US Pentagon’s top general says COVID-19 has natural origins, but questions remain

Mark MilleyThe United States Department of Defense’s top general has said that “the weight of evidence” gathered by Western spy agencies points to COVID-19 having “natural” origins, but this is not yet conclusive. Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, prominent scientists have dismissed rumors that it could be a synthesized bioweapon. According to reports, this question is being carefully examined by Western intelligence agencies.

At a press conference on Tuesday, US Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by a reporter whether the Pentagon had “any evidence that the [novel corona]virus began in a Chinese lab and maybe was released accidentally”. General Milley response was as follows: “There’s a lot of rumor and speculation in a wide variety of media, blog sites, etc. It should be no surprise to you that we’ve taken a keen interest in that and we’ve had a lot of intelligence [experts] take a hard look at that. At this point it’s inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But”, added the general, “we don’t know for certain”.

On the same day General Milley made these comments, an extensive report on the subject by Yahoo News’ National Security and Investigations Reporter Jenna McLaughlin said that the US Intelligence Community continued to actively gather information on the outbreak. Citing “nine current and former intelligence and national security officials familiar with ongoing investigations” on the novel coronavirus, McLaughlin said that American intelligence agencies had been gathering information on the outbreak “as early as November” of last year. Scientists working for US spy agencies had quickly dismissed the theory that the virus had been deliberately weaponized. A consensus appears to be forming that the virus is “of natural origin”, according to the report.

However, American and other Western spy agencies are “still weighing the possibility” that the virus may have escaped from a government laboratory in Wuhan, where it was being studied by scientists. McLaughlin quotes one American intelligence official who says: “we are actively and vigorously tracking down every piece of information we get on this topic [and] are writing frequently to update policymakers”. At this point, adds the official, the US Intelligence Community “has not come down on any one theory”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 April 2020 | Permalink

Pentagon study warned about global crisis caused by ‘novel respiratory disease’

DoD Pandemic reportA United States Department of Defense report warned about the danger of a global crisis caused by a “novel respiratory disease”. The existence of the 2017 study adds to the mounting skepticism about President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the coronavirus pandemic “blind- sided the world” and “came out of nowhere”.

The 103-page report is titled USNORTHCOM Branch Plan 3560: Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease Response, and was presented to the leadership of the US Northern Command headquarters in January 2017. It discusses the possible causes of a “clinically severe pandemic” and outlines the complications that it is likely to cause around the world. It also proposes an array of possible responses to such a crisis by the US military. A draft of the report was published online by The Nation earlier this month. The American newsmagazine said that it obtained the report from “a Pentagon official who requested anonymity to avoid professional reprisal”.

The Department of Defense study bases its analysis on data acquired from recent pandemics, such as the 2012 Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS coronavirus) and others. It discusses “coronavirus infections” and warns that “[t]he most likely and significant [pandemic] threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease”. The report then goes on to describe the medical supply shortages that would be caused by a coronavirus pandemic. It does so with a stunning degree of accuracy that mirrors the situation that the US is currently experiencing due to COVID-19. For instance it states that global “[c]ompetition for, and scarcity of, resources will include […] non-pharmaceutical Medical Countermeasures”, namely medical masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment needed by healthcare workers.

It also warns that dire shortages in medical equipment will be hampered by inadequate logistical support and will have “a significant impact on the global workforce”. Furthermore, the Pentagon study appears to anticipate a “worldwide competition” for ventilators and other hi-tech medical devices associated with intensive care units, as well as a scarcity of hospital beds. It ominously states that “even the most industrialized countries will have insufficient hospital beds” to accommodate the numbers of those who will need to be hospitalized due to having been infected by the virus.

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that, starting in January of this year, the US Intelligence Community repeatedly warned the White House about “a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic” requiring “swift action to contain it”. The paper cited “a US official who had access to intelligence reporting” about the coronavirus, who said that “the system was blinking red” in January.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 April 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

New York governor asks Trump to mobilize army to prevent COVID-19 meltdown

Andrew CuomoThe governor of New York has asked United States President Donald Trump to mobilize the Army in order to avoid a healthcare meltdown that will be “worse […] than what we are seeing in Italy”. In an open letter published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that hospitals in the state of New York will soon reach the point of medical no-return if the federal government does not step in.

Governor Cuomo said that intensive care units in hospitals throughout the state of New York —one of America’s most populous, with 20 million residents— were already at an 80 percent capacity as of yesterday. He added that if a few hundred more New Yorkers were to require hospitalization from acute COVID-19 illness, the state’s healthcare system would lack the capacity to treat them. As things stood yesterday, said Governor Cuomo, New York was short of “thousands of ICU beds [and] thousands of ventilators”. This scarcity pointed to “a greater failing and a worse situation than what we are seeing in Italy, where lives ‎are being lost because the country doesn’t have the health care capacity” to accommodate the wave of patients caused by the pandemic, said the governor.

