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Coronavirus signals we must shift from terrorism to new bipartisan intelligence priorities

March 31, 2020

US intelligence agencies started warning the Trump administration in January about the coronavirus outbreak. We need a new agenda for this new world.

Opinion Contributors:

US-Philippines Society Co-chair Ambassador John D. Negroponte and Edward M. Wittenstein USA TODAY 30 March 2020 Link

The COVID-19 crisis poses an extraordinary challenge to the health, prosperity and security of the United States and the international community. This global pandemic represents a significant risk to public health, as well as a grave national security threat that may have far-reaching consequences for the stability and legitimacy of governments worldwide.  As reports emerge that American intelligence agencies started warning the Trump administration back in January about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, we are reminded of the invaluable role that intelligence should play in guarding against strategic surprise.

We previously have expressed deep concern about the Trump administration’s efforts to diminish the U.S. intelligence community, especially by weakening the position of Director of National Intelligence, who by law is supposed to serve as the principal intelligence adviser to the president and Congress. It is urgent that our nation’s leaders rise above politics to define a long-term, nonpartisan intelligence agenda for this brave new world.

COVID-19 marks the final nail in the coffin of the “post-9/11 era,” in which the United States harnessed all elements of national power to confront the scourge of violent Islamic extremism. This global counterterrorism agenda has spanned two decades across both Republican and Democratic administrations, and it has mostly succeeded in thwarting large-scale terrorist attacks. Yet these marginal security gains have required an extensive reorientation of American military, intelligence, and law enforcement capabilities, and the price is steep: two costly wars and a relative lack of high-level emphasis on other emerging threats.

America needs a proactive intelligence agenda that draws on lessons learned from this ongoing pandemic.  We have identified five national security challenges where strong, credible DNI leadership is necessary over the next decade.

Collaboration is Key

First, enhanced collaboration among the intelligence, global health and the life sciences communities is essential. Beyond even the current pandemic, imagine the prospect of a next-generation coronavirus that is man-made, engineered in a lab to be even more lethal. Scientific and technical experts — including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Homeland Security, National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and even the Department of Agriculture — desperately need threat information to inform their biodefense, containment and mitigation plans. The DNI should play a leading role in strengthening intelligence support to the biological science community.

Cybersecurity should be Taken Seriously

Second, with nearly half of all Americans now told to stay home under some form of quarantine, the absolute necessity of cybersecurity should be evident to us all. The critical infrastructure that enables our virtual connectivity, remote work and access to essential services has been a literal lifesaver. Consider how a debilitating cyberattack on our electrical grid, banking sector or healthcare system could magnify the current crisis and accelerate a breakdown in public order. We should heed the clarion call of a recent bipartisan commission that “we are dangerously insecure in cyber.” Malicious state and non-state actors take advantage of our vulnerability on a daily basis, yet the government cybersecurity landscape looks much like the counterterrorism community pre-9/11: bureaucratic turf battles, muddled legal authorities and the absence of a senior official in charge, even while “the system is blinking red.” Cybersecurity is a profound, complex challenge that calls out for dedicated DNI leadership in the intelligence community, across the federal government and with the private sector.

Monitoring of Misinformation

Third, the uncertainty and fear associated with a pandemic of this magnitude provides ample opportunity to sow dissent through disinformation and to manipulate public attitudes to enhance authoritarian control. We already have seen Russia, China and Iran attempt to propagate debunked conspiracy theories about the coronavirus’ origins in order to undermine social cohesion in the United States and Europe, as well as deflect blame from their own domestic mismanagement of the outbreak. We should expect these and other disinformation campaigns to only escalate as we approach the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The DNI must make election integrity a top priority for the coming decade through enhanced intelligence support to state and local governments, as well as stronger collaboration with Silicon Valley to deploy technologies that can detect so-called “deep fakes” and other forms of disinformation.

Sino-American Relations

Fourth, as the United States turns inward to contain and mitigate the immediate impact of COVID-19, China is seeking to fill that leadership void in Asia and potentially on the world stage. China’s rise to great power status is one of the defining events of the early twenty-first century, but Sino-American relations have entered an especially volatile period. The current coronavirus-induced recession highlights the need to secure U.S. supply chains and lessen dependence on China for essential goods and services. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies the “re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition,” and “not terrorism,” as the primary U.S. national security concern. Deciphering Chinese intentions with regards to the Indo-Pacific region should be an enduring intelligence priority for the DNI.  Indeed, the provision of timely, accurate analysis to the executive branch and Congress can help prevent this coming period of intense geopolitical competition with China from inadvertently escalating into conflict.

The Development of Artificial Intelligence

Fifth, the uncertain, disruptive future of artificial intelligence (AI) poses both potential benefits and significant risks as the United States grapples with the fallout from covid-19 for the foreseeable future. The development of machines capable of sophisticated information processing, towards the frontier of autonomy, may enhance the ability of scientists, healthcare workers and governments to diagnose, contain and ultimately develop a vaccine for the virus. In China, for example, technology companies have deployed AI-powered systems to rapidly analyze CT scan data; program robots to deliver meals to travelers in isolation; and mass surveil citizens to check temperatures, track movements and identify non-compliance with health warnings. Yet these same technologies, as they continue to improve over time, could be utilized for more nefarious purposes, such as autonomous weaponry and AI-augmented cyberwarfare. The U.S. intelligence community, under strong DNI leadership, must develop a robust capability to analyze how other nations may seek to deploy AI to advance military objectives in the future.

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States and the world, we cannot fall hostage to the tyranny of now. State and non-state adversaries already are seeking to exploit the current crisis to their advantage, and the full ramifications of this global event may not be evident for many years. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. intelligence community has played a vital role in providing nonpartisan, unvarnished assessments to inform national security decision-making. It is imperative that we define a proactive, strategic intelligence agenda for this age of uncertainty.

John D. Negroponte was the first Director of National Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. Edward M. Wittenstein is a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University and former Executive Assistant to the first Director of National Intelligence.

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