Israel mobilizes its intelligence machinery to combat COVID-19

Israel COVID-19The intelligence agencies of Israel are playing an increasingly important role in the Jewish state’s effort to combat the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic in its territory. Israel’s intelligence agencies are known to be very secretive, but the government has gone out of its way to advertise their participation in the national effort to limit the spread of the virus.

Earlier this week, an Israeli television station aired an interview with an individual whose face was hidden, and was only identified as the director of technology for the Israeli external intelligence agency Mossad. He said that the secretive spy agency had managed to secure 100,000 coronavirus testing kits, 25,000 N-95 masks and 100 ventilators. The material had been acquired “from unnamed countries” by Mossad officers, he said. The officers had to “race to [foreign] factories” and secure these critical supplies after they had been “ordered by other countries”, he added. The agents then had to coordinate secret airlifts so that the medical material could be transported to Israel in time.

It has also been disclosed by the Office of the Prime Minister that the Israel Institute for Biological Research, which works closely with the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies, has been making “significant progress” in developing a vaccine against COVID-19. One of the institute’s mission is to develop and produce defenses against biological and chemical threats. However, it has been alleged that it also produces chemical and biological weapons, as well as poisons and antidotes for use by the Mossad.

Meanwhile, several units of the Israel Defense Forces are helping to retrofit CPAP and BiPAP machines, which are designed to help treat sleep apnea, so that they can be used as ventilators. They include Unit 81, which is the technology unit of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN). Additionally, state-owned defense contractors, such as Israel Aerospace Industries, are re-purposing production lines for weapons systems so that they can be used to manufacture ventilators.

As of Friday morning, nearly 7,000 Israelis had tested positive for COVID-19. It was reported that 36 Israelis had died and 338 were believed to have recovered from the disease.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 April 2020 | Permalink

US Department of Homeland Security operations center relocates due to COVID-19

DHSThe National Operations Center of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is relocating to an emergency facility after a member of its staff tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The information was revealed on Monday by Yahoo News, which said it obtained the information in an internal DHS document.

The DHS National Operations Center facility is housed in the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a National Historic Landmark built in 1855, which is currently being redeveloped as the new headquarters of the DHS. It operates as the DHS’ main coordination hub for managing and sharing local- and national-level information relating to terrorist threats and other emergency incidents.

For a number of days now, the DHS has placed restrictions on access to the National Operations Center, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, according to Yahoo News, a member of staff who works at the National Operations Center facility has now been diagnosed with having the virus. The news website said it found the information in “an internal DHS document” that it obtained, which is dated March 30. The document is entitled “COVID-19 Placemat” and contains a daily amalgamation of data points relating to if and how various US government agencies have been affected by the pandemic.

Yahoo News said a DHS official confirmed that the National Operations Center would be relocating “to an alternate facility […] as a precaution”. In the meantime the St. Elizabeths Hospital facility would be cleaned and sanitized, said the official, and added that the relocation would “not impact operations”. The “COVID-19 Placemat” did not identify the emergency facility that the National Operations Center personnel will be relocating to, said Yahoo News. But the news website noted that all US government agencies have remote facilities for use in a national emergency, “ranging from nuclear attack to pandemic”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 March 2020 | Permalink

Trump administration considering mass expulsions of alleged Chinese spies

United States ChinaThe administration of United States President Donald Trump is considering the possibility of expelling from the country dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others, who are believed to be undercover spies. The expulsions relate to a spiraling information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Beijing also stipulated that all American news organizations operating in China had to provide its government with detailed information about their financial assets, employee structure and other organizational information. The journalists claimed that they were expelled for trying to report about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic inside China.

Around the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, known as novel coronavirus) as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus”. The term refers to the Chinese province where the virus is believed to have originated. President Trump claims that he decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to unsubstantiated claims by government officials in Beijing that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by members of the US military.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering expelling from the US a large number of Chinese citizens who work as diplomats or journalists. In some cases, the White House is reportedly considering shutting down the bureaus of some Chinese media outlets in the US. According to a number of administration officials, many Chinese journalists based in the US are in reality undercover intelligence officers, who regularly report to the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary external intelligence agency. Some of these alleged undercover intelligence officers —known in the world of intelligence as ‘non-official cover’— are allegedly embedded with China Global Television Network, the foreign-language arm of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), according to some American officials.