To address the problem, Governor Cuomo urged President Trump to take an unprecedented step, namely to mobilize the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to retrofit public buildings throughout the state into medical facilities. These would include schools, gyms and college dorms, said Cuomo, adding that the state lacked “the physical capacity” to construct new medical facilities or retrofit existing buildings into medical units on its own.

The New York governor went on to add that the new medical facilities would have to be ready to use within a matter of weeks, if the state’s healthcare system was to avoid the very real possibility of a full-blown medical disaster. As of last night it was not clear whether the White House would respond to Governor Cuomo’s request.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2020 | Permalink

Coronavirus: Comparing America’s bungling fiasco with Taiwan’s stunning success

Coronavirus Task ForceThe coronavirus (COVID-19) is quickly becoming the greatest security challenge of our time. The ease of transmission and high death rate of this disease, coupled with the asymmetric challenges it poses to our planet’s social, economic and political structures, threaten the very cohesion of our global system. This is especially true of Western societies, whose highly sophisticated organizational features make them especially susceptible to all forms of large-scale disruption. Few of those of us who are alive today in the West have ever faced a threat with the all-encompassing characteristics, disruptive capacity and persistent nature of COVID-19.

But no American would get this impression by watching the daily briefings of the so-called White House “Coronavirus Task Force”. The uncomfortable smiles and awkward acquiescence of its members, part of an unconvincing effort to assure Americans that “all is well”, coupled with their seemingly unending competition to offer lavish praises to each other, make for a truly uncomfortable viewing experience. Such astounding manifestations of mediocrity would be somewhat tolerable if they came alongside actionable information that Americans could use to protect themselves and the future of their country —preferably something beyond “washing your hands for at least 20 seconds”.

On February 26, Americans were told by their president that “within a couple of days [COVID-19 cases in the US would] be down close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done”. By that time, China was feverishly implementing the largest quarantine in human history. Ten days later, Italy began to quarantine 16 million people —a quarter of its population— in its northern regions. Meanwhile, Britain has begun re-hiring retired nurses to prepare for the coming unprecedented wave of medical emergencies, while France has banned all large meetings in its territory. But in America it’s business as usual: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced on Sunday that all its tournament games nationwide will be held with fans despite growing concerns about the coronavirus. Not a single senior government official has stepped forward to address Americans’ growing anxiety about the potentially unprecedented degree of disruption that the US economy, including the nation’s supply chain, healthcare, transportation, education, entertainment, and services sectors are going to be experiencing in the coming months.

Additionally, Americans expect the so-called “Task Force” to provide non-politicized explanations of the ongoing failures of the US government’s treatment to the COVID-19 crisis, which continue to allow the virus to spread in our communities unabated. For instance, why did the US decline to use the World Health Organization’s diagnostic test for the disease, which had been made available to dozens of nations by the end of January? Or why does access to testing kits remain at alarmingly low levels, so much so that a frustrated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently described the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to COVID-19 as “flat-footed”? So grave is this situation, that on March 8 The Washington Examiner —arguably America’s leading conservative publication— opined that COVID-19 “is exposing how deeply unsuited [Donald Trump] is to deal with a genuine crisis that he can’t bluff his way through”.

The American government’s tragically incompetent response to COVID-19 (at this point just slightly better than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s) hurts even more when one compares it with that of Taiwan —an island nation of 23 million, which the US often views as a client state. In January, when COVID-19 began making news headlines, experts predicted that Taiwan would end up with the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. This was primarily due to the country’s geographical proximity to mainland China —just 81 miles from the Chinese shore— as well as the extensive transportation network that links the two nations. Over 1.2 million Taiwanese either live permanently or work in China, while nearly 3 million Chinese citizens visit Taiwan every year. Even more ominously, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred right before the Lunar New Year, which is the busiest travel season for both Chinese and Taiwanese holidaymakers.

But Taiwan has managed to spectacularly defy all early predictions about a potential COVID-19 epidemic. As a group of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, RAND Corporation and the Koo Foundation in Taiwan, explain in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the reason dates back to 2003. That year’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak prompted the Taiwanese government to establish the National Health Command Center (NHCC). Since then, the NHCC has operated as a central command system that coordinates the activities of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center, the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Center, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Center, and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Center. Intelligence collected and analyzed by these centers is quickly distributed to central, regional and local authorities in all parts of the country.

The authors explain that, on December 31, the day when the World Health Organization notified national authorities of the first accounts of a severe pneumonia with unknown causes in the Chinese city of Wuhan, NHCC personnel began to board planes arriving from Wuhan. They began testing all passengers and crew on those planes for flu-like symptoms before allowing them to deplane. By January 5, NHCC personnel were reaching out to anyone who had traveled to Wuhan in the past fortnight and testing them for flu-like symptoms. By that time, the NHCC had already set up a nationwide toll-free hotline, which has since become decentralized to serve individual regions.

