With information from China scarce, U.S. spies enlisted to track coronavirus


WASHINGTON — As Chinese officials face allegations of locking down information about the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. intelligence agencies have been helping in governmentwide efforts to gather information about the disease’s global spread.

Already, some of the best information about the coronavirus and the Chinese government’s response to it is coming from military channels, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

“China’s behavior causes the intelligence community to get involved,” said one of those sources, a former intelligence official. “Because no data means spying.”

The former official indicated that the most important issue being tracked is the Chinese leadership plans for what is known as “continuity of operations,” meaning the ability for the government to maintain its basic functions during an unprecedented crisis, such as nuclear war or natural disaster.

In China, this might involve senior leaders leaving the country or seeking safety in shelters, “like U.S. doomsday bunkers,” said the source. The intel community, said the source, is seeing some signs Chinese officials are making those kinds of contingency plans, indicating the potential level of concern within Beijing.

World map with coronavirus graphic in crosshairs
Tracking the coronavirus. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: AP [2], Getty Images)

The intelligence community’s involvement comes amid international frustrations with China’s reticence to accept international assistance. The World Health Organization, including American experts, was finally allowed to visit China on Monday to do field research on the disease but has been delayed and will not, as of now, be visiting the alleged location of the origin of the outbreak due to what Chinese officials described as a lack of time and resources to host international experts.

At least officially, however, the WHO has been complimentary of China's efforts. In a statement, the WHO told Yahoo News that “since the beginning of the outbreak, China [has] shared data in a transparent manner.”

However, the organization, which receives funding from China, has come under fire for what many have called a delayed response to the outbreak and a failure to pressure Chinese leadership into further openness.

In the United States, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA’s Global Issues Mission Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence have all been supporting the White House Task Force on the coronavirus, according to three intelligence sources familiar with the matter. The task force is led by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Center for Medical Intelligence is based in Fort Detrick, Md., and tracks disease outbreaks and potential danger to the U.S. military, as well as preparedness of foreign leaders to respond to pandemics or other related attacks. A military spokesman told Yahoo News the agency “is closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak and the worldwide response to it.”

In this instance of the coronavirus, the intelligence community has to figure out a way to quickly gather information about a rapidly progressing potential pandemic without risking human sources’ lives, losing track of other threats or getting in the way of the CDC and WHO, which take primary responsibility for response and outreach.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, at a press conference about the coronavirus on Feb. 10 in Geneva. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

As of Thursday, the WHO reported over 75,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease globally, as well as 2,129 deaths, the majority in China, notifying travelers that the global risk assessment for the disease is “high.” Symptoms can range from a common cold to more severe respiratory symptoms, and is transmitted from person to person.

A global pandemic has long been a concern to U.S. national security officials, and planning for such outbreaks has been a crucial part of government planning in previous administrations.

“Pandemic disease poses one of the greatest threats to global stability and security,” wrote Lisa Monaco, who served as President Barack Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, in an op-ed on the LawFare, a national security blog. She also noted that the Trump White House no longer has a “dedicated unit to oversee preparedness for pandemics,” as there was under Obama during the West African Ebola crisis.

The U.S. and China have seen tensions rise over recent years as the U.S. cracks down on Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft amid an ongoing trade war, making it harder for U.S. officials to get complete information about the public health crisis.

While there are always channels available to communicate with China, it’s not always clear Chinese officials will make use of them or pick up the phone, said one national security official. The Communist Party and the broader bureaucracy are concerned about reporting bad news to President Xi Jinping, and also the disease’s potential impact on the global economy.

The situation with China “certainly makes it harder, I think more necessary and harder,” to get solid intelligence, said Greg Treverton, a professor at the University of Southern California and a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, in an interview with Yahoo News.

Treverton, who has written extensively about transnational threats, recalled the government’s internal response to both the SARS epidemic in 2003, another instance of the coronavirus in China, as well as the gargantuan effort around responding to the West African Ebola epidemic between 2014 and 2016. He told Yahoo News that the intelligence community invested heavily in anticipatory tracking to follow Ebola’s path in Africa before cases surfaced in the U.S. and the issue became more domestic.

“These are existential, serious issues,” continued Treverton. “Health is an enormous national security issue, particularly when the intelligence target” — i.e., China — “is not as helpful as it should be.”


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