The Coronavirus Pandemic is a Failure in Leadership - Not Intelligence
Words mean things. The mantra of the best Senior Intelligence Analyst I know has a curt humor to it, but in our business, it is advice worth remembering. In a recent opinion piece for Foreign Policy, political scientist and author, Micah Zenko describes the leadership shortcomings of the Trump administration throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The article’s title? “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History.” Words mean things.
To be clear, I agree with Zenko on almost all aspects of his article but the title. He rightfully argues that few leaders conduct routine risk calculation, plan appropriately based on assessed risks, or implement those plans effectively if at all. He then asserts that president Trump failed in all three areas throughout his response to the COVID-19 outbreak—not through honest attempt and shortfall but through “unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence.”
Nevertheless, Zenko tries to equate this failure in leadership with the intelligence failures preceding 9/11. As such, he likens the persistent body of coronavirus intelligence through January and February to the early warnings of a high-profile aviation attack by Al-Qaeda during the summer of 2001. I have two objections that constitute the entirety of my analysis here. One is a small critique of Zenko’s false parallel, while the other is a more consequential criticism of his fundamental misunderstanding of intelligence.
First, to argue this case on the merits, the threat reporting prior to 9/11 and the global outbreak of COVID-19 are similar in some basic ways but too different to draw parallels of intelligence failure. Both presumably include a body of multi-source, multi-INT reporting to provide early warning of an imminent threat. That is, however, where the similarities end.
These cases fundamentally differ in their thresholds for what constitutes actionable intelligence. Prior to 9/11, the Intelligence Community (IC) provided the ‘why,’ ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and a very general ‘when’ for the attacks. Yet when the policy means of intervening included options like interdiction, extradition, rendition, and direct action, decisionmakers needed greater fidelity on the exact ‘where’ and ‘when’ of the threat to act. Conversely, when the means of intervening in today’s pandemic included—among other things—restricting travel, procuring medical supplies, and preparing economic solutions to anticipated hardship, the early warning the president received from his IC was more than sufficient. Given the tide of open source media reporting on the matter, it is questionable whether classified reporting was necessary at all. Regardless, successful intelligence looks vastly different in the context of 9/11 compared to the coronavirus pandemic. This leads to an essential discussion that Zenko appears to ignore: what is the purpose of intelligence anyways, and what constitutes an intelligence failure?
Aside from the less consequential differences between these cases, Zenko fails to substantiate his titular claim that the coronavirus pandemic is “the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History.” Yes, it is clear that the president failed to direct risk assessments, develop plans to mitigate identified risks, and implement proactive solutions. But how is this an intelligence failure? How is this not simply a failure in leadership? Common sense may negate the need for further discussion, but this is a good oportunity to clear the air on “intelligence failures” at large. A brief exploration of the field of intelligence studies yields broad areas of consensus regarding 1) the purpose of intelligence and 2) the appropriate judgement of intelligence outcomes.
Richard Betts, a former senior intelligence official and one of the foremost experts in the field, aptly states “whatever the foreign policy of the world’s leading power should be, it should not be ignorant.” It is crucial for the nation’s leaders to be informed, but this practice has limits. The field of intelligence studies largely agrees here that the most one can expect from intelligence is to identify risks, deepen contextual understanding of the world, and reduce uncertainty so that policymakers can make better decisions. In other words, intelligence does not make decisions; it gives leaders a “decision advantage.” Here, emphasis belongs with the commander, secretary, or president making the operational calls. There is a reason why intelligence is often described as customer service—where the decision-making customer sets priorities, and the IC works to create products that can bolster customer understanding.
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. intelligence agencies were reportedly warning executive decisionmakers for months. Sources for the Washington Post with access to this stream of intelligence note that these reports did not give a precise time the virus would reach the U.S. or recommend public health courses of action—things The Post rightfully deems “outside the purview of the intelligence agencies.” However, the reporting tracked the spread of the virus in China, its jump to other countries, and the Chinse Communist Party’s efforts to conceal the scale of the outbreak. Even long before the frenzy of the last few months, the IC has prominently featured potential outbreaks of contagious disease in its Worldwide Threat Assessments for the last six years. In 2013, the assessment even specified the likelihood of zoonotic disease transmission, and in 2017 and 2018, they highlighted the potential threat of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, a close cousin of COVID-19. The bottom line: in both the short and long term, the IC clearly identified risks, deepened policymakers’ understanding, and reduced uncertainty. In short, the IC served its purpose.
