Global epidemic caused by the coronavirus will inform major changes in international relations, and even internal political relations in majority of countries in the world. Some analysts have started to speak about recession and collapse of economies of numerous countries and organizations, such as the European Union (EU), Organization of Economic Cooperation and development (OECD), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), etc., and the significant rise of China and, to a smaller extent, some other countries as well.
All of a sudden political event disappeared from the media titles and primetime news. Political analysts and analyses have become second to mass appearances of doctors and medical experts in the print and electronic media. Naturally, this is understandable if we take into account the information that so far 1.5 billion or one fifth of the global population has been in self-isolation. Furthermore, for the first time we see groundbreaking changes in the medical industry.
End of print media and introduction of “talk shows” from home?
Everything changes at the time of the Covid-19 virus, even the media, the method of reporting and editing. In their programs, TV anchors no longer have guests in their studios, because their guests actively participate in the program via Skype. The guests are not willing to leave their home or city to go to a TV studio. This is the model that has utilized by some global programs, such as “Clever media”, which is on the Top 10 list of the Youtube platform with several billion viewers and has been ahead of traditional media since 2007. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, has millions of viewers around the world. As of last week, Noah does not go to the studio as his talk-show is now produced from his home. This is another form of work-from-home, that is from a sofa, which is also known as “sofa talk shows.”
Social networks and blogs have devastated the print media in the past decade, and at the time of Covid-19 publishing many print media outlets have suspended publishing of the print editions and converted to electronic and PDF formats. Bearing in mind the fact that the coronavirus can survive 24 hours on paper, the people avoid buying newspapers. Furthermore, at the time of (self)quarantine and police curfew it is not possible to physically distribute the newspapers to their retailers.
Regardless of the prevailing opinion in this phase, one should not prejudge or dramatize the situation or make any foregone conclusions. However, in the past decade, the media world has experienced major changes and a shift to electronic media, social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
Post-corona phase to bring changes in the field of media
In the midst of the virus crisis, specific media started to deal with intelligence issues. Namely, their analysts no longer deal with classic reports and analyses of the situation at the political, social and economic level. A part of the media has engaged in a media-propaganda warfare against specific persons/organizations/states by publicizing misinformation about the coronavirus and in such a way causing general panic among the population of the respective country. Therefore, such analyses do not have much to do with the epidemic or medicine, but are a typical case of intelligence work and war.
Some were perplexed by the emergence of selective information in the media, which indicated that some intelligence services had crossed the line of the crisis of global epidemic. As the public perception is that there are major differences and incongruities between the intelligence activities, medical profession and epidemiology, the question is raised about the interest of intelligence services at the time of a global epidemic? How to use information obtained on epidemic in the political spectrum and international relations?
Changes in intelligence operations
The possible change in intelligence operations at the time of epidemic, which has gripped the world, could have been expected because intelligence services deal with collection, classification and analysis of data related to others (subjects) in the area of security, politics, science, economy, etc. Information obtained with respect to these aspects can be used for definition of guidelines for foreign, security, defense, economic, development and other policies, which are of relevance for national security of any country.
In normal circumstances, security-intelligence services can launch operations aimed to track epidemics or contagious diseases in the region and wider international area, in order to provide necessary protection to its citizens/states. Namely, they would monitor the effects it has on the states affected by the epidemics at the political, economic and security level, as well as with respect to available resources, in order to prevent, that is eliminate, the threat to health.
Intelligence services implement such activities in accordance with instructions received from the political level and with the aim of identification of the scope of economic damage that the respective country has sustained. The consequences of the epidemic on the economy, budget, standard of living of citizens, positioning in regional and international relations, as well as the assessment of the level of success or failure in the fight against the epidemic are also analyzed. As the epidemic reflects on the political power of a state and the number of people who died or were infected, the data is also used to analyze and make projections of future demographic development of the respective country. All this information is obtained from the intelligence apparatus and used for development of an elaborate data base with facts on the basis of which politicians formulate their strategies of relations towards various countries that are affected by the epidemic. However, such information can also be (ab)used for various forms of pressures, such as political and economic, as well as putting military pressure on a specific country.
Withholding of information by states
Bearing in mind the importance that such intelligence activities have for national security, specific countries are well prepared for them and are strive to establish a blockade of information in an attempt to cover up the epidemic, hoping that they will manage to stop or restrain its proliferation. If the epidemic escapes control, the state applies methods for reducing that is underreporting the number of infected persons and casualties in official statements/records.
The most prominent examples of such a conduct include the approach taken by Iranian authorities at the beginning of the proliferation of the current epidemic. The authorities provided to the World Health Organization (WHO) their data on the epidemic, which presented only 20% of the true number of the infected and casualties.
Namely, due to their military and political conflict with Washington, the Iranian authorities withheld information because they wanted to conceal the true figures on their casualties and treated such information as a top secret. Namely, they hoped that in such a way they would not give an additional opportunity to their adversary to use the consequences of the epidemic against Iran by calling on the Iranian people to rise against the Iranian authorities because of their inability to address the epidemic. Another reason behind such an approach is that the Iranian authorities do not want to seek assistance from the international community because they are afraid that in such a way American and western intelligence services would get an opportunity to infiltrate and enter the state as medical and humanitarian workers or members of organizations, which would undermine their national security.
The same scenario took place in China in 2002, after the emergence of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which affected the city of Foshanin November 2002. That was the first global epidemic in the third millennium. Authorities in Beijing withheld the truth and treated the data on the epidemic as a top secