The role of intelligence agencies in this pandemic

Spies, surveillance, and the state

Given the scale and scope of this crisis, what role are intelligence agencies playing to help us get through it? Are they directly or indirectly responsible for our collective failure to prepare and prevent? What view of the world do they currently have, and to what extent is there a covert analysis or covert action influencing how this pandemic will play out in the weeks and months to come?

As an open source intelligence agency, we here at Metaviews could make some informed guesses regarding the questions above, but they’d only be guesses. The problem with traditional intelligence work is that it is usually and unnecessarily mired in secrecy. This is a moment in history where transparency and trust are essential.

I’ve been wanting to write a post arguing that the intelligence establishment (and agency structure) failed to manage or anticipate the threat to democracy from social media (companies). However I never felt able to author such a post as I could not find much to support or refute the hypothesis.

For all we know intelligence agencies had been warning about the threats posed by Silicon Valley for quite some time, and said warnings were just dismissed or ignored by clueless politicians. Alternatively they may not have seen said threats given their own lack of critical distance, or worse mistook the threats as friendly disruption.

I have a nuanced perspective on this as a result of attending a five eyes related conference in Los Angeles in 2014. This was in the aftermath of the Snowden episode, and the event featured speakers like myself discussing trust, transparency, and intelligence in the era of the Internet. In being able to meet with senior intelligence officials my belief in their omnipotence disappeared, and instead I saw these institutions as the flawed and human organizations that they are.

Yet in the context of the state, and the resources that intelligence agencies receive, it is natural for us to be asking how those resources are being used to help with this crisis. Intelligence agencies tend to employ really smart and resourceful people, and they have access to tools and capabilities that the rest of us do not have. So how are they being used or are they being used?

No surprise that the bar for how an intelligence agency could engage in this crisis is being set by Israel’s Mossad:

That the country’s health system had to enlist Mossad was evidence that it had not readied itself to respond to the type of threat represented by the coronavirus, according to a high-ranking figure in the Israeli health system, who requested anonymity because he was criticizing the ministry’s directorate.

The first shipment acquired abroad by the Mossad arrived in Israel on a special flight on March 19: 100,000 coronavirus testing kits, said an official from the prime minister’s office.

Subsequent shipments included more testing kits, 1.5 million surgical masks, tens of thousands of N-95 masks, protective overalls for first-aid crews, protective goggles and a range of medications, according to a high-ranking official knowledgeable about the Mossad operation.

The Mossad also helped obtain technology from outside Israel that have enabled many Israeli laboratories to conduct coronavirus tests. Mossad operatives also secured the necessary know-how to produce ventilators in Israel.

It is important to note that the intelligence agencies were employed precisely because the health system was not prepared for this crisis.

Our economy is in tatters because our health system was not prepared for this crisis.

In Israel, this meant that the intelligence services stepped up to mitigate the crisis and provide necessary support and resources to health authorities. Of course we do not know the full extent of their work, only what was strategically revealed to the New York Times.

There is of course irony to this kind of humble-brag, as it suggests that the Mossad went above and beyond to procure the necessary equipment. Who lost out as a result? Who’s resources were spirited away by the Mossad instead of being available for someone else?

The above is a valid critique. Would a non-allied intelligence service be given the same respect and admiration for engaging in similar covert measures? Probably not.

However I think we can all respect the role of an intelligence agency in helping out and pivoting in a crisis like this.

Which is why it will be interesting, once the proverbial dust settles, to find out who knew what when, and why that information was ignored or misunderstood.

In Canada military intelligence officials started producing and circulating reports in early January. However in the US, such intel was being created even earlier:

While the exact date of the first report remains unclear, sources told CNN that intelligence gathered in November and in the weeks following offered multiple early warnings about the potential severity of the pandemic now surging in the US.

Intelligence is often only elevated to the highest levels of the government once analysts and officials reach a certain threshold of confidence in their assessment. That day came on January 3, the first day the President's daily briefing included information the US intelligence community had gathered about the contagion in China and the potential it had to spread, including to the US, according to a person briefed on the matter.

