US spy agencies conclude China intentionally concealed COVID-19 data

Trump and XiThe United States Intelligence Community has concluded that the Chinese government intentionally withheld and even fabricated crucial data about infections and deaths from COVID-19, according to reports. Consequently, the official numbers relating to the novel coronavirus outbreak in China allegedly represent a considerable under-reporting of both total cases and total deaths.

This claim was published on Wednesday on the website of the American news agency Bloomberg. The news agency cited “three [anonymous] US officials” in its report. The officials said that a summary of the evidence against China had been communicated to the White House in a classified report. The classified report is believed to conclude that the official Chinese numbers about COVID-19 are “intentionally incomplete”.

The claims against China include the accusation that the government in Beijing repeatedly changed the methodology it used to record and track cases —for instance by excluding asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers from the list for several months. There are also claims that the number of deaths owing to the virus may be much higher than official statistics show. This could be especially true in the city of Wuhan, in China’s east-central Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated.

The embassy of China in Washington DC and the White House did not respond to questions about Bloomberg’s report on Wednesday. However, a number of pro-government media executives in China expressed concern in a Business Insider report late on Wednesday that the White House would try to exploit the Bloomberg report in order to “divert attention” from its own failures in preventing a surge of COVID-19 in America. They also claimed that China mobilized its health sector in a far more effective way than the US has done so far.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 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

Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

Saudi TelecomThe government of Saudi Arabia may be exploiting a decades-old tracking system embedded in the global mobile telecommu- nications network in order to spy on its citizens as they travel abroad, a report suggests. The report was published on Sunday in the British broadsheet The Guardian, based on documents provided by an anonymous whistle-blower.

The alleged documents may implicate Saudi Arabia’s three largest cellular telecommuni- cations service providers, said The Guardian, namely Mobily, Zain and Saudi Telecom. The anonymous whistle-blower told the paper that these companies were “weaponizing mobile technologies”, allegedly under the direction of Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy, which is notorious for suppressing political dissent within and outside the oil kingdom.

The alleged method of surveillance relies on SS7, a decades-old feature of the global cellular telecommunications system, which allows cellular providers to provide service to mobile phone users as they travel internationally. The SS7 system allows a mobile phone registered in a specific country to be used from a different country, and its user to be charged for the service. But to do so with accuracy, the SS7 system enables the service provider to track the owner of the device being charged for the phone call. This is done through what is known in cellular telecommunications parlance as a Provide Subscriber Location, or PSL, request.

According to The Guardian, Saudi cellular telecommunications providers have been making “excessive use” of PSLs in recent years. This indicates possible attempts to track the physical movements of Saudi cell mobile phone users who are traveling to the United States, and possibly other countries. The paper said that millions of PSLs were filed by Saudi Arabia in a one-month period in November of 2019. There is no telling how long this alleged surveillance operation has been going on, and in how many countries.

The paper also said that Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from the US state of Oregon, who is a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Intelligence, has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the privacy vulnerabilities of the SS7 system. However, the FCC has taken no action on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 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

US military given ‘continuity of government’ standby orders for COVID-19 pandemic

PentagonFor the first time in the modern history of the United States, the Department of Defense has been given standby orders to ensure the “continuity of government”, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These extraordinary measures, which include evacuating White House officials to remote quarantined locations, and devolving the nation’s leadership to “second-tier officials”, were originally meant for the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However, according to Newsweek, “Above-Top Secret” contingency plans are now in place, in case the nation’s Constitutional power successors are incapacitated by the pandemic. Standby orders have been issued for a series of plans under the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks as a homeland defense military authority.

These operations are codenamed OCTAGON, FREEJACK and ZODIAC, said Newsweek, and include CONPLAN 3400 (homeland defense if the US itself is the battlefield), CONPLAN 3500 (defending civil authorities in an emergency), and CONPLAN 3600 (defending the National Capital Region from an attack). Newsweek added that the Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, has authorized NORTHCOM to “prepare to deploy” in support of these “potential extraordinary missions”. These include “the possibility of some form of martial law”, where military commanders would be given executive powers across the US until a new civilian leadership would emerge.

An added complication to these plans is that the military itself is vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, which makes for “extraordinary circumstances”, said Newsweek. In recognition of this vulnerability, the Department of Defense has instituted unprecedented restrictions for off-base activities of military personnel. Having first banned overseas travel, the Pentagon is now keeping all uniformed personnel on or nearby military bases across the country and the world. Newsweek added that several other national security agencies are following the Pentagon’s contingency plans, and that continuity personnel at the White House are “readying [for an] evacuation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 March 2020 | Permalink

Militaries around the world scramble to contain impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 ChinaMilitary forces around the world are scrambling to contain the impact of COVID-19 on military readiness, as the virus continues to infect troops and commanders at an alarming rate. On Tuesday, the Polish government announced that General Jaroslaw Mika, who serves as general commander of Branches of the Armed Forces, had tested positive for the coronavirus. General Mika is believed to have contracted the virus during a military conference that took place in the German city of Wiesbaden, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders gathered to plan an American-led military exercise.

Also on Tuesday, the United States Department of Defense said that the commander of the US Army in Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, participated at the Wiesbaden conference, along with several other US Army staff members. They are currently being tested for exposure to COVID-19. Meanwhile the Reuters news agency reported that the US Pentagon acknowledged that “the US military’s official tally of servicemembers and related personnel who have been infected by the coronavirus likely undercounts the actual total”. Sources told the news agency that the low age and good health of American troops was “a mixed blessing of sorts”, since it allows US servicemembers to survive the virus but at the same time reduces their symptoms that would normally trigger testing for COVID-19.

The government of Taiwan said on Tuesday that over 400 members of its armed forces had entered self-imposed quarantine in order to prevent a possible COVID-19 outbreak among military personnel. This brings the total number of Taiwanese servicemembers who are currently in quarantine to over 2,000, which includes two generals. The country’s Minister of Defense, Yen De-fa, insisted on Tuesday that the virus had not impacted Taiwan’s military readiness.

Chinese officials have not provided information about the effect of the coronavirus on the country’s military. The Chinese-language website of The Epoch Times said last week that, according to unnamed insiders, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had “forcibly isolated” tens of thousands of servicemembers this month. There are no reports of specific numbers in the Chinese media or non-Chinese news outlets.

Finally, according to Daily NK, a South Korean website that specializes on news from North Korea, approximately 180 North Korean soldiers have died as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the past month. The website cited “a source inside the North Korean military”, who said that Pyongyang had forcibly quarantined at around 3,700 soldiers of all ranks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s military.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 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