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.” 

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China coronavirus outbreak spreads across regions
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. China's president visited the center of the global virus outbreak Tuesday as Italy began a sweeping nationwide travel ban and people worldwide braced for the possibility of recession. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP)
A traveler wears a face mask as he sits in a waiting room at the Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A fourth person has died in an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, authorities said Tuesday, as more places stepped up medical screening of travelers from the country as it enters its busiest travel period. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
A girl wearing a face mask sits among suitcases at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Travelers wearing face masks gather at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Face masks sold out and temperature checks at airports and train stations became the new norm as China strove Tuesday to control the outbreak of a new coronavirus that has reached four other countries and territories and threatens to spread further during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Staff in biohazard suits hold a metal stretcher by the in-patient department of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a novel coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Heightened precautions were being taken in China and elsewhere Tuesday as governments strove to control the outbreak of the coronavirus, which threatens to grow during the Lunar New Year travel rush. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
Peatones con máscaras de protección en una zona comercial de Tokio, el jueves 16 de enero de 2020. (AP Foto/Eugene Hoshiko)
Health workers wear protective gear Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003, in Ward E3 of the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Hong Kong's New Territories, where 24 patients were quarantined after seven of its health workers developed flu-like symptoms, although none have tested positive for SARS. According to a hospital spokesperson five nurses and two health care assistants working in the hospital's Ward E3 developed symptoms such as coughs, sore throats and fevers on Friday. Hong Kong's health chief, Dr.Yeoh Eng-kiong, said that preliminary test results showed patients' samples did not contain coronavirus that causes SARS and researchers are trying to identify the cause of the illness. (AP Photo/Anat Givon)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Workers monitor screens for fever signs on passengers detected by infrared detectors at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk inside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk outside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
WUHAN, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Passengers wearing protective masks walk inside Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. A new type of coronavirus has infected hundreds of people in the city.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 21: Chinese travellers wear protective masks as they arrive to board trains at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday and cases have been reported in other parts of Asia including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
YICHANG, CHINA - JANUARY 21 2020: Travelers wearing protective masks walk outside a railway station in Yichang in central China's Hubei province Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. China has stepped up the measures to control the spread of the new coronavirus that has infected hundreds of people in China.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Feature China / Barcroft Media (Photo credit should read Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY 21: A Chinese girl wears a protective mask as her mother pushes her on a suitcase to board a train at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday and cases have been reported in other parts of Asia including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
In this March 23, 2020 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, workers disinfect a subway train in preparation for the restoration of public transport in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province. China's health ministry says Wuhan has now gone several consecutive days without a new infection, showing the effectiveness of draconian travel restrictions that are slowly being relaxed around the country. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)
In this March 18, 2020 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, people applaud as departing medical workers enter Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. Last month, Wuhan was overwhelmed with thousands of new cases of coronavirus each day. But in a dramatic development that underscores just how much the outbreak has pivoted toward Europe and the United States, Chinese authorities said Thursday that the city and its surrounding province had no new cases to report. The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. (Ke Hao/Xinhua via AP)
En esta fotografía del domingo 8 de marzo de 2020, difundida por la Agencia de Noticias Xinhua, trabajadores con trajes protectores limpian un hospital que se improvisó en un escenario deportivo después de que fuera cerrado oficialmente en Wuhan, provincia de Hubei, en el centro de China. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua vía AP)
Office workers wearing mask against coronavirus move past lantern decorations in a mall and office building in Beijing on Thursday, March 19, 2020. China has only just begun loosening draconian travel restrictions within the country, but has stepped-up 14-day quarantine regulations on those arriving in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere from overseas, amid expectations of a new influx of students and others returning home. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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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

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

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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