Analysis: A look at the CIA’s half-century-old ‘disease intelligence’ program

CIAThe general discussion about how and when the White House was alerted by its spy agencies about COVID-19, points to the existence of ‘disease intelligence’ programs in the United States Intelligence Community. Relatively little is known about the history and current state of these programs. Last weekend, however, ABC News’ investigative correspondent Lee Ferran brought to light an article from 48 years ago in a declassified intelligence publication that sheds light on the roots of the Central Intelligence Agency’s disease intelligence effort.

The article was published in the declassified edition of Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s in-house research publication. Written by Warren F. Carey and Myles Maxfield, the article appeared [.pdf] in the spring 1972 issue of the journal, and is titled “Intelligence Implications of Disease”. It discusses the 1966 outbreak of meningitis in China’s Guangdong Province, which prompted the CIA to begin tracking diseases in a systematic way. The outbreak first appeared in the city that is today known as Guangzhou, and within weeks it had resulted in a military takeover of the Chinese healthcare system. The latter collapsed in places, and prompted the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (known today as the Directorate of Science and Technology) to begin collecting data in order to assess the political fallout of the disease.

The article states that the CIA cryptonym for the disease was Project IMPACT. Its scope was limited, but it expanded 1968, when the world health community began to issue alerts about the so-called Hong Kong flu. Known officially as Hong Kong/A2/68, the virus spread around the world in a few months, and is believed to have killed between 1 and 4 million people, including around 100,000 Americans. At that time, according to the article in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s Project IMPACT “went global”, and was combined with BLACKFLAG, an ongoing effort by the Agency to “computerize disease information and derive trends, cycles and predictions” on a global scale.

Project BLACKFLAG tracked the spread of the disease in the Soviet Union and in North Vietnam, and issued regular analyses of the political ramification of the epidemic. That was not easy, say the authors, given the fact that most nations of the communist bloc tried to conceal information about it. The CIA was also able to issue warnings to its teams of operatives abroad, instructing them to shield themselves from the flu as it spread around East Asia and, eventually, the world.

According the authors, the CIA’s early disease intelligence projects were able to demonstrate that data aggregation was critical in helping monitor and forecast outbreaks. It also showed that these such forecasts could have “an initiating and vital role” in political, military and economic intelligence. Today, says Ferran, the CIA’s disease intelligence program has the same twofold mission it had when it was first conceived: first, to collect intelligence about the actual extent of the spread of diseases abroad —which may differ from the official information provided by foreign governments; and second, to try to forecast the consequences of these trends for American interests in the regions impacted by an ongoing epidemic or pandemic.

► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 June 2020 | Permalink

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