influenza,” these reports have since dedicated entire sections to public health as a national security issue (see the 2008 assessment and the 2019 assessment).
‘The system was blinking red’
A top priority of the U.S. intelligence community is to alert policymakers to dangerous events before they happen so they can respond accordingly. Sometimes this process breaks down. Roberta Wohlstetter’s classic analysis of Pearl Harbor offers one of the most tragic examples of an intelligence failure. Robert Jervis’s analysis of the failure to predict the fall of the Shah just before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 provides another.
That doesn’t seem to be the case here — the intelligence community apparently provided repeated warnings early on about the threat that covid-19 posed to the United States. To be sure, some have pointed out that “the intelligence reports didn’t predict when the virus might land on U.S. shores.” Such uncertainty may well have contributed somewhat to delays in formulating a meaningful U.S. response.
This type of scenario is not unheard of. Consider the lead-up to 9/11. Although the intelligence failures before these attacks included a breakdown in sharing relevant tactical information across U.S. agencies, at least some dire warnings reached President George W. Bush’s desk — such as the now-declassified August 2001 memo titled “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.” But this warning did not include crucial details (perhaps because they were unavailable) about where and when such attacks would occur despite the fact that, as CIA Director George Tenet put it at the time, “the system was blinking red.”
Decision-makers have ignored the intelligence community before
But there may be a simpler explanation for why Trump didn’t take the intelligence warnings about the coronavirus seriously: neglect. Generally speaking, neglect occurs when “policymakers ignore intelligence or cherry-pick for supporting analyses.” This is just one example of what political scientist Joshua Rovner calls “pathologies of intelligence.” The other two are politicization (altering intelligence directly or indirectly to fit a particular agenda) and excessive harmony (when policy and intelligence become too close).
We don’t have to look far to find examples of decision-makers neglecting intelligence. President Richard Nixon was famous for ignoring the CIA. Prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, senior Israeli operatives ignored tactical warnings related to Egypt’s antitank capabilities.
Neglect can happen for many reasons, including when the incentives of policymakers and intelligence analysts are misaligned. According to political scientist Richard Betts, this is common: “policymakers tend toward optimism, since whatever they do is futile or worse if desirable results are not achieved. Analysts tend toward pessimism.”
On its face, this rationale appears consistent with the disparity between the intelligence community’s secret warnings about the pandemic and Trump’s rosy, if incorrect, public comments in that same time period that “we have it totally under control.”
And Trump may have also neglected the warnings given his longstanding skepticism of the intelligence community. Trump’s past attacks on the independence of these experts — including when he told intelligence officials to “go back to school” after they challenged many of his core foreign policy talking points at a congressional hearing — previously led some to worry about whether he would try to politicize intelligence. But others question whether the White House pays much mind to who is at the helm of the intelligence community.
Brent Durbin has written here in the Monkey Cage that the appointment of loyalists to senior positions like the director of national intelligence may not matter that much since “the intelligence community’s support for policymaking is not as important in the Trump administration as it has been in the past.” Rovner has similarly argued that “Trump reportedly does not read intelligence assessments, does not ask probing questions of his intelligence advisers, and does not schedule intelligence briefings nearly as often as his predecessors.”
Is this skepticism changing?
It’s worth noting that the Trump administration has shifted its stance over the course of the past week or so. Specifically, the decision to lean on the nation’s top infectious disease and public health officials to help manage this crisis, including Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, suggests that the president may be coming around — out of genuine concern or self-interest with an election coming up — to the importance of experts.
At least one scholar has hinted at the possibility that this newfound receptivity to expertise may portend a better relationship with the intelligence community. Time will tell if this is true.
Michael Poznansky (@m_poznansky) is an assistant professor of international affairs and intelligence studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point during the 2019-2020 academic year. He is also the author of In the Shadow of International Law: Secrecy and Regime Change in the Postwar World (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).