COVID-19 Webinar: What Role Should Intelligence Play in a Pandemic?


Originally published on May 1, 2020

The role of the Intelligence Community in alerting the nation to possible health and environmental dangers was the central issue that emerged during a lively hour-long Schar School webinar called “National Intelligence and International Security Amid a Pandemic.”

More than 550 viewers tuned in for the Thursday discussion between Michael Morell, Schar School Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, and former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the CIA; and Glenn Gerstell, former General Counsel of the National Security Agency.

The conversation was moderated by sponsoring unit Hayden Center’s director, Larry Pfeiffer. Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell hosted.

Despite news reports that the White House had been briefed on a novel coronavirus outbreak in China weeks before it was declared a pandemic, Morell insisted that the Intelligence Community shouldn’t be the entity to raise the alarm for such events.

“That is the [Center for Disease Control’s] job,” he said. “But the Intelligence Community should inform the CDC with the intelligence to make the call.”

Gerstell, a cyber and technology threat expert, agreed, adding, “The Intelligence Community does not have the experts in epidemiology or technology to study pandemics, and we’re not postured to identify these threats. We do a terrific job understanding political and military threats and the leadership intentions of some of our adversaries. But we’re lagging and clearly need to move the Intelligence Community into fields that impact national wellbeing.”

“I think we are postured to provide analysis to what governments are doing,” Morell said. “Are they being honest about what they are doing in their country? Clearly, some of the decisions made by the Chinese government were for their own domestic politics, but projecting that a virus in Wuhan would become a global pandemic is not our role.”

That, of course, would require resources, which neither speaker could assure would be forthcoming.

The speakers expanded on an op-ed they co-authored in the April 7 Washington Post, enumerating “four ways U.S. intelligence efforts should change in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.”

They also discussed the use of open-source information—"Our [Intelligence Community] was set up to find secrets, but it was not set up to look for information available publicly,” Morell observed—and the use of disinformation and the politicization of intelligence, including the White House’s effort to link the coronavirus to labs in Wuhan despite intelligence reports saying otherwise.

“The U.S. government’s [National Institutes of Health] was providing funding to the Wuhan labs,” Morell said, “and we know through the State Department that there were safety concerns at that lab.

“If it did escape, we’re all in this together.”

View the COVID-19 and Intelligence Community video discussion.

Here is the last webinar of COVID-19 Webinar Week at the Schar School:

Friday, May 1, noon-1p.m.:
Crisis and Power-Grabbing: Government Expansion of Power During the Pandemic

National leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere are exploiting the coronavirus lockdown to their own benefit. The “elites” are expanding their power over citizens, siphoning money, and creating social discord that may undermine efforts to recover from the crisis. Corruption has never had it so good.

Bassam Haddad, Schar School Associate Professor and Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program 


  • Janine Wedel, Schar School Professor of International Commerce and Policy and Author of Shadow Elite
  • Jennifer Victor, Schar School Associate Professor of Political Science and an Expert in Social Network Analysis