A political failure

Murray Brewster, one of a small cadre of Canadian journalists who report, knowledgeably, on defence and security issues, says, in an article for CBC News, that “A small, specialized unit within the Canadian military’s intelligence branch began producing detailed warnings and analysis about the emergence of the deadly novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China in early January, CBC News has learned.

The medical intelligence (MEDINT) cell within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command is,” he explains, “tucked away on the edges of the country’s security and defence establishment …[and] … It has a mandate to track global health trends and contagion outbreaks to predict how they’ll affect military operations, but its assessments are heavily influenced by reports from the Five Eyes Intelligence partners, including the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI).” It appears to have done its job well.

But, Mr Brewster writes, “For at least one of the country’s leading intelligence experts, the fact that the unit was tracking the COVID-19 outbreak and reporting on it raises serious questions about information-sharing within the federal government — and its possible failure to heed early warning signs.

His report goes on to explain that “The military unit, which is made up of specialists in public health, microbiology, biochemistry, emergency management and clinical medicine, uses open-source data — including World Health Organization statistics and analyses — along with classified intelligence from allies … [and] … Its use of classified information could be significant in light of reports coming out of Washington this week that the U.S. military’s medical intelligence agency was following and reporting on the novel coronavirus as early as last November.” Murray Brewster notes that “ABC News reported on Wednesday that detailed NCMI briefings, which raised the alarm about the COVID-19 outbreak, were circulated multiple times among decision-makers and policy experts in the Trump administration throughout December. They eventually ended up in President Donald Trump’s daily intelligence briefing package in early January … [and] … Those assessments said the virus posed a serious threat to American forces in Asia and, significantly, claimed China’s leadership knew the outbreak was out of control and that crucial information was being withheld from foreign governments and public health agencies.

Murray Brewster, quoting Canadian intelligence experts, wonders if the MEDINT teams Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 07.05.40Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 07.06.20report, which very likely was seen by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, the Deputy Minister, Jody Thomas, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan made it very far out of the confines of DND. Although the Minister of National Defence, of course, and General Vance have direct access to the Prime Minister and his office, the normal way for information to move is that senior officials, Ms Thomas, herself, if the information is serious enough, take warnings to the Privy Council Office, usually, to the National Security and Intelligence Advisor to the Prime Minister but, sometimes, directly to the Clerk of the Privy Council, himself. But the CBC report guesses that the MEDINT information might not have received the attention that, seen, now, with the benefit of hindsight, it deserved, because it came from a small, even marginal branch of the intelligence community and may not have resonated with many of the most senior officials and officers.

Murray Brewster says that “At one of the recent daily ministerial media conferences, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said her first major briefing on the pandemic occurred in early January … [which is when the MEDINT report was issued, but, he adds] … It’s not clear whether any of those briefings were prepared using warnings from the military and allies, or if they were based strictly on data and assessments from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) — which is in charge of pandemic response in this country — and the World Health Organization.

Some experts are calling this an intelligence failure. Mr Brewster notes that “Following the SARS pandemic, Canadian officials were at the forefront of a number of domestic and international initiatives designed to provide early warning of pandemics.” I’m sure there will be many similar initiatives followed the COVID-19 pandemic, too. The question is did they work? “The Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin,” Murray Brester writes, “embedded within its foreign policy statement a plan to beef up the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), a network of health professionals whose job — according to its website — is to “rapidly detect, identify, assess, prevent and mitigate threats to human health” Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 07.08.05… [and] … It was supposed to operate in conjunction with the WHO and is headquartered in Ottawa … [but Professor Wesley Wark of the University of Toronto said that] … despite the best intentions, the network is hobbled by other countries’ reluctance to share data and the accuracy of open-sourced media reports in a country where an outbreak occurs … [and] … a 2018 article, archived in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, reported that the GPHIN was in need of modernization and had turned to the National Research Council in Canada to “rejuvenate” its software, systems and tools.

Professor Wark said that “Canada’s pandemic early warning system is a shambles … [because] … “We put all our faith in a system of open reporting through the WHO. We should instead have applied the old adage — trust but verify.”

My guess is that the MEDINT report was noted and, most likely, passed along to the Public Health Agency of Canada at a working level, rather than at the senior executive level. I’m also guessing that, in January, official Ottawa, like official Washington was still underestimating the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The MEDINT team did its job, possibly, even probably triggered by (a) report(s) from (an) allied source(s). I also suspect that the US intelligence community may have been alerted to the threat by a small Asian ally.

20270206_web1_200123-BPD-M-ajw10241642The “failure,” and there certainly was one, even more than one, was not of intelligence, nor was it by the medical community. It was a political failure. Part of the blame will, Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 08.33.24doubtless, be laid on to the bureaucracy, but, in our system of parliamentary government, politicians answer for the actions of the government. Both responsibilty and accountability rest on their shoulders. Our, Canadian, elected leaders forgot the lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak and put partisan politics ahead of public safety. They should pay a price for that in an election which should be held as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

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