On March 2, the Trump administration abruptly imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are permitted to work for Chinese media organizations in the US. The Chinese media groups complied with the new directive in a timely manner, by recalling over 60 of their staff members to China. However, the White House now believes that a significant number of the 100 Chinese journalists who continue to operate in the US are undercover intelligence officers.

Meanwhile, on March 25, China’s English-language government-owned newspaper The Global Times raised eyebrows by repeating allegations that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by an American cyclist, who visited Wuhan in October of last year to compete in the Military World Games. Such allegations, which propagate the view that the novel coronavirus originated in the US, are quickly growing in popularity in Chinese social media platforms.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2020 | Permalink

Pentagon leaders see COVID-19 crisis lasting months, destabilizing regions

Mark Esper MilleyThe United States Department of Defense is working under the assumption that the COVID-19 epidemic will seriously affect the life of the country for “at least several months”, and might cause “political chaos” in parts of the world. This was stated during a virtual town hall for members of the US Armed Forces, which was hosted on Tuesday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley.

General Milley told participants that the Pentagon was planning “for this to be a few months at least”. He added that, according to all indications, the US was looking at “eight to 10, maybe 12 weeks —something like three months” of confronting serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be “as late as July”, said Milley, and assured the audience that the Department of Defense was “taking all precautionary measures to be in it for the long-haul”.

Both speakers speculated that the pandemic could destabilize a number of countries around the world, and that the ensuing lack of security could pose threats to US interests. Milley pointed out that acute shortages of critical medical equipment, such as respirators, gloves, masks and ventilators, could cause certain countries to spiral into instability that will “go well beyond the immediate medical issues” and “lead to political chaos”.

On Wednesday, Brigadier General Dr. Paul Friedrichs, who serves as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Staff Surgeon (the Pentagon’s most senior medical professional), said that COVID-19 was spreading too quickly for experts to determine how many troops would eventually end up contracting the disease. However, Dr. Friedrichs cautioned against lightening any restrictions on social distancing before sufficient time passes to “make a dent” on infection rates. Doing so “could be disastrous”, he warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2020 | Permalink

Spain ‘shifts to a war economy’ and calls on NATO for help with COVID-19

COVID-19 SpainThe government of Spain said on Tuesday it had begun to shift to “a war economy”, as the Spanish Ministry of Defense called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for assistance to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The term war economy is used to describe the rapid reorganization of a nation’s production and distribution capacity in response to a direct military threat to its existence.

Spanish officials announced on Tuesday that the rate of COVID-19 illness in the country was growing faster than in Italy. Despite a nationally mandated lockdown, which began on March 14, coronavirus infections exceeded 42,000 yesterday, up from 25,000 on Saturday. Spanish medical facilities announced 514 new deaths in a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of COVID-19-related deaths to 2696. The deaths are reflective of Spain’s desperate struggle to provide sufficient medical supplies for its healthcare workers, or treatment hardware for patients.

On Tuesday afternoon, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) said it had received “a request for international assistance from the Armed Forces of Spain in their response to the global pandemic”. The EADRCC said in a press statement that the Spanish military had asked its “international partners […] to provide assistance to the Ministry of Defense of Spain”. Spanish media reported that the request included “450,000 respirators, 500,000 rapid testing kits, 500 ventilators and 1.5 million surgical masks”.

Meanwhile the Spanish military helped convert an ice ring in Madrid’s popular Palacio de Hielo mall into a makeshift morgue, in order to accommodate the projected surge in deaths due to COVID-19 in the coming days. The Spanish capital has suffered over 30 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths in the past week. Over the weekend, a nearby convention center was converted into a hospital that can accommodate 5,500 patients.