On January 27, the NHCC worked in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) to integrate the database containing the recent travel history of passengers with their NHIA identification card data. They also integrated the same database with national tourism and immigration data. Within 24 hours, the NHCC was reaching out to all citizens of Taiwan, as well as tourists and immigrants, who had traveled to the Wuhan region during the previous month. Using this big-data analytics approach, Taiwanese authorities were able to generate real-time alerts that were sent to individual doctors for use during clinical visits, so that clinical symptoms could be matched with patients’ travel histories.

Those who had traveled to regions of China that were considered high-risk, were immediately quarantined at home for 14 days. Their movements were tracked through their mobile phones to ensure compliance with quarantine instructions. Meanwhile, all those who exhibited flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for influenza in weeks prior, were re-tested for COVID-19.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that, by March 9, Taiwan —located just 81 miles off the coast of China— had just 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a single death. Importantly, this is not because the Taiwanese are not testing their citizens —unlike the US or, even more outrageously, Turkey, which continues to report zero cases of COVID-19. Taiwan has tested more people than all of the nations of the Americas combined. The low number of COVID-19 cases in Taiwan is due to one thing, and one thing alone: a preemptive approach to the security of the nation by an enlightened leadership and a forward-thinking government system. Which is precisely what the US lacks at this grave time for the nation’s future.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is associate professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2020 | Permalink

US Pentagon insists it can continue to function despite COVID-19 outbreak

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has insisted that it can continue to function uninterrupted, despite claims by some media outlets that American military readiness may soon begin to degrade as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

During a press conference on Thursday, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he was “fully confident” that the Pentagon could perform its functions uninterrupted by the spread of the coronavirus. He added that he was expecting to receive a proposal early next week about how the Pentagon —the world’s largest office building, staffed by 20,000 employees— could prevent or mitigate the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, he said, the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center —designed for a nuclear attack— would be able to sustain the Department of Defense’s employees “for weeks at a time, if they have to be locked down inside the building if we have some type of outbreak”.

He did not comment on reports from last week, according to which senior American military commanders expressed concerns about the state of the country’s military readiness by the end of March. Late on Thursday, the US European Command announced the early termination of a joint military exercise that was underway in Israel, as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. A few days earlier, Pentagon officials canceled a joint military exercise in South Korea. Meanwhile, leading US defense contractor Lockheed Martin announced on Thursday that it had halted production at its F-35 plants in Italy and Japan. The company said that production at its factories in Texas continued uninterrupted.

Defense Secretary Esper said yesterday that the US military’s worldwide efforts on COVID-19 were being coordinated by US Norther Command, which was preparing for “short- and long-term scenarios, domestic and international situations”. He did not elaborate on that statement. Also on Thursday, the Pentagon announced that it had started administering coronavirus screenings to all new and potential recruits for all branches of the Armed Forces.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 March 2020 | Permalink

US intelligence agencies using ‘wide range’ of spy tools to monitor coronavirus

CDC AtlantaUnited States intelligence agencies are using “a wide range” of tools, ranging from open-source collection to communications interception and human intelligence, to collect desperately needed data about the spread of the coronavirus, according to sources. As of late last week, some of the most dependable data on the spread of the virus, known as COVID-19, came from military channels of information, according to Yahoo News’ National Security and Investigations Reporter Jenna McLaughlin.

Writing last Friday, McLaughlin cited “two sources familiar with the matter”, who said that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Issues Mission Center were collecting and analyzing real-time data on the coronavirus. The spread of the disease was also being monitored by the National Center for Medical Intelligence, which assesses the impact of disease outbreaks on American and foreign military personnel, said McLaughlin. She added that the intelligence generated by these agencies was being channeled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, which lead the White House’s Task Force on COVID-19.

A major concern of the US Intelligence Community is that the Chinese, Iranian and other governments around the world may not be sharing comprehensive data on the spread of the virus and its impact. “No data means spying”, one unnamed source told McLaughlin. According to Reuters’ Mark Hosenball, US intelligence agencies have been using “a wide range of intelligence tools”, including human intelligence and electronic communications interception to track the spread of COVID-19. A major question that US intelligence agencies are trying to answer is whether governments like China’s or Iran’s have effective “continuity operations” plans in place, which relate to preserving the main functions of government during a major national disaster.

According to Hosenball, there is pessimism among US intelligence experts about the ability of developing countries around the world to respond to a massive COVID-19 outbreak. One example is India, whose dense population and rudimentary public-health infrastructure raises serious concerns about the government’s ability to protect the country’s population from a major pandemic. The report adds that there “deep concern” in US government circles about the possibility that Iran may be covering up the details about the spread of COVID-19.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 February 2020 | Permalink