The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure

cover art
232 pp., 6 x 9
ISBN: 9781647123055 ()

232 pp., 6 x 9
ISBN: 9781647123062 ()

ISBN: 9781647123079

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February 2023


Table of Contents

The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure
Why Warning Was Not Enough
Erik J. Dahl

An in-depth analysis of why COVID-19 warnings failed and how to avert the next disaster

Epidemiologists and national security agencies warned for years about the potential for a deadly pandemic, but in the end global surveillance and warning systems were not enough to avert the COVID-19 disaster. In The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure, Erik J. Dahl demonstrates that understanding how intelligence warnings work—and how they fail—shows why the years of predictions were not enough.

In the first in-depth analysis of the topic, Dahl examines the roles that both traditional intelligence services and medical intelligence and surveillance systems play in providing advance warning against public health threats—and how these systems must be improved for the future. For intelligence to effectively mitigate threats, specific, tactical-level warnings must be collected and shared in real time with receptive decision makers who will take appropriate action. Dahl shows how a combination of late and insufficient warnings about COVID-19, the Trump administration's political aversion to scientific advice, and decentralized public health systems all exacerbated the pandemic in the United States. Dahl's analysis draws parallels to other warning failures that preceded major catastrophes from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, placing current events in context.

The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure is a wake-up call for the United States and the international community to improve their national security, medical, and public health intelligence systems and capabilities.

Erik J. Dahl is an associate professor in the National Security Affairs Department and a faculty member of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the US Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond (Georgetown University Press, 2013).

"This book will be foundational in understanding how US intelligence can contribute to the efforts of other government and non-government experts to prepare for future non-conventional national security threats."—Roger Z. George, director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

"This ground-breaking book asks all the right questions about how so many nations were taken by surprise by the global spread of the COVID-19 virus. Dahl, an eminent scholar of intelligence, points us to a future in which pandemic preparedness must involve a drum beat of specific warnings provided by global surveillance systems and decision-makers willing to listen, believe, and act."—Wesley Wark, senior fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Canada

"Refuting arguments that pandemics lie beyond the appropriate scope and expertise of intelligence agencies, Dahl imaginatively argues that intelligence can effectively complement public health services with new intelligence structures, varieties of collection and analysis, ways of warning senior policy makers, and types of inter-agency cooperation."—John A. Gentry, Adjunct professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

"Erik Dahl, an expert in intelligence warning failure, has effectively outlined the myriad of challenges those of us engaged in health security warning operations face. He begins to unpack the critical questions we need to ask of our leadership and the organizations entrusted with protecting our nation. This book is a key recommended starting point for all involved in COVID-19 warning and response as well as the lay public."—James M. Wilson, MD, CEO and founder of M2 Medical Intelligence Inc.

Table of Contents


1. Are Pandemics a National Security Problem?

2. What Is the Role of the U.S. Intelligence Community?

3. The Medical Intelligence, Surveillance, and Warning System

4. Was the Coronavirus Pandemic an Intelligence Failure?

5. Intelligence and Warning for the Future





About the Author