Generally, the public expects a lot from the IC. But as 28-year veteran of the CIA and leader in the field, Paul Pillar remarks, “many things we would like our intelligence services to know are too complex to model or predict”. To make matters more difficult, intelligence at its simplest levels is a game between hiders and seekers. Despite an ever-connected world, the act of hiding crucial information remains far easier than recovering it. Therefore, judgement of intelligence success and failure must stem from the idea that intelligence is not a “zero-defect” game; it is a practical effort to—as Betts puts it— “raise the ‘batting average’ of warning and forecasting.”.
We need to shift our understanding of intelligence failures. True, U.S. intelligence has objectively failed at times, leaving decisionmakers blindsided and exposed. Even so, the majority of scholarly sources hold that, throughout U.S. history, blame for high-visibility “intelligence failures” more often belonged with the customer rather than the intelligence agencies themselves. These sources, often citing Pillar’s work, insist that analyses are too often misinterpreted, distorted, or outright ignored by policymakers with fixed preferences. In few other instances is this dynamic more apparent than in today’s pandemic.
Ultimately, a U.S. body count in the thousands and climbing is a terrible thing, and it may not be the appropriate time for an academic blame game. Despite its many components, the U.S. government serves the American people all the same. But words matter, and alarmist headlines calling this the worst intelligence failure in our country’s history need to be addressed. The good people of our civilian and military intelligence bodies are by no means perfect, but they got this one right. When this is finally over, and we can take full stock of the government’s response, we need to address the evident gap between ‘decision advantage provided’ and ‘decision advantage utilized.’ Perhaps then we can stop abusing the term “intelligence failure” for good.
 Micah Zenko, “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History,” Foreign Policy 25 March 2020.
 He is not the only one to draw parallels. Matt Zapotosky, Kim Bellware, and Jacqueline Dupree noted that deaths due to COVID-19 surpassed the death total from 9/11 in their 31 March article “U.S. death toll from the coronavirus passes 3,700, as authorities say worst is yet to come.”
 Granted, there is not yet a ‘Coronavirus Commission Report’ to detail the exact strength of the Intelligence Community’s (IC) sourcing or confidence, but for the purposes of this exercise, this is a low-risk assumption)
 Richard K. Betts, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge & Power in American National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 1.
 Richard H. Immerman, “Intelligence and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Political Science Quarterly 131, no. 3 (2016): 477; and Thomas Fingar, Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security (Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 2011), 25.
 Jennifer E. Sims, “Decision Advantage and the Nature of Intelligence Analysis,” in Loch K. Johnson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 389-403.
 J. Richard Hackman, Collaborative Intelligence: Lessons from and for Intelligence Professionals (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2011), 149-167.
 Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey, and Ellen Nakasima, “U.S. Intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic,” The Washington Post 20 March 2020.
 This last aspect is most recently outlined in a 2 April 2020 article by Jullian Barnes of the New York Times. Jullian E. Barnes, “C.I.A. Hunts for Authentic Virus Totals in China, Dismissing Government Tallies,” New York Times 2 April 2020.
 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2013), 12-13; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2014), 12; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2015), 11; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2016), 15; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2017), 14; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2018), 17; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2019), 21.
 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2017), 14; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community,” ODNI, Washington (2018), 17.
 Paul R. Pillar, “Think Again: Intelligence,” Foreign Policy (January-February 2012): 9.
 Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 2.
 Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, 18.
 Betts, Enemies of Intelligence, 15, 19; and Paul R. Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 120; Immerman, “Intelligence and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” 478.
 Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, 5.
 Glenn Kessler, Meg Kelly, and Sarah Cahlan, “Tracking Trump’s false or misleading coronavirus claims,” The Washington Post 14 March 2020; Ken Dilanian, “U.S. intel agencies warned of rising risk of outbreak like coronavirus,” NBC News 28 February 2020.