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Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.

Nicholas Rasmussen on Coronavirus, the National Security Bureaucracy and How to Organize for a Crisis

June 24, 2020

Nicholas Rasmussen is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law. He is Executive Director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, Distinguished Professor of Practice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and a national security expert with over twenty-seven years in U.S. government service. Most recently, he was Senior Director for National Security & Counterterrorism programs at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. He previously served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), having been appointed by President Obama and continuing his tenure at the request of President Trump’s administration in 2017.  Full bio

As a former senior national security official, what is your view on the structures needed to confront a pandemic threat like COVID-19? Should the national security bureaucracy be adapted to address such threats, and if so, in what ways?

It is difficult in the midst of an ongoing crisis to diagnose exactly how and why the federal government failed to perform as it should have in the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, I believe that the obvious shortcomings in federal response have more to do with execution of policy and strategy than with structure. The planning documents prepared by the previous administration indicate that most if not all of the key challenges we faced in March 2020 were either predictable or fully anticipated. These include the availability at large scale of testing capability, shortfalls in PPE stockpiles, overwhelmed supply chains and challenges with implementing socials distancing or quarantine strategies. There is no scenario in which the United States could have escaped significant harm because of the global spread of COVID-19. But it’s clear in retrospect that more aggressive decisions, taken by our senior leaders at an earlier stage with the aim of mobilizing a whole-of-government response, would likely have saved thousands of lives and opened the door to more rapid recovery.

Where, then, does responsibility for failure belong? To my mind, it falls squarely on the senior-most leadership levels at the White House, the National Security Council (NSC) staff and the Department of Health and Human Services. A primary function of the NSC staff is to identify threats to the United States, identify and convene the component parts of our government with the capability required to respond to those threats, and then to coordinate and integrate that interagency response so that resources are applied where and when they are most needed. That simply did not happen in this case.

“[I]t’s clear in retrospect that more aggressive decisions, taken by our senior leaders at an earlier stage with the aim of mobilizing a whole-of-government response, would likely have saved thousands of lives and opened the door to more rapid recovery.”

Despite White House claims to the contrary, NSC staff capacity and readiness to address public health issues at the highest levels of government and to coordinate crisis response to pandemics had been whittled away over the Trump administration’s first three years in office. For example, the position of Homeland Security Advisor to the President—occupied by Thomas Bossert until his resignation/dismissal in April 2018—is charged with prioritizing biodefense capabilities and provides crucial access to the President, and to my mind its elimination was something of a game changer. Talented, committed public servants and experts working at places like CDC, HHS and NIH won’t ever gain traction with their policy advice if they cannot plug into an NSC staff structure that can quickly get their concerns on the table with Cabinet-level officials and the President.

It’s tempting in the aftermath of a calamitous failure of response to conclude that significant reorganization of the federal government and reprioritization of national resources is required to prevent a repeat failure. That was certainly the case in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when it became obvious that we were not organized properly to deal with the al-Qaeda threat and that critical information-sharing shortfalls had left us vulnerable to terrorist attack. Perhaps the inevitable COVID-19 inquiry will someday reveal that we could have and should have been organized and structured better when the virus struck. But I suspect the recommendations from that future inquiry will focus less on moving boxes around organization charts and more on the obvious failures of decision making and leadership, which makes the present outcome all the more tragic and all the more avoidable. At the same time, a shift in government resources to meet public health requirements is one area of likely commonality with the post-9/11 response. Crisis always causes government to reprioritize and that will surely happen in the aftermath of COVID-19.

You’ve spoken out against some of the shakeups and firings in the Intelligence Community (IC). What is the role of the IC in the context of a pandemic threat that originated abroad, and in China? How can the impact of the IC leadership disruptions be minimized in the face of this threat?

