COVID-19 and Biological Threats Require a New Approach to National Security
NOTE: This article first appeared at In Public Safety.
By Erik Kleinsmith
Associate Vice President, Public Sector Outreach, American Military University
Biological threats, similar to what we’re currently seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, are not new and have been highly destructive throughout history. In August 1757, during what is now referred to as the French and Indian War, French and Canadian forces under the leadership of French General Montcalm successfully laid siege and captured the English-held Fort William Henry located at the southern tip of Lake George, New York.
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As the English commander capitulated, the Native American allies of the French were both unaccustomed and unwilling to accept the European terms of surrender, which included the peaceful and unarmed return of English soldiers and their families to English-occupied territory. In the hours following the surrender, many Native American warriors went on a brief but violent rampage looting the fort and attacking English captives.
As part of their frenzied attacks, warriors also dug up and desecrated nearby graves taking scalps and English uniforms from corpses as trophies. Unaware that many of the bodies were infected with smallpox, Native American warriors inadvertently brought the disease back to their villages.
In doing so, they unwittingly unleashed a smallpox epidemic that all but wiped out several tribes around the Great Lakes. This outbreak, combined with their disapproval of the European ways of war, severely reduced the assistance the French could rely upon for the remainder of the war, and helped turn the tide for English domination of the continent.
While the circumstances may be different between the mid-18th century and now, the effect of the COVID-19 virus is rewriting our traditional definitions of national security. With the almost constant barrage of media reports about COVID-19, it is easy to get overwhelmed by conflicting stories, expert and amateur opinions, and statistics surrounding the spread, survivability, and cure for this outbreak.
For intelligence and national security analysts, understanding the impacts of this disease requires us to look beyond the next couple of days and weeks and, instead, form a vision of what the world will look like in the coming months and years because of it.
Analyzing COVID-19 and Biological Threats for National Security
Intelligence and security analysts train and immerse themselves in threat analysis. This includes looking at adversarial military forces, terrorist and paramilitary organizations, organized crime, and even competitors in a commercial setting. This in-depth analysis also includes assessing impacts and integrating the effects of both natural and man-made epidemics; the latter is more well known as biological warfare.
Some of the analytical challenges facing analysts in understanding the impacts of a biological threat is in the nature of this type of threat itself. Biological threats don’t destroy aircraft, jam communications, intercept missiles, or infect cyber or physical infrastructure. They have no motive other than survival, don’t care about policies, politics or religion, and don’t prioritize or organize themselves to attack one person over another. It is the near-perfect insider threat.
With this in mind, there are things that intelligence and security analysts can consider when looking at the long-terms effect of this coronavirus. With every part of society being put to the test, several patterns are already emerging for analysts to take note.
Right now, panic and reaction are more significant in affecting national security than the deadliness of the virus itself. Information warriors should already be taking note. Our 24-hour media outlets have naturally sensationalized every piece of anecdotal news surrounding the virus. One visible result are the panic-stricken hoarders who temporarily overwhelmed several different supply chains this past month. Panic begets panic, which in turn is already being exploited for personal, financial, or political gain by those with self-serving intent.
Analysts need to reevaluate the traditional sources of information that they normally rely upon. This current outbreak is as great a test for the media as for any other part of society. More important than the daily numbers of infected and death rates, analysts must evaluate various sources of information for accuracy, bias, and trustworthiness in times of crisis. If traditional sources are filling their newsfeeds with outrageous claims from unrealistic models, using amateurs as experts, or trying to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence, these sources must be critically evaluated for all their future reporting.
The virus will have both short- and long-term effects on every organization, friend and foe alike, but not in the same ways. For analysts and planners, the 2020 pandemic proves the old adage that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. As markets react wildly to day-to-day news of the virus’s impact, they also are revealing the resilience or vulnerabilities of certain economic sectors.
In turn, they also reveal how various organizations can withstand a near total shutdown of economic activity. Whether they are a street gang or terrorist group, cyber threat or adversarial nation, the virus will affect each one differently. Analysts should look at how their subject area is combating and mitigating this biological threat along with the effects of those actions beyond the next couple of weeks.
Pandemics affect every area of our national security as well as our threats. In order to better prepare for these next months and years, security analysts and their supported decision makers will need to identify strengths and weaknesses related to biological threats. This requires looking at themselves and their adversaries.
Threat profiling can help intelligence analysts organize their approach. For example, analysts should be looking at their most prominent threats and asking how the virus has changed that group’s goals and objectives, if at all. Has COVID-19 changed their demographics, organization, or leadership structure? Analysts should also look at changes to a group’s method of operations: their supply, finances, target selection, recruitment, and communications.
Similar to what happens to a group when it loses its leader, what happens to a group as result of a pandemic requires assessing how one change, such as complete loss of freedom of movement, affects all the other areas of the threat profile.
For national security, information flow is the most effective inoculation against biological threats. Mitigating the effects of an outbreak, that is “flattening the curve,” requires advanced notice and recognition of a biological threat’s severity. It also requires a proactive rather than a reactive response, and massive amounts of information sharing.
Countries where the control and censorship of information is a requirement for controlling their populace will suffer greatly during a biological threat. Tightly controlled information going in, coming out of, and moving within a given country is not only a recipe for disaster, but also revealing to the rest of the world that whatever information does come from that country cannot be trusted. Longer term, this loss of international trust will bleed into economic, financial, diplomatic, and other geopolitical arenas.
During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were seen as the ultimate weapon, guaranteeing mutually assured destruction, or MAD, for everyone who would wage it. COVID-19, smallpox and many other viruses and bacteria serve as a reminder that biological threats and biological warfare are not new threats, but they can be just as destructive to our society as any man-made weapon.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Business Development in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger, tracking Al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. He is the author of the 2020 book, Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife, son, and daughter. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
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