Coronavirus intelligence void continues to impede response

The infection rate and death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 is soaring, and it will likely continue to do so unless better intelligence-driven decisions are made as part of the national defense against the virus, medical and intelligence experts told WTOP.

“We could easily find ourselves right back where we started — where suddenly the case numbers have grown so quickly, and are growing so quickly, that we are fearful that the health system is on the brink of collapse,” said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

As the scramble to corral the virus unfolds, there is increasing pressure on President Donald Trump to divulge when and how he learned about the deadly pathogen’s threat to the U.S.

The administration seems to view the request for details about the timing through a purely political lens.

“It’s a disgusting joke for the media to claim the president wasn’t taking the virus seriously, when all the Democrats and the media did was criticize President Trump for his early, bold, aggressive actions – and you can’t have it both ways,” said White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley in a statement to WTOP.

Gidley was responding, in part, to a Washington Post article suggesting Mr. Trump downplayed the threat the virus posed to the U.S. after being warned more than a dozen times in his President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) during January and February.

WTOP reached out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is responsible for the PDB, to confirm the briefings took place and was told: “Details of this are not true.”

When asked which details, an ODNI official declined to comment, citing “the sensitive nature of the PDB.”

Beginning in late March, WTOP asked the White House, on multiple occasions, when the president was first briefed about the COVID-19 problem.

While specific steps that were taken to mitigate the situation were detailed, the answers to questions regarding the administration’s timing were evasive. A U.S. official said that information is classified, diminishing the likelihood it would be shared.

Gidley said Tuesday the administration took early steps, but he suggested they were discounted, for political reasons.

“President Trump shut down flights from China and Europe and was called xenophobic, he talked about defeating coronavirus in the State of Union and Speaker Pelosi tore it to shreds, and he asked Congress for billions to protect hardworking Americans and small business, but the Democrats delayed the bill,” he said.

California Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement recently to WTOP suggested the president’s efforts were lackluster.

“At least two months were wasted with no guidance from the president or his administration, two months that increased the number of people exposed to the virus and fueled the spread of COVID-19 in hot spots like New York and New Orleans,” she said.

“It’s not clear if earlier action from Trump would’ve resulted in those cities shutting down sooner, but I do believe that experts have made clear that knowledge and transparency are critical to fighting this deadly pandemic, two things that the president continues to shun despite nearly half a million Americans who have been sickened and more than 14,000 who have died,” Speier said.

She also said the president’s handling of the crisis has complicated matters.

“He and his administration have made it almost impossible for our health and science experts to provide life-saving information without fear of retribution, creating a chilling effect in regards to our response now,” Speier said.

The finger pointing highlights what intelligence experts say is the true culprit — the inability to effectively gather intelligence on this problem.

A part of the challenge is China’s well-documented reluctance to inform the global community in the early stages of the outbreak.

But another element, according to Beth Cameron, Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, is not having a truly interconnected, global early warning system.

That void significantly complicates the ability to make crucial decisions.

“I don’t think that there is enough information in a globalized response. We need a national response, but we also need a global response. Without knowing how many cases we’re seeing in places around the world — Africa, Russia, China, the United States and Europe — we have a big challenge and a blind spot,” Cameron said.

Former CIA covert operative Robert Baer believes that blind spot is not limited to certain difficult-to-reach locations — but because of social distancing requirements and lockdowns, the entire planet is one big blind spot.

“Whether you’re in Peking or you’re in Beijing or Paris, you can’t go out and make a meeting,” Baer said.

“It confines you to telephones, especially in China,” Baer said, pointing out: “You can’t operate in a place like China on telephones. China is the key to the coronavirus — what the real figures are. We need that data, but we can’t trust the Chinese. Not to single them out — a lot of governments haven’t come up with the real figures.”

Until that roadblock is resolved, decisions based on incomplete or faulty information could lead to a new wave of coronavirus in the U.S. and around the world.

“We have to remember that social distancing measures are not a cure for this disease. They don’t stop the spread of the virus, they’re just a pause button. They’re putting us in our houses so that we’re less likely to affect others, but the virus is still out there,” said Nuzzo.

Experts tell WTOP that efforts are underway in the private sector to build a reliable, global pandemic reporting network, but it’s not likely to be available to help with the crisis for many months.

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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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