Is it time for Western intelligence agencies to treat pandemics as security threats?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks two decades ago, stunned and shaken Western allies scrambled to set up a terrorism intelligence exchange among themselves — a dedicated intelligence stream between the partners of the “Five Eyes” alliance to warn them of future attacks.

A former senior Canadian intelligence official now predicts that five-member intelligence alliance — between Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — will follow a similar path in the wake of COVID-19 by pooling medical intelligence that could provide early warning of the next pandemic.

Such a notion could be controversial because — despite the economic and social devastation caused by COVID-19 — many within the defence and intelligence communities don’t consider the threat of a pandemic to be a pure issue of national security.

But global pandemics — like wars and terrorist assaults — create vast suffering and political instability and should be treated as a problem for intelligence agencies, said Greg Fyffe, former executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office, which provides direct support and advice to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The consequences of a pandemic can be very serious in terms of the health of armies and the health of populations,” Fyffe told CBC News. 

“They can generate national security issues directly, as we’ve seen in some cases when there’s actually revolts and demonstrations. Pandemics can alter the geopolitical balance.”

A woman wears a mask of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon figure appropriated by far-right groups, as she stands next to a woman holding a U.S. flag and a ‘Trump 2020’ hat on May 14, 2020, during a protest rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The demonstration was against Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington state’s stay-at-home orders restricting some businesses and public gatherings in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

This week, the Reuters news agency reported that the new head of U.S. Capitol Police intelligence, John K. Donohue, warned the U.S. Congress last summer that public restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic were accelerating right-wing violence in America.

Here at home, the man accused of ramming his truck into the gates of Rideau Hall and threatening the prime minister reportedly wanted to take the PM to task over the effects of pandemic lockdowns.

To date, forecasting and monitoring infectious disease outbreaks in different parts of the world has been the work of national health agencies and, to a lesser extent, militaries and private sector tech companies.

Canada took a shot at setting up an international early warning system through its own Global Pandemic Health Information Network (GPHIN). In the case of COVID-19, that effort largely failed because the Liberal government shifted the agency’s surveillance focus to domestic health concerns rather than global threats and — as The Globe and Mail reported last year — stopped issuing alerts.

CBC News reported this week that, as the novel coronavirus began its deadly march around the world, analysis by the Canadian military’s medical intelligence cell did not factor into Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) rapid risk assessments — even though they were shared within the federal government.

‘Disconnected’ intelligence

Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor who studies intelligence services and national security, said the problem is that critical bits of intelligence and insight wind up siloed within the agency where they’re gathered.

PHAC “was completely disconnected from other elements of the federal government that could have provided important sources of information,” he said.

In response to the terrorist threat, many intelligence agencies moved to address the silo problem through the wholesale adoption of all-source intelligence “fusion centres” bringing together classified and open-source information — including, more recently, social media analytics.

Fyffe said that, as individual countries developed their own anti-terrorism centres, tips, warnings and intelligence began flowing among allies.

“So if all of these countries set up some sort of bioterrorism or biosecurity agency, they’re probably going to link up in some way, formal or informal,” he said.

Going global

Medical intelligence sharing already exists among four of the Five Eyes partners through the Quadripartite Medical Intelligence Committee (QMIC), made up of representatives of the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. But that classified information is viewed through a military lens and any international cooperation on future pandemics would have to be more broadly based, Fyffe said.

And any pandemic information-sharing might have to extend beyond traditional alliances, he added.

“It’s no use just having the Five Eyes countries alerted to a pandemic danger,” Fyffe said, adding that intelligence allies would compare notes with each other first before seeking intelligence from non-allies.

“The ultimate desire is to have all countries alerted to the dangers. All of it [would be] designed to say, ‘Who has information? How can it be shared?'”

The notion that pandemics present an intelligence problem has been challenged in some quarters since last spring. National security experts Stephanie Carvin and Jessica Davis argued in a Policy Options magazine article that overtaxed intelligence agencies are busy enough already.

“There is no shortage of work for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and [the Canadian Security Establishment],” they wrote on April 24. “In this sense, it is vital that our national security agencies focus on the issues for which they are mandated rather than finding new ones.”

A Cargojet unloads a shipment of personal protective equipment in Hamilton, Ont. after returning from Shanghai on April 11, 2020. (Cargojet/Twitter)

Carvin — an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University — and Davis, a terrorism expert, both questioned whether improved pandemic early warning would accomplish anything beyond buying the government a few extra weeks to stockpile medical supplies and equipment.

“In this sense, a better place to invest is almost certainly in preparation, and specifically in planning and supplies. Canada’s resilience to pandemics will depend more on strategic supplies and community readiness,” they wrote.

The Trudeau government was ‘naive,’ says Bezan

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he believes pandemics and their aftermath represent a clear and present danger.

Adversaries like Russia and China undoubtedly have been taking notes on how Western countries have coped with the virus, he said. And while COVID-19 emerged naturally, he added, the idea of a country engineering a low-grade bioweapon capable of similar damage is far from inconceivable.

“We have to take early warning very, very seriously,” said Bezan, citing the absence of military intelligence in PHAC’s reports on the novel coronavirus. 

“It was naive on the part of the Liberal government and [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau to only take the word of the WHO [World Health Organization] analysts,” he said. “Canadian lives were unnecessarily put at risk.”

The auditor general is investigating what went wrong with the country’s early warning system, including the PHAC risk assessments, which federal officials used to decide on anti-pandemic measures such as border closures and mask mandates.

“We’re starting to push into that terrain of opening our eyes to all of the things that went so badly wrong for Canada,” said Wark. “It will be a long journey and a painful one, I’m afraid, because so much did go wrong.”

Wark said he believes the country will have to rebuild its system for pandemic early warning and threat assessment “from the ground up.”

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