Time Is Short – Fix U.S. Intelligence


Recently, Joe Biden ordered the Intelligence Community to conduct a review of the information in its possession and render an opinion as to the origins of COVID-19.  In doing so, he demonstrated that like virtually everyone else in a policy-making position in Washington, D.C. he has no actual idea what intelligence is or what the Intelligence Community is supposed to do.

The Intelligence Community does not exist to conduct after-action reviews.  It does not exist to create lengthy retrospective analytical pieces about what has already occurred.  It does not exist to duplicate the work of journalists or private think tanks.

The Intelligence Community exists to provide warning.  Its job is to tell us what has not yet happened.

In terms of a historical reference, the Intelligence Community does not exist so that on December 8, 1941, we can have a detailed account of what happened the day before.  It exists so that on December 6, 1941, it can tell us to prepare for an attack that will happen the next day.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears now to have begun in the late fall of 2019.  It almost certainly originated at the Wuhan BSL-4 lab run by the Chinese government.

At the time the outbreak began the United States Government knew:

  • That China rejected all efforts to limit biological weapons and intended to use biological weapons in a future conflict with the United States.
  • That in Communist China there is no meaningful separation between civilian and military spheres.
  • That the Wuhan lab was the only BSL-4 lab in China, meaning it would handle the most sensitive biological research done by the Chinese Communist Party.
  • That there were military as well as civilian researchers at Wuhan.
  • That Wuhan was heavily focused on ‘gain of function’ research. This is research expressly designed to make viruses more deadly to humans.
  • That American Department of State reporting had identified serious shortcomings in safety procedures at Wuhan and explicitly identified a concern that a pandemic could originate from the facility.

All of this information would have been assessed against the backdrop of the longstanding focus of American intelligence on biological threats. Such threats are and have been for many years top-tier collection priorities.

What this means in practice is that collection against Wuhan by American intelligence should have been intense. Every technical capability in our possession should have been directed at this lab. Human sources working for the CIA should have been inside the lab. No one should have been able to move in this facility without our knowing about it.

And, yet, we received no warning. Even now, a year and a half later we apparently lack the data to make an authoritative judgment as to how the pandemic began. This is, by any estimation, a catastrophic intelligence failure.

How is this possible? How can it be that our mammoth intelligence apparatus is so impotent?

The reasons are not hard to understand. We have money, and people, and resources. We do not have discipline, focus, and professionalism.

The top ranks of our intelligence agencies, like the CIA, are not filled with hard-nosed operators who have made their bones abroad. They are filled with bureaucrats, paper-pushers, and political hacks. One does not climb to the top of our intelligence apparatus by taking risks, running sources, and producing intelligence.

One becomes a “leader” in our Intelligence Community by towing the party line, laughing at the boss’s jokes, and buying into whatever ‘group think’ is currently fashionable. Our DNI is the former owner of an independent bookstore, which specialized in readings of erotic literature. The head of the CIA is a friend of Communist China who until recently ran a think tank promoting cooperation with Beijing and working closely with Chinese intelligence. At CIA the current focus is on recruitment videos pushing the importance of equity and inclusion over competence and mission accomplishment.

Our Intelligence Community does not need more money, more people, or more gear. It needs leadership, professionalism, and a laser focus on getting the job done. Ten years ago in Beyond Repair, The Decline and Fall of the CIA, I described it this way.

“Adding staffs, creating new coordination requirements, and turning the overall intelligence community wiring diagram into an even-more-tortured mess that it is already will not help. Memos, paperwork, PowerPoint presentations, and blue-ribbon commissions are not going to get it done either. We need to put aside form and process and get back to basics. Espionage is a tough, tough business. We need an equally tough organization to practice it.

Beyond Repair, The Decline and Fall of the CIA

We’d better hurry; the clock is ticking in a game we are playing whether we like it or not. It is a game we cannot afford to lose.”

In the ten years since those words were published the problems have only gotten worse. The stakes have only gotten higher. And the time we have to get this right has only gotten shorter.

Beyond Repair, The Decline and Fall of the CIA”