But behind the scenes, the work had been going on for weeks, with the CIA and other intelligence agencies combing through their collection to find out what China was beginning to grapple with.

How the intelligence evolved and escalated is relevant when we consider how this crisis was mismanaged and made worse.

POTUS was already in an adversarial relationship with his intelligence agencies, and we can assume rarely if ever read his daily intelligence briefings. Of course that doesn’t stop said intelligence agencies from doing their jobs. Especially as the crisis began to ramp up and we were all desperate to understand what was going on.

This puts intelligence agencies in the necessary position of being skeptical of what other governments say, and potentially in a position to decipher what is actually transpiring:

I do find the assertion that not only do we not know what is happening in China, but that the Chinese government also has no clue, as being quite credible, and plausible. It’s always difficult to determine what people do or do not know, but in this instance, it seems safe to assume that by default, governments do not have an accurate assessment of the pandemic.

Overall I would call this a classic failure of intelligence. That doesn’t mean that intelligence agencies are solely to blame, but they ought to shoulder some of the responsibility. And one might assume they’re now doing their best to make up for it, by trying to understand what is happening in our world.

Although that does not preclude their other responsibility, which is counter-intelligence, and understanding how others are messing with us.

As collectively, we’re relatively clueless, struggling to understand what is happening, jumping to whatever conclusions we can, easily tempted and seduced by conspiracy.

Russian disinformation is never as sinister as it is made out to be, but it is pervasive, and it is a skill that has been honed over decades. It’s primary purpose is to foster confusion and conflict. If my social media feeds are to be believed, it is currently quite effective. Not only are there a lot of people amplifying and spreading nonsense, but I’m seeing a rising conflict between “friends” who object to the spread of this propaganda.

As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has been accompanied by a dangerous surge of false information — an “infodemic,” according to the World Health Organization. Analysts say that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has played a principal role in the spread of false information as part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within.

The House, the Senate and the nation’s intelligence agencies have typically focused on election meddling in their examinations of Mr. Putin’s long campaign. But the repercussions are wider. An investigation by The New York Times — involving scores of interviews as well as a review of scholarly papers, news reports, and Russian documents, tweets and TV shows — found that Mr. Putin has spread misinformation on issues of personal health for more than a decade.

His agents have repeatedly planted and spread the idea that viral epidemics — including flu outbreaks, Ebola and now the coronavirus — were sown by American scientists. The disinformers have also sought to undermine faith in the safety of vaccines, a triumph of public health that Mr. Putin himself promotes at home.

Moscow’s aim, experts say, is to portray American officials as downplaying the health alarms and thus posing serious threats to public safety.

“It’s all about seeding lack of trust in government institutions,” Peter Pomerantsev, author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a 2014 book on Kremlin disinformation, said in an interview.

Given the goal is to erode trust in institutions, then these propaganda operations should be regarded as effective. Pervasive, possibly overkill, yet effective even if all they do is expose existing dysfunction and incompetence.

For most of us even introducing doubt is enough, yet for a growing minority it involves the reinforcement of deep distrust of institutions (and to an extent science):

We’ve discussed social media manipulation and the role of nudges in shifting perception and behaviour, yet most of the coronavirus conspiracies are really just about spreading fear and uncertainty.

Here’s a good breakdown of some of the disinformation activity from the early days of this pandemic.

Intelligence agencies are clearly playing an active, if not obfuscated role in the response to this crisis. Whether on offence or defence, whether towards helping us understand or making us more confused, their role deserves greater scrutiny and attention.

As we move into the next phase of this crisis, marred by a foolish rush to adopt flawed technology and pervasive surveillance, we should be asking for more information about what role intelligence agencies are playing and feel entitled to participate in the debate as to what role they should play.

Of course what makes things even more complicated is that we should not limit out concern to state based intelligence agencies, but rather any entity engaged in widespread data collection, analysis, and strategy.

To reinforce some of our resent issues, and preview some of our future discussions, check out this article about the data-mining industry:

What do you think? What role is there for intelligence in this crisis? #metaviews

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