In wars hot and cold, cyber or coronavirus, America’s intelligence services are on the front lines despite Trump’s aversion to acknowledging their sacrifices
Outwitting a remorseless foe requires relentless vigilance
It is a war we must win
In the April 3 issue of Foreign Policy, Calder Walton, author of “Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War, and the Twilight of Empire,” discusses in stark detail the role of intelligence agencies — ours and others — in tracking the course of pandemics like the coronavirus by any and all possible means.
The article, “Spies are Fighting a Shadow War Against the Coronavirus,” opens with a sobering attention-grabber:
“The coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping across the world is more than a public health emergency. It poses unprecedented threats to national and international security, and fighting it, as the leaders of several countries have stressed, will resemble a major war involving similar numbers of fatalities. Intelligence services will have a major role in this struggle, just as they have in previous wars throughout history. That role will largely be played in the shadows — but it will be no less significant for its secrecy.”
Walton suggests four strategies U.S. and allied intelligence agencies should employ to prepare our respective governments’ leaders for state-level actions against coronavirus-like threats from our mutual adversaries:
1. Assessments about the virus’s spread and impact;
2. Stealing secrets about the virus and in-country efforts to mask information about the virus by governments who benefit from keeping secrets from the world;
3. Countering disinformation generated by countries who wish to control the narrative about the virus and;
4. Surveillance of our own population to more accurately — and timely — determine the dynamics of the virus’s spread.
Walton’s assessment and recommendations are fundamentally sensible. They are logical, fact-based, and respectful of the work of our intelligence community.
And — no surprise here — those attributes mean nothing to the current president for whom logic, facts, and respect are anathemas to be avoided at all costs.
In his own parenthetical, Walton writes,
“(President Donald Trump reportedly dismissed those intelligence warnings. But this initial mishandling of COVID-19 was not a U.S. intelligence failure in the sense that the U.S. intelligence community failed to deliver warnings to policymakers. Instead, it was a policy failure — if today’s reporting is correct, one of the worst and most dangerous policy failures in U.S. history.)”
When a distant war got personal
I bring Walton’s article up because in reading it I had a flashback to a nightmarish time in our nation’s history when American intelligence services were fighting the virus of the Cold War. My father and many of the intelligence operatives he commanded suffered at the hands of our bitterest enemy, an adversary every bit as ruthless, conscienceless, and overspreading as the coronavirus.
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there is a wall of stars dedicated to every fallen agent who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. Their missions were both personal and patriotic. The altar of freedom is surrounded by such stars.
Remorseless treachery at 25,000'
I happen to know about similar stars to covert heroes. I grew up with a man who, in a clandestine role I learned of only many years after the fact, commanded other men to take on the thankless jobs of spying on our enemies.
Seventeen of those men were murdered by the Russians — at that time the Soviets — on September 2, 1958.
Here are the facts:
“On September 2, 1958, a Lockheed C-130A-II-LM (s/n 56–0528), from the 7406th Support Squadron, departed Incirlik Airbase in Turkey on a reconnaissance mission along the Turkish-Armenian border. It was to fly a course parallel to the Soviet frontier, but not approach the border closer than 100 miles. The crew reported passing over Trabzon in Turkey at 25,500 feet and then acknowledged a weather report from Trabzon, but that was the last communication received from the flight. It was later intercepted and shot down by four Soviet MiG-17s 34 miles north-west of Yerevan. The six flight crew members were confirmed dead when their remains were repatriated to the United States, but the 11 intelligence-gathering personnel on board have never been acknowledged by Soviet / Russian authorities.”
“I am attacking the target!”
“The target is burning.”
“There’s a hit!”
“The target is burning.”
“Yes, yes, I [am attacking]”
“The target is burning.”
“The tail assembly is falling off the target.”
“Look at him, he will not get away, he is already falling.”
“All the aircrew are on board, aren’t they?” [17 Americans]
“Yes, he is falling. I will finish him off. I will finish him on the run.”
“The target has lost control, it is going down.”
“Aha, you see it. It is falling.”
“Yes, form up, leave for the base.”
Those 17 men — pilots, aircrew, and the eleven intelligence personnel, were my father’s officers, NCOs, and enlisted personnel. My dad, Colonel Clifford James Moore, Jr., Commander of the 7499th Support Group, under the auspices of which the C-130 operated, was accountable for their lives, even if he wasn’t flying the plane.
