Another Expensive War, Another Intelligence Failure?
An already heavily indebted federal government will now go even deeper down a fiscal hole, possibly beyond the point of any real recovery.
The United States has been at war almost continuously since the founding of the nation in 1783. Some of the wars were undeclared like the centuries-long eradication of the native Americans, while others – the Mexican and Spanish-American wars – were glorified by including the names of the countries defeated by Washington’s war machine. America’s bloodiest war actually has multiple names, including the Civil War, the War Between the States, The War of the Rebellion and the War of Northern Aggression, allowing one to pick and choose reflecting one’s own political preferences.
More recently wars in Korea and Vietnam were named in straightforward fashion, though current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan do not really have names. In fact, it has become somewhat politically incorrect to name a war after an ethnic group or a country in the old fashion way. But this shortage of wars has been somewhat made up for by an increase in the number of metaphorical wars to include a war on drugs, a war on poverty and a war on terror. Now Americans are confronting what might some day be called the War on Coronavirus. President Donald J. Trump has already declared himself to be a “wartime president” and he is preparing to prime the economy’s pump with $2.2 trillion, much of which will go to the salivating profiteers that are already lining up as well as to the greedy corporate constituencies who will do their best to use the cash to increase their value for potential shareholders.
That $2.2 trillion is considerably more than the Vietnam War cost in today’s dollars ($1 trillion) though it does not yet come close to the $5-7 trillion in borrowed dollars that the going-on-twenty-years engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq has cost. But for those who worry about being number one, Trump has promised additional tranches of more trillions, which means that the war on the coronavirus might well wind up being the most expensive conflict in American history. Plus, that is only the direct cost to the federal government with state and local jurisdictions also spending billions. The coronavirus will also have a devastating impact on the economy and actually threatens to directly damage entire communities and even states, something that has not occurred in the U.S. since the Civil War. And, of course, the money the White House winds up spending is all borrowed and someday will have to be repaid.
Along with the bottom line, there are already signs of the other American contribution to warfare, which is “intelligence failure.” In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, contributor Micah Zenko states that “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History: It’s more glaring than Pearl Harbor and 9/11.” He also observes that “it’s all the fault of Donald Trump’s leadership.”
Zenko’s argument is basically that the intelligence agencies were warning about information derived from medical sources in China that suggested viruses were developing that might become a pandemic, but the politicians, most particularly those in the White House, chose to take no action. He writes that “…the Trump administration has cumulatively failed, both in taking seriously the specific, repeated intelligence community warnings about a coronavirus outbreak and in vigorously pursuing the nationwide response initiatives commensurate with the predicted threat. The federal government alone has the resources and authorities to lead the relevant public and private stakeholders to confront the foreseeable harms posed by the virus. Unfortunately, Trump officials made a series of judgments (minimizing the hazards of COVID-19) and decisions (refusing to act with the urgency required) that have needlessly made Americans far less safe.”
The article cites evidence that the intelligence community was collecting disturbing information on possibly developing pathogens in China and was, as early as January, preparing analytical reports that detailed just what was happening while also providing insights into how devastating the global proliferation of a highly contagious and potential lethal virus might be. One might say that the intel guys called it right, but were ignored by the White House, which, per Zenko, acted with “unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence.”
Trump responded to the warnings in his characteristic fashion by praising his own efforts and dismissing the “fake news.” On January 22nd, he claimed that “We have it [the virus] totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” The perception on Trump’s part that coronavirus did not pose a real threat unfortunately shaped the government response as senior officials scrambled to line up their positions on the virus with that of the president. The initial decision to reject the advice being given by the government’s health care officials came from Trump alone and it was backed up by the threat that anyone who did not toe the line might well be fired. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has recently been particularly targeted because he has several times contradicted the erroneous information being promoted by the president.
To be sure, Donald Trump is certainly not the first president to be at odds with his intelligence chiefs, and he certainly has good reasons to be suspicious of anything originating at CIA that might come across his desk. Bill Clinton notoriously had almost nothing to do with his own Agency Director James Woolsey, the two having met only once in two years. But Clinton, for all his faults, did have his staff reviewing and reacting to intelligence community (IC) reports and analysis, something that appears to be lacking in the current administration.
George W. Bush, a friend of the IC, also fumbled the ball like Trump in his administration’s failure to anticipate 9/11 in spite of the fact that “the system was blinking red” for the analysts at Langley in connection with a possible terrorist attack employing hijacked airplanes. However, the Bush failure consisted of a systemic inability to share information and connect the dots rather than unwillingness to respond to intelligence.
Zenko concludes with “The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency. These officials were presented with a clear progression of warnings and crucial decision points far enough in advance that the country could have been far better prepared. But the way that they squandered the gifts of foresight and time should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they were squandered: Trump was initially wrong, so his inner circle promoted that wrongness rhetorically and with inadequate policies for far too long, and even today. Americans will now pay the price for decades.”
So, an already heavily indebted federal government will now go even deeper down a fiscal hole, possibly beyond the point of any real recovery. And we now know that there was plenty of warning from the intelligence community regarding what might be coming, but the information was deliberately ignored. As a side note relating to both money and intelligence warnings, a classified briefing on the coronavirus was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 24th. The Senators were so convinced by what they heard that a number of them proceeded to dump vulnerable shares in the stock market before it began its precipitous slide when the threat posed by the coronavirus eventually became too big a story to hide. Some have interpreted the sell-off, which involved both Democratic and Republican Senators, as insider trading, which is a felony. That the three leading Republican Senators involved were too intimidated by the White House that they were unwilling to go to the president and tell him that something had to be done is revealing, as is the fact that they acted secretly to protect themselves.