‘Blinded’: Coronavirus pandemic impedes critical work of spies

worker sprays disinfectant
A worker sprays disinfectant to sanitize Duomo square, as the city main landmark, the gothic cathedral, stands out in background, in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

An eerie silence has settled over the world. Air pollution in major industrial hubs has subsided and normally busy streets in bustling global cities are often empty now.

Leaving death and illness in its wake, the novel coronavirus has swept through every inhabited continent, crippling economies, military livelihoods and education, disrupting the most basic of human interactions: face-to-face contact.

Even the international requisite of spying has bowed to this pandemic.

“It’s the interruption of travel that screws things up. How would you make a meeting in a place like Paris if you can’t go out in the street? You can’t debrief a source over the phone,” said Robert Baer, a retired CIA covert operative.

“The bottom line is any intelligence service that depends on face-to-face contact is all but blinded,” Baer said.

Lack of visibility into COVID-19 hot spots is an extraordinary problem that every spy agency around the world is facing. Their missions to collect, analyze and disseminate critical information depend heavily on human sources, also known as Human Intelligence (HUMINT).

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In-person meetings are one of the intelligence community’s methods of two-factor authentication — often necessary when certain covert or sensitive missions are undertaken.

It’s not just a matter of possibly being in the dark about general intelligence matters. Several intelligence sources tell WTOP they may be lacking key information about the status of the deadly coronavirus in some countries and efforts to combat the spread of the virus inside those places and beyond.

Complicating intelligence gathering

Michael Maness, who ran covert operations overseas against terrorist groups and hostile intelligence services for 15 of his 20 years at the CIA, said assessing the impact of COVID-19 on intelligence gathering is complicated by numerous factors, one of which is location.

“Where exactly is the covert operative stationed — in a modern, first-world city with adequate health care facilities? Or is the operative located in a third-world location which may or may not be able to test or treat for COVID-19?”

Another concern, he said, “is his or her family there with them? That can create a whole new level of stress for an operations officer.”

While some operatives may have the option of sequestering themselves, others can’t, said Maness director of Trapwire, a security technology company.

A key consideration for the overseas covert operative is whether or not they’re working on an issue of immediate and critical importance to U.S. government efforts.

“If the officer is handling an asset who is providing intelligence on COVID-19 in various Tier 1 countries, there will be a lot of pressure to maintain contact in whatever way possible,” Maness said.

“Tier 1 countries” is a U.S. intelligence community reference to those nation-states that are deemed a national threat. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are generally on that list.

Pragmatism and deception in hot spots

It appears U.S. intelligence gathering efforts on COVID-19 may have been complicated by political pragmatism and even skulduggery in several of those countries.

China’s leaders knew about the virus in November 2019, but according the U.S. officials, covered it up for two months, paving the way for the massive outbreak the world is now wrestling with.

“Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up. There’s lots of open source reporting from China from Chinese nationals that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation and that sort of thing, so that the word of this virus could not get out,” said U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien during a speech March 11 at the Heritage Foundation.

According to O’Brien, the delay in admitting it, “probably cost the world community two months to respond. And those two months, if we had been able to sequence the virus and had the cooperation necessary from the Chinese side, had a WHO team … been on the ground, had a CDC team — which we’d offered — been on the ground, I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what’s happening across the world.”

Russia sparked suspicion for weeks

Allegedly, President Vladimir Putin, concerned about negative impacts on his bid to rewrite the nation’s constitution and secure two more terms, oversaw efforts to report very few COVID-19 cases — even as tens of thousands were reported by Russia’s neighbors in China and Eastern Europe.

There is abundant media reporting that medical officials there early on either confused or deliberately misdiagnosed deaths from the novel coronavirus as pneumonia or other lung problems.

North Korea, even as its neighbors struggle with coronavirus cases, denies that it has been impacted. But North Korea expert Joseph Detrani is skeptical.

“They’re making it clear, or at least they’re saying, that they have no COVID-19 cases,” he said. “I think many of us believe that not to be true, that there probably are cases.”

According to Detrani, who retired from the CIA after more than 20 years in various positions including chief of station in East Asia, the regional geography suggests North Korean leaders are not being forthcoming.

“North Korea has a long border with China and the COVID-19 virus started in Wuhan, China. So there is a good sense that there’s some spillover into North Korea,” he said.

The opaque nature of the North Korean government, along with the lack of free press, is viewed as the most glaring example of a blind spot for U.S. intelligence.

“Intelligence community officers abroad will find it more difficult doing business in those countries that have population lockdowns and other state surveillance measures,” Detrani said. “A core mission for these officers is to determine ‘ground truth’ in these countries, about COVID-19 and other key government decisions that impact the population in regard to access to food, education and information.”

Not being able to engage with people in those countries, due to lockdowns, makes the job more difficult. Additionally, foreign nationals with privileged information to share, Detrani said, “will find it difficult.”

Intelligence sources tell WTOP, the COVID-19 virus may continue to spread for months in some countries with no real ability or will to stop it.

As U.S. covert operators try to wait out or work around the invisible barriers posed by COVID-19, the broader U.S. intelligence community labors on, also impacted by the need for key personnel to observe the new social distancing requirements.

“ODNI continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust its response, in accordance with CDC and OPM guidance. ODNI is reducing staff contact through a variety of options including staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices,” said an ODNI spokesperson.

These actions are being implemented, the spokesperson said, “to maintain the safety, security and health of the ODNI workforce while continuing to meet mission requirements.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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