US agencies have tough task tracking virus
WASHINGTON – As United States spy agencies seek to assemble a precise picture of the world’s novel coronavirus (COVID-19)outbreaks, they are finding serious gaps in their ability to assess the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, according to five US government sources familiar with the intelligence reporting.
The agencies also have limited insight into the full impact of the pandemic in Iran, although information on infections and deaths among the ruling class and public is becoming more available on official and social media, two sources said.
The four countries are known by US spy agencies as “hard targets” because of the heavy state controls on information and the difficulty, even in normal times, of collecting intelligence from within their closed leadership circles.
An accurate assessment of those countries’ outbreaks would aid US and international efforts to limit the human and economic tolls from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, experts say.
The agencies are not just looking for accurate numbers, but also for any signs of the political ramifications of how the crisis is being handled.
“We want to have as close an accurate, real-time understanding of where the global hotspots are and where they are evolving,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert at the Centre for Global Development thinktank, who led the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013 to 2017, including the US response to the Ebola outbreak. “The world is not going to get rid of this thing until we get rid of it everywhere.”
US intelligence agencies first began reporting on the coronavirus in January and provided early warnings to lawmakers on the outbreak in China, where it originated in the city of Wuhan late last year, said the sources, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about intelligence matters.
The pandemic has grown to nearly 740 000 cases in some 200 countries and territories, Reuters figures show, with the United States now reporting the most cases at more than 152 000.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the 17 US intelligence agencies, declined to comment.