What The Pandemic Tells Us About The Need For Intel Reform – It All Begins With Collection


The Acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, has announced a hiring freeze. Manning levels within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and other “post 9/11” creations like the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) are under review. My old colleague Dan Hoffman, a retired CIA Chief of Station, has spoken out publicly in favor of fighting the “bloat” within the Intelligence Community (IC).

These are all good signs. They suggest that President Trump is serious about fighting the explosion in the size, complexity, and expense of the post-9/11 intelligence bureaucracy. The days of attempting to combat terrorists and rogue states with legions of desk jockeys manning flat-screen computer monitors may be numbered.

And, yet none of this goes far enough. None of it addresses collection.

All of the “staffs,” all of the headquarters elements, all of the analytical components are useless without collection. If the intelligence of value to maintaining the national security of the United States is not flowing into the system, then everything else is an exercise in futility. The giant, ponderous machine, which exists for one purpose, to keep Americans safe in their beds at night, becomes nothing more than a giant “self-licking ice cream cone”, existing purely to maintain its own existence.

Yet – in all the ongoing discussion of reform and trimming the fat and even eliminating entire offices – there is no discussion whatsoever of the status of our collection efforts. It is, apparently, simply assumed that we are collecting what we need to, where we need to and when we need to.

These are dangerous and erroneous assumptions.

We need not look any further than the ongoing pandemic to see how poor our collection capabilities have become.

The coronavirus is circling the planet. A pandemic the likes of which we have not seen since the 1918 flu has shut down the world and is threatening the lives of millions. The pandemic began in China. It may have started in a “wet” market in Wuhan. It may be a naturally occurring pathogen that was being studied at a Chinese bio lab in Wuhan. It may, in fact, be a bioweapon of some kind over which the Chinese lost control.

We do not know.

How is that possible? The BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, from which the virus may have escaped, is China’s premier facility for the study of dangerous pathogens. Chinese interest in biological research generally and in the coronavirus specifically, has been an open secret for many years. No one who has studied the problem has ever accepted Chinese assurances that they abandoned their work on biological weapons. Chinese scientists abroad have been caught repeatedly stealing or attempting to steal samples of viruses and the research connected to them.

Should not China’s BSL-4 lab in Wuhan have been a top priority target for American intelligence? Should we not have had sources inside the facility, access to its computers and non-stop coverage of all communications to and from the lab? And, yet, apparently, we did not.

Did this virus originate in the Wuhan lab? We don’t know.

Even more astounding is the lack of intelligence on the massive Chinese coverup of the outbreak of the pandemic. Every action of the current administration has been driven by the necessity to catch up with a situation, which caught us off guard. We are told repeatedly that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved worldwide if only we had known a month or two earlier what was going on in China and the extent to which the Chinese were lying.

How is it possible that we did not know? Consider the scope of the effort involved in suppressing news of an outbreak that was sweeping across an area occupied by literally hundreds of millions of Chinese. This was not a secret effort involving a handful of individuals in some secure facility somewhere.

This was an effort stretching from the most senior levels of the Chinese government all the way down to the provincial and district level. Consider the many thousands of individuals who had inside knowledge of precisely what was happening. Consider how many phone calls, emails and other forms of communication were required to orchestrate the coverup of the largest viral outbreak in a century.

And, yet, somehow, the gargantuan intelligence machine on which the United States Government spends $80 Billion every year missed all of this. The President of the United States, who receives an intelligence briefing from the ODNI every morning, was not warned. Precious weeks, weeks that can never be recovered, were lost. Many Americans have died as a consequence. Many more will.

The truth is that our collection efforts are inadequate. This is not a reflection on the quality of the men and women in the IC, most of whom are loyal, hard-working Americans who want to protect the nation they love. It is a reflection of our lack of focus on mission accomplishment. It is a reflection of a culture that obsesses over budgets, wiring diagrams, and sensitivity training rather than stealing secrets. It is a reflection of the leadership of a class of intelligence bureaucrats who made rank attending meetings at headquarters rather than practicing their craft in the back alleys and remote mountain ranges of the world.

Cut the fat in D.C. by all means. That’s a good place to start. Then, if we are serious about intelligence and national security turn the focus to “collection.”

Put people in charge who have done the job. Demand results. Sharpen the spear. It all starts with collection, and without collection, nothing else matters.


Sam Faddis, Senior Partner Artemis LLC & Senior Editor, AND Magazine, published “Beyond Repair” in 2009, which received the following reviews:

“Faddis, a career CIA operations officer, pulls no punches in this provocative critique of the iconic and dysfunctional spy agency. . . . In a world where threats are multiplying and becoming more complex, [his] bleak assessment of the CIA should be required reading.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“If you want to know what’s wrong with today’s CIA―and how to fix it―
this book is the place to start. Sam Faddis . . . describes the timidity of station chiefs terrified of getting blamed for mistakes, the obduracy of ambassadors who don’t want flaps, the ‘we’re all winners here’ training rules better suited for a kindergarten playground than intelligence work, the reluctance to hire and promote people who understand leadership. You read Beyond Repair and you realize: No wonder the CIA is screwed up! Faddis proposes a bold cure: Remake the CIA in the image of the World War II spy service, the OSS―smaller, flatter, tougher, smarter, meaner. If people would read this book and understand its message, it could save lives.”
―David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist and author of Body of Lies 

“Drawing on his unique experience as a CIA operations officer, Charles Faddis makes a compelling case in Beyond Repair that the CIA must return to its Office of Strategic Services (OSS) roots to provide the United States with the intelligence it needs. Faddis has a deep appreciation for the OSS and great admiration for its legendary leader, General William J. Donovan, who frequently told OSS personnel that they could not succeed without taking chances. Faddis has taken such chances himself. General Donovan could have written this book. I know he would have read it and agreed wholeheartedly with its conclusion.”

―Charles Pinck, President of The OSS Society