March 27, 2020
IntelBrief: The National Security Implications of the Coronavirus Pandemic
After the current coronavirus crisis, life will never be the same. While it is impossible to fathom just how many aspects of society - from politics and economics to foreign policy - that the current COVID-19 pandemic will impact, it is certain to be significant. The health challenges are just now being felt as the curve of confirmed cases and deaths skyrockets exponentially. Countries in Europe, including Italy and Spain, continue to suffer daily death tolls in the hundreds. In total, Italy is approaching nearly 75,000 confirmed cases with Spain nearing 50,000. The United States, meanwhile, now has more confirmed cases than any other country in the world and is still weeks away from the worst of the current iteration of the coronavirus, with New York slowly becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic. The economic costs will be immense and are already being felt across nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. Yet somewhat overlooked at a time when the focus, correctly, remains on health and economics, are the significant stressors and challenges the pandemic will place on those departments and personnel sworn to protect U.S. national security. Indeed, threats have not receded as a result of the pandemic and many have only grown more acute. Just this week the FBI disrupted a neo-Nazi plot to bomb a hospital caring for coronavirus patients in Missouri. The suspect died in the confrontation with law enforcement authorities.
The federal intelligence agencies, the military, and federal/state/local law enforcement departments will experience the serious impact of the novel coronavirus as much as the general public, perhaps more so given how much travel and contact many of these professionals have in the course of their normal duties. ‘Social Distancing,’ while a crucial and necessary medical mitigation tactic intended to slow the rate of infection, is anathema to missions such as cultivating human intelligence (HUMINT) sources, maintaining troop readiness, or handling 911 calls and follow-up investigations that our nation’s spies, troops, and police conduct daily.
In particular, investigations, such as those concerning counterterrorism or foreign espionage, rely on a mix of signals intelligence (SIGINT) and HUMINT. A source’s or target’s travel patterns will likely be curtailed during these times of widespread restrictions; people with access to areas of interest to investigators and intelligence officers might find themselves unable to travel and meet with targets or sources. This creates glaring blind spots for ongoing counterterrorism and law enforcement cases. Transnational criminal and terrorist groups are not immune to the virus and their activities are likely impacted, but the lack of clarity or current insight into their operations caused by decreased collection efforts are of concern. Criminals and terrorists will likely seek to exploit the pandemic and take advantage of the fact that law enforcement and intelligence agencies will have resources and attention focused on the challenges related to the pandemic. There could be an uptick in cybercrime or ransomware attacks as more businesses move their operations online.
As with the rest of the U.S. population, there will be significant human costs from this pandemic to intelligence officers, military personnel, and law enforcement officials, as well as to their families and support networks. Many of these agencies and departments, especially at the local level, will simply be overwhelmed with an increase in calls for service at the exact time their numbers will be depleted from sickness and quarantine. Even in the most resilient and well-funded offices, there will be severe disruptions in work, regardless of national security concerns. The national security threats that confronted the United States before the coronavirus will continue to be challenging, although Washington’s response will be more limited as the country grapples with fallout related to the pandemic. Foreign liaison partners, whom the United States depends upon heavily in counterterrorism and law enforcement priorities, will also be struggling with the pandemic. The intelligence community was aware of the pandemic months ago and repeated warnings went unheeded by the Trump administration. It will be critical for the United States to learn important lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and adapt accordingly.
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