Role of National Intelligence in War against Pandemics
Forewarned is forearmed!
The COVID-19 Pandemic seems to have taken the world by surprise despite reportedly early warning by USA National Centre for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) during January 2020 to its government that failed to react appropriately, which is being labelled as a policy failure by Trump’s government. On the other hand, China despite being the main victim of this pandemic’s outbreak from Wuhan province relatively fared better. However, like most countries of the world, Pakistan was too late, unimaginative and sluggish to undertake timely preventive actions to ensure that it remained comparatively safe from unintended import of the Corona Virus through its Land, Sea and Airlines entry points from well known places and subsequent spread and mix in every nook and corner of the country. The inadequacy of timely warning shots by intelligence, missing medical testing and quarantine facilities, routine inefficient handling by entry points’ authorities, weak and delayed response by concerned government departments and ministries; all summed up to cause a national crises situation resulting in an unprecedented national chaos, mounting loss of precious lives, unpredictable and consequent unbearable economic losses. It is opined that had our missions abroad and national intelligence agencies (despite being without a dedicated outfit like U.S.’ NCMI) watched and made desired general estimate about the global pandemic outbreak in time, the Government of Pakistan’s reaction and response could have been far better and wholesome. Nevertheless, lethargic bureaucracy may see it as Utopian thinking because our society and systems are already suffering from greater viruses than COVID-19 as was highlighted in my article, “What plagues Pakistan more than Corona Virus”. Our mission abroad in general and National Intelligence Agencies in particular with tentacles deployed all over home and abroad should and could have performed some of the following functions in the given environment of fighting Corona virus on war footings. First, they could provide policymakers with assessments about the virus’s spread and impact from their respective locations that could help people at home to build a timely threat mosaic for enabling government to put in place necessary safeguards and response options, including counter measures and making people aware. Second, gathering intelligence on necessary data and unrevealed information critical during such pandemics i.e. about foreign state secrets concerning the virus, including whether their official government infection rates, reported deaths, recovery, medications, vaccines, other treatment measures etc are accurate. Some of this intelligence may come from spying through the age-old trade-craft of recruiting human sources with access to relevant secret information. It will also undoubtedly come from technical intelligence, such as signals intelligence or imagery intelligence, indicating foreign state deception about Corona Virus initially but deplorably called Chinese Virus by POTUS Trump. Thirdly, the national intelligence services need to play a significant role in responding to the current COVID-19 and any future pandemics is by countering disinformation. Regrettably such nefarious conspiracy theories are weaved both at home and abroad and unleashed as a part of malicious warfare giving rise to a host of uncertainties causing even greater panic, which tantamount to adding fuel to the fire. While bigger powers like China and USA are presently engaged in a humbug battle about which of them leads the world in defeating COVID-19 and, by implication, whether democratic or nondemocratic governments can better protect citizens; countries like Pakistan with its own list of enemies within and in the neighbourhood ought to identify and defeat the propaganda lowering public morale and undermining state efforts to win the war against pandemic. The fourth way that the national intelligence agencies can help counter pandemics is through surveillance. For example China has deployed intrusive mass surveillance of its citizens to counter the virus, using digital IDs to monitor people’s movements and even offering rewards for informing on sick neighbours. One of America’s closest allies, Israel, has deployed a nationwide digital surveillance program using phone-tracking spyware technology, originally designed for counter terrorism, to map infections and notify people who could be infected. If Pakistan intelligence services can prepare a digital dragnet during this war like scenario as done by could prepare a digital dragnet like Israel and supposedly also being done by other countries like USA, China, North and South Korea to locate infected people and potential infection areas, it would greatly help in overcoming the pandemic in shorter time and with relatively much economical efforts. It is for the Government of Pakistan to provide due legal cover to intelligence agencies for such an effort through required legislation. The fifth and final way intelligence can help during pandemics is to help the policy makers and law enforcement agencies by identifying the fake NGOs, professional beggars’ network, potential foreign and rented saboteurs out in the field to make matter worst. Besides, intelligence should be regularly reporting on political point scorers and money guzzling politicians and bureaucrats in the system; thereby making sure that the real needy people get the due medical and financial support by the government, kindhearted individuals as well as well by reputed NGOs. Since war against pandemics is likely to be long drawn especially with regards to overcoming its social and economic fallout, therefore Pandemic counter intelligence may be inserted and adopted as a permanent feature within our national intelligence effort and fill in the organizational and capacity gaps without any delay. The role of any proud and efficient national intelligence services should be to preempt and prevent, and not postmortem reporting.
5th April 2020 · Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M), (R) is a senior Army officer with rich experience in International relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geo-political and strategic security issues. (Website: www.sqbutt.com )