The Intelligence Community will never be the President’s primary source of information or analysis on matters of public health, even global public health. Still, the IC devotes substantial resources to collecting intelligence on China, and particularly the Chinese leadership’s priorities, and that information would have been a critically important source of early warning to the policy community and the White House. The IC would have been well placed to assess for the President and other decisionmakers how the Chinese government was responding to the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak and to make judgments about how serious a problem China and other nations thought they faced. That kind of information, when married with the assessment of medical professionals serving in the IC, would likely have painted a pretty clear picture of the looming crisis, particularly if the intelligence were shared with senior officials in Washington responsible for public health. Those intelligence assessments should have informed the policy response to the emerging crisis much earlier than they appeared to.

The continued churn at senior leadership levels of the IC, particularly within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, raises serious questions about how much (or how little) the President credits the work of the intelligence professionals who collect, process and analyze intelligence on the serious national security challenges facing the United States. We have long known that the President has very little regard for the expertise and professionalism of the IC, save for when its conclusions happen to align with his own policy preferences. The IC’s work is made even more difficult by the fact that the President appears to place great stock in non-traditional sources of information, including many of dubious origin. To my mind, the only tactic available to the IC to mitigate risk in this environment is to try to influence those who might be in a position to influence the President.

Beyond the tragic and ongoing toll of the pandemic, how do you think about the national security costs of this crisis and our government’s response?

There are clearly national security costs to this pandemic that we will likely reckon with for quite some time to come. Below, I outline just a few areas in which the United States will emerge from the COVID pandemic less strong and less well postured to deal with future crises of this magnitude, whether those crises take the form of a public health emergency or a more traditional national security crisis event involving Iran or China or North Korea. However, at a broader societal level, the events of the last few months have reinforced something even more disturbing—that we remain far, far short of achieving equality and justice for every citizen in the United States. The disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color and the repeated instances of lethal police violence against persons of color reveal that the United States has yet to address the systemic racism that permeates too much of American daily life. The protest activity across the country is testament to the fact that we all own this problem and are thus responsible for contributing to solutions. In the absence of those solutions, there will be ongoing costs to our national security and global leadership, many of them similar to the COVID-related fallout I describe below.

First, the continued loss of respect and regard for American leadership. While every nation in the world has been affected by COVID-19 to one degree or another, only a tiny handful of nations are looked to for leadership in managing global affairs. While our public health professionals are likely engaged in quiet cooperation with counterparts across the globe, there is no evidence that the President and his administration feel any responsibility to organize a global response to the pandemic. And while it’s doubtful that many nations would willingly follow an American lead at this point, the lack of even a perfunctory effort in this regard leaves us all worse off. The next time the United States feels it necessary to organize and lead any kind of global coalition, in response to some future aggression or crisis event, who will follow? Combined with the President’s well-known disregard and even contempt for alliance relationships, the global loss of regard for American leadership leaves us all less safe and secure.

Second, the continued loss of confidence in American institutions in the eyes of the public. In this period of remarkable disunity, the one thing that most Americans seem to have in common is an erosion of trust and confidence in our institutions of government. Again, while there was no realistic pathway for the United States to have emerged unscathed from a global pandemic, it is abundantly clear that other nations have risen to the challenge and significantly mitigated both the public health and economic impact of COVID-19. Those nations will emerge from this crisis with enhanced social and political cohesion while we are likely to see our divisions grow deeper than ever.

Third, the continued demonstration of American vulnerability to the weaponization of information. Whether information is being manipulated by domestic political actors or a malevolent foreign power, we have again demonstrated that the United States lacks the ability to defend itself when others seek to distort both policy and politics in our society. The debate over social distancing and face-shielding requirements speaks to the way in which this distortion affects both politics and policy. My own conclusion is that the conversation about how to manage/limit/regulate content on social media platforms has emerged as perhaps the most important public policy, or even national security, question of our time. In previous election cycles, issues related to defense spending, arms control, weapons proliferation and terrorism would have dominated the campaign agenda. Today, we are forced to grapple with the reality that weaponized information in the hands of our adversaries may be among the most profound threats we face.

Novel Threats: National Security and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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