The Role of Intelligence in Public Health

CSPS Fellow Voké Kalegha discusses the importance of intelligence in combating pandemic diseases, and she outlines various forms of intelligence and their benefits to tracking and battling infectious diseases.

For more than a decade, the United States National Security Strategy (NSS) has focused primarily on counterterrorism; however, the current pandemic has highlighted issues with the lack of public health in this strategy. COVID-19 has already caused more than ten times as many deaths as 9/11. With both the 9/11 attacks and the current pandemic, the government and military officials had a strategic intelligence warning of the coming crises and failed to utilize it.

Intelligence is the collection and analysis of information that typically assess the intent and capability of an adversary. Policymakers have not prioritized public health intelligence. Infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, pose a significant threat to U.S. national security – with health, social, military, economic, and political effects. To best understand and mitigate these threats moving forward, intelligence must be utilized adequately and promptly to support policy.

An essential task for intelligence during disease outbreaks is to determine whether foreign officials are trying to minimize the effects of an outbreak or taking steps to hide a public health crisis. At the State Department, personnel have been tracking early reports about the virus. U.S. intelligence agencies were also issuing classified warnings in January of 2020 about the global danger posed by COVID-19. Throughout this effort, the Trump administration and lawmakers alike downplayed the threat. While many intelligence reports did not precisely predict a timeline for the virus, they did track the spread of the virus in China, and later other countries, and warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak.

Pandemics are not new, and modern governments have to be highly cognizant of the threat they pose. As such, when the Trump administration became aware of the threat presented by numerous intelligence reports, they failed to utilize this intelligence – which intensified the threat. Moving forward intelligence capabilities must be utilized accurately.  The collection of intelligence plays a large role in infectious disease outbreaks, through both public reporting and organizational analysis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already utilized these methods successfully, and it seems likely they will only expand in usage moving forward.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is defined as intelligence ‘produced from publicly available information.’ It is a broad definition that encompasses any source openly available –including media sources that can be accessed instantly – with potential use in outbreak alerts. The public health community has begun to recognize the scope of these services, and many R&D projects currently are exploring how OSINT might further help identify and monitor diseases that constitute a public health threat. The WHO operates a program to assist in the collection and assessment of OSINT in disease intelligence – the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN). GPHIN is a semi-automated early warning system that continuously scans global media sources in nine languages, searching for keywords, phrases, and any potential signs of disease outbreaks. OSINT tools applied to surveillance, such as GPHIN, can automatically collect and collate data, thereby referencing much larger quantities of information.

The use of Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) in public health is also being explored. SOCMINT uses social media and web forums globally to provide information on a specified topic or theme. However, the geographic availability of SOCMINT is less limited than that of OSINT.

Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) is also very significant. Signals Intelligence is the collection of communication data, often through telephone and email interception. Proposals have been made for the employment of SIGINT as a tool in outbreak surveillance, including the collection of mass communication data. Other proposals suggest that SIGINT may be useful in contact tracing—identification and diagnosis of people who may have come into contact with an infected person.

The COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates that public health will continue to be a threat to national security if intelligence capabilities are not utilized wisely. The complex issue of when and how to utilize intelligence capabilities concerning public health must now be researched further. Intelligence tools are not sufficient on their own as they only detect the presence and surrounding dynamics, therefore proper dialogue among all actors in the National Security Strategy must be necessary for combating the national threat as outbreaks unfold. 

Voké Ashley Kaleghais a second-year graduate student, studying International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, with an emphasis on Intelligence. She is a 2018 graduate of Old Dominion University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree – majoring in Criminal Justice and Communications, with a certificate in Cybersecurity. Her research interests include intelligence, counterterrorism, and emerging dual-use technologies.

Photo can be found here.