Many failures contributed to the devastation that the COVID-19 pandemic caused in the United States and around the world. Some of these problems are well known, such as failures in the early weeks of the crisis to develop sufficient test kits and personal protective equipment, and the broader failure to fund public health sufficiently. But it is less well understood that the pandemic was a global intelligence failure—for the traditional national security intelligence system, and even more importantly, for the far more complex system of public health intelligence and surveillance that was designed to help anticipate and prevent just such a disaster.
These failures are all the more tragic because we have seen this story before. The failures of intelligence and warning in the coronavirus pandemic were eerily similar to the intelligence failures that preceded other national disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and more recently the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
More than three years after the coronavirus spread around the world, we are still ill prepared to deal with the next global pandemic that experts tell us could be just around the corner. It is not too late, however, to learn the lessons from the intelligence failure of COVID-19 and prepare for future catastrophes. The next global disaster may come in the form of another virus, or it may be caused by one of the many other dangers that threaten humanity. But no matter the cause of the next crisis, we will need better intelligence and warning to mitigate the risks.
Was it Really an Intelligence Failure?
Many experts have argued that the pandemic was not an intelligence failure because intelligence leaders and agencies, among others, have been warning for years about the threat of a global pandemic. U.S. intelligence leaders, for example, have often included global health threats in their annual testimony before Congress. And blue-ribbon commissions have frequently warned that the world needs to be better prepared for infectious disease outbreaks. Several prominent warnings, in fact, came in the fall of 2019, just before the COVID-19 outbreak began in China.
But why, despite all those warnings, did the United States and the world still appear surprised when the outbreak began? The answer is that this kind of general warning—often called “strategic warning” in the intelligence business—is not likely to spur action on the part of leaders who are dealing with many other problems, most of which seem much more immediate than broad threats of a global pandemic in the future.
To give just one example: in January 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats gave what sounds today like a very prescient warning about the danger of a worldwide infectious disease pandemic. But in that same threat assessment, he also warned about the dangers from cyber attacks, weapons of mass destruction, great power competition, environmental change, and many other threats. Even if policymakers wanted to do something about the dangers Coats was warning about, where would they start?
It cannot be enough for intelligence to just raise the alarm. The job of intelligence is not only to warn, it is to help leaders and policy makers avoid disaster. For that, intelligence agencies must produce specific warning about the actual threat as it arises—referred to as “tactical intelligence”—and policymakers must understand and trust their intelligence advisors enough that they are willing to listen to the warnings they receive. And that is where intelligence agencies and systems, both in the traditional intelligence world and the world of medical and public health intelligence, failed.
A Familiar Pattern
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, and in the early weeks and months of what would become a global pandemic, the U.S. Intelligence Community and the even vaster medical and public health surveillance system all failed in the critical mission of providing actionable intelligence on the growing threat. As the coronavirus spread throughout early 2020, the traditional intelligence community did little more than repeat publicly available information. Even worse, much of this information was misleading, as when then-U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed on January 23 that “the good news was the virus did not appear that deadly.”
As the House intelligence committee later reported, “the intelligence community was not well positioned or prepared to provide early warning and unique insights on the pandemic.” Other reports have provided further details about the failures of the Intelligence Community, including two studies released in December 2022 from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, and the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus.
The pandemic was also a failure of public health and medical intelligence and surveillance, including at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found, “Throughout January and February 2020, CDC’s surveillance missed at least half of the cases that came into the country, resulting in false assurances to the American people that there was no community spread in the U.S.” Another example: a standard task of intelligence and surveillance is tracking the progress of potential threats, but no one in the U.S. government was prepared to pull together all the information available, so it fell to Johns Hopkins University to create a dashboard. And the failure was not limited to the United States; in Canada, for example, a system known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network had been created for just such a crisis, but it too failed in its mission of providing actionable warning.
The final piece of the failure was a lack of receptivity on the part of policymakers. It is a truism in the intelligence world that warning is of absolutely no value unless it can reach consumers willing to listen and act. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, far too many policymakers were unwilling to act. Trump was famously dismissive of intelligence and disregarded early warnings about the coronavirus, but he was not alone—his lack of receptivity does not explain the broader failure of many leaders in the United States and around the world to take decisive action to mitigate threats.
As I have described elsewhere, these intelligence failures closely resembled past failures such as 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, when long-term strategic warnings of danger had been plentiful but did little to prevent disaster; tactical intelligence on the actual threat was too little, too late; and leaders were too often unwilling to listen to the warnings they did receive. And we have seen a very similar scenario play out much more recently—with the attack on the Capitol on Jan.6, 2021. Here again there was plenty of warning before the attack, but once again, leaders didn’t listen.
The Bad News: We Are not Ready for Next Time
Unfortunately, we are not much better prepared today to anticipate, detect, and stop a future global pandemic than we were at the end of 2019. The quick spread of monkey pox—now called Mpox—showed that we still aren’t as good as we need to be at detecting and tracking outbreaks. Even though COVID-19 has not disappeared, experts warn that the next pandemic could be even worse. Public health officials and commentators such as Bill Gates argue that we must begin planning now for the next global health crisis.
The Good News: It’s Still not too Late
So what should we do? To be better prepared for the next pandemic or other global threat, changes are needed at several levels. First, reforms are needed in the U.S. Intelligence Community to elevate the level of attention paid to non-traditional threats such as infectious disease. There has been some positive change, such as the rebranding of the National Counterproliferation Center to the National Counterproliferation and Biosecurity Center to reflect the increased importance of biosecurity today.
But more needs to be done, such as elevating the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) from a relatively small organization under the Defense Intelligence Agency into a truly national center. As the House Intelligence Committee review noted about the NCMI, “its position, sequestered away in the Defense Department, did not give it the high profile needed to command the attention of the broader intelligence community, the National Security Council or Congress.”
Changes are also needed at the level of medical and public health surveillance. Here too there are positive steps being taken, such as the increased use of sewage surveillance to detect early signs of outbreaks, and the development of the Center for Forecasting and Outbreaks Analytics to use data and modeling to forecast outbreaks. But more must be done, including greater use of genomic surveillance to track variants in the virus that causes COVID-19, broader contact tracing, and ultimately development of a global early warning system to alert policymakers to dangerous pathogens before they can lead to another pandemic.
Pandemics are only one of a number of grave threats facing humanity, and COVID-19 has tested how well our global intelligence, warning, and response systems can operate in a crisis. We failed this time, but next time—when the disaster could be even worse—we can’t afford to fail. We need to begin developing the systems and organizations that will provide needed actionable intelligence when the next global crisis arises, and we must train and educate policymakers about intelligence so that when the warnings come next time, those leaders will listen.
Dahl is the author of The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure: Why Warning Was Not Enough.