He was called to Washington within days of the incident. He stood in front of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and when asked who was responsible, my father said, “I am.” He was a West Pointer, and the Academy’s motto “Duty, Honor, Country,” meant everything to him, as did the motto of the 7499th Support Group: “Veritatem Suppeditare” (“To Supply the Truth”).
I have lived for years with the memory of that sacrificial flight and of my father’s lifelong anguish over the deaths of those men at the hands of the Soviet pilots, and, by orders, the leader of the Soviet Union. As a military child growing up on the front lines of the Cold War — living at Ground Zero — I have never forgotten or forgiven the treachery of those Soviet pilots, their controllers, or their government.
The horror redux
A vacuum of leadership
As far as I am concerned, Donald Trump is bringing all those memories back in spades, because he chooses to place no value on the lives and veracity of the men and women of our intelligence services. Even more damning, the president encourages his followers to be every bit as ugly in their crude messaging about the nation’s secret keepers.
It makes no difference whether we are talking about Russian or Chinese disinformation campaigns, overt, covert, or by-proxy military actions, industrial spying and theft of intellectual property, or campaign tampering. Donald Trump is the failed gatekeeper of America’s front and back doors. And he appears to be quite proud of his failures for which he openly disavows any responsibility.
It is quite possible that such Trumpian hubris, disrespect, and willful ignorance will lead to one more star on the wall at Langley. And more stars after that.
Hard work despite disparagement
Somewhere, in some foreign adversary’s darkest alley, not far from a military installation or near a cyberwar development and dissemination site, or even in an obscure “wet food market”, American intelligence operatives are putting their lives on the line to glean pieces of information vital to U.S. and allied interests.
These field agents have spent years cultivating informants, tapping delicate resources, observing everything from construction projects to medical anomalies to state disinformation campaigns. They know that no amount of information beamed down by a spy satellite will ever be as fulsome as the on-the-ground observations of human resources.
Our intelligence operatives are very good at their tradecraft, and what they have reported over the years has consistently informed the United States foreign policy experts about the intentions, plans, and operations of those nations who would do us harm. Every modern-era president, save one, has benefited from the skills and risks inherent in information gathering by our intelligence services.
The men and women who choose this career path — or who are invited into the black world of intelligence collection — are, on the surface, indistinguishable from your neighbors and friends.
They chose this murky, risky world because they are driven by a deep-seated desire to protect the United States, even at great risk to themselves and families and to the reputation and security of the country.
For them, failure is never an option; the stakes are far too high. Despite such selflessness, despite the stars on the wall at Langley, the men and women of our intelligence services are imperiled not by a foreign enemy, but by a most obvious one: Donald J. Trump.
2020: stark choices
Why role the dice?
If Donald Trump wins reelection in 2020, it will be because a crucial, willfully ignorant, electoral mass of Americans either refuses to see him for what he is, or they like what they see because it reinforces their own prejudices and biases.
Trump supporters will pull the handle for his second administration without giving a thought to the consequences of their ignorance — even as they are being harmed today by Trump’s inability to grasp the basics of government responsibility and the sensible intelligence recommendations like those offered by Calder Walton.
Reestablishing trust and dignifying service
If America chooses well in November, the Biden administration must reassemble, reassure, and reinvigorate all elements of the intelligence community.
Biden must stress the teachable moment that is currently upon us and give the intelligence community’s leadership a broad mandate to act without micromanagement from the Oval Office, not as a dark state collaboration, but as a transparent public trust.
We must have an intelligence community that is robust, flexible, agile, and trusted at the very highest levels of government. With that trust comes great responsibility to protect Americans from all enemies, foreign and domestic whether natural or purpose-driven.
Make no mistake: The United States is stalked around the clock by adversaries operating with no regard for human life. From spreading disinformation about pandemic-level viruses to fomenting distrust and division via cyber viruses, from the disruption of our social and political dialogues to the disruption of our economic security, our enemies are still targeting us in 2020 just as coldly as those MiG fighter pilots targeted my father’s reconnaissance crew in 1958.
Whether we are fighting a virus or a nation, we cannot let our guard down.