Erik Dahl: The Covid-19 Intelligence Failure

February 13, 2023 / 5 mins read


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. Read in for a Q&A with the author to learn more about the book.

In your book you describe the breakdown in communication that left us wholly unprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. What were the intelligence warnings and who was issuing them? How is this system of warning supposed to work?

It is absolutely true that intelligence officials, public health experts, and many others have been warning for years that the world was at risk of a global pandemic. American Directors of National Intelligence, for example, have often included global health threats in their annual testimony before Congress. And blue-ribbon commissions have frequently warned that we need to be better prepared for infectious disease outbreaks. Several prominent warnings, in fact, came in the Fall of 2019, just before the COVID-19 outbreak began in China.

To some extent, that is how things are supposed to work. We have a very complex system of national intelligence in the United States, and there are even more complex systems of medical and public health intelligence and surveillance in this country and around the world. So the bottom line is, we were warned.

Why were the warnings of epidemiologists and national security agencies about the risk of a deadly global pandemic not enough to mitigate the impact of Covid-19?

That’s the puzzle that started me on this book. Early on, when hundreds and then thousands of Americans were dying every week—and many more dying around the world—I wanted to know, why wasn’t that warning enough? I found that the warnings experts were giving were very broad, big picture warnings—that someday we were likely to face a global pandemic that could kill millions around the world and bring daily life and commerce almost to a standstill.

That sounds terrible, but it turns out that this kind of general warning—what in the intelligence business we often call strategic warning—isn’t likely to spur action on the part of leaders who are dealing with many other problems, most of which seemed much more immediate than the threat of a global pandemic someday. To give just one example: in January 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats gave what sounds today like a very prescient warning about the danger of a worldwide infectious disease pandemic. But in that same testimony, he also warned about the dangers from cyber attacks, weapons of mass destruction, environmental change, and many more. Even if a decision maker wanted to do something about the dangers Coats was warning about, where would she start?

But if there was warning, why do you call the pandemic an intelligence failure?

Many of my friends and former colleagues within the intelligence community disagree strongly when I say that the pandemic was a global intelligence failure. After all, they say, we warned—and it’s not up to intelligence to decide what to do about those warnings. What else could we have done?

Deciding whether some disaster or other event was an intelligence failure depends largely on where to set the bar: is it enough simply that intelligence agencies warned? I believe that is setting the bar way too low, especially because we know from past crises and disasters that in almost every case, someone was raising the alarm. If we take that logic too far, it would suggest that intelligence is never at fault, because it has warned about almost everything.

It can’t be enough to just raise the alarm. The job of intelligence is not just to warn—it is to help leaders and policy makers avoid disaster. And that’s where intelligence agencies and systems, both in the traditional intelligence world and the world of medical and public health intelligence, failed.

Can you talk a bit about a past example of intelligence warnings failing to be acted upon? How was that situation comparable to the Covid-19 pandemic?

I was struck by how similar the intelligence failures of the pandemic were to past failures, such as the 9/11 attacks and even as far back as Pearl Harbor. In those cases, which I have written about in a previous book, we saw almost the exact same situation. Experts were warning about the threat of international terrorism and al Qaeda well before the 9/11 attacks; and in the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, naval authorities were predicting almost exactly what happened on December 7, 1941.

The problem in those past cases was remarkably similar to what we saw in the early weeks and months of the pandemic. Because these warnings were very broad, with little specific, actionable intelligence that policy makers could do something about, leaders didn’t listen, and the result was disaster.

And we’ve seen a very similar scenario play out much more recently—with the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Here again there was plenty of warning before the attack about the threat from domestic extremists, and even about the threat against the Capitol on January 6. But once again, leaders didn’t listen.

In your book you recommend a way forward to make sure the mistakes that were made during the pandemic don’t happen again. Can you say a bit about what readers will find in this section of the book?

The bad news is that we aren’t much better prepared today to anticipate, detect, and stop a future global pandemic than we were in early 2020. The quick spread of monkeypox—now called mpox—last year showed that we still aren’t good at detecting and tracking outbreaks.

The good news is that there are positive steps being made, such as the increasing use of wastewater surveillance, which can detect even low levels of a virus in a community’s sewage, which in turn can spur more focused surveillance and preventive measures.

But much more still needs to be done, at the national and international levels, and involving both the traditional intelligence community and the world of medical and public health intelligence. The intelligence community needs to embrace its role in assessing and anticipating health threats, especially in the areas where it has a comparative advantage, such as in clandestine intelligence collection. We need to boost support for public health in this country, and internationally we need to establish a coordinated global disease surveillance and warning system.

Most importantly, we need to realize that another pandemic is only one of the many threats that the world will face in the future. Dangers such as cyber threats, climate change, nuclear war, natural disaster, or new kinds of biological threats will all require coordinated national and international action, and that action must be based on the best intelligence and warning possible. We need to begin now to develop the systems and organizations that will provide that needed actionable intelligence; and we need to train and educate our decisionmakers about intelligence, so that when the warnings come next time, leaders will listen.