In neighboring France, the army set up a field hospital on French territory for the first time in the country’s peacetime history. Field hospitals are temporary tent structures designed to provide medical services to wounded soldiers and civilians in a warzone. The erection of field hospital tents in the eastern city of Mulhouse, close to the Swiss and German borders, was described by the French media as an unprecedented sight.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 March 2020 | Permalink

US intelligence warned White House about COVID-19 threat in January, report claims

Coronavirus Task ForceThe United States Intelligence Community issued “ominous classified warnings” in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus, but the White House failed to take timely action, according to an investigative report published on Friday in The Washington Post. The paper said that, in their totality, the Intelligence Community’s reports warned about “a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic” requiring the US government to take “swift action to contain it”.

The paper cited “a US official who had access to intelligence reporting” about the virus, who said that “the system was blinking red” in January. The “ominous” reports were disseminated to members of Congress and to senior officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump. Sources told The Washington Post that the reports did not attempt to forecast when the virus might begin to spread in the US, or what public health measures should be taken to prevent a possible outbreak. Such policy-related decisions are usually “outside the purview of the [intelligence] agencies”, said the US official.

However, the warnings were frequent and began to increase in volume by the last week of January, according to the article. By early February, the majority of the intelligence reports that were disseminated to the White House concerned COVID-19, sources said. Among other warnings, the reports cautioned President Trump that Chinese government officials were deliberately minimizing the extent and seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Washington Post cites “two senior administration officials” who claim that the president’s advisers found it difficult to draw his attention to the intelligence reports about COVID-19. It was only on January 18, less than a week before China began to place millions of its citizens on lockdown, that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar was able to secure access to the Oval Office and speak directly with President Trump about the virus. Soon afterwards, Dr. Robert Kadlec, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a classified meeting. The Post cites four anonymous US officials, who said that Dr. Kadlec gave his presentation jointly with members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They discussed the global health implications of COVID-19 and warned it was a “serious” threat that would require Americans “to take actions that could disrupt their daily lives”.

But the president was “dismissive”, said administration officials, allegedly refusing to believe that the virus posed a major threat to the country. On February 24, when, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 53 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US, President Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”. In the weeks that followed, said the administration officials, the White House “failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen”. Currently there are in excess of 20,000 COVID-19 cases in the US, a number that appears to double every 48 hours. Read more of this post

COVID-19 poses unprecedented operational challenges for America’s spy agencies

ODNI DNIAmerica’s Intelligence Community is facing unprecedented challenges as it tries to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. These challenges are affecting every aspect of the intelligence cycle, including collection and dissemination functions. Moreover, spy agencies are hurriedly redirecting their analytical resources to combating COVID-19, thus slowing the pace of work on other areas of national security, according to Time magazine.

Recently the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the central coordinating authority of the United States Intelligence Community, said that it was adjusting its focus in order to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). At the same time, however, the ODNI said it had reduced the physical contact between its staff members, through various methods including “staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices”. Similar methods are being followed by other agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, said Time.

On Thursday, the newsmagazine cited three anonymous intelligence officials who said that the Intelligence Community is quickly learning how to operate under conditions deemed unprecedented. Ideally, intelligence employees would work remotely. However, the classified digital communications networks of the Intelligence Community are not readily operational from remote locations. These include the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) for secret-level information, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) for top-secret-level information. Remote stations can be installed, but it costs between $50,000 and $70,000 per station to do so, said Time.

Additionally, top secret intelligence that is designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) must remain inside specially designated physical spaces known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF). This poses problems, not only for remote operations, but also for social-distancing, as SCIFs tend to be relatively small in size. Many agencies are addressing the problem by “moving to split shifts to reduce the number of people at the office at given times” and separating personnel into “essential” and “non-essential”, but these definitions are still in the process of being determined.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting human intelligence collection, which involves the use of case officers to recruit foreign assets in order to extract information in accordance with national security directives. Countless case officers stationed around the world are currently finding it difficult to operate in cities that are either empty or under lock-down mandates. Their assets are also limited in the work that they can do, while it is expected that many will be infected by the coronavirus. One consolation to American intelligence agencies, said Time, is that their adversaries’ operations are also being hampered by the same pandemic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 March 2020 | Research credit: J.M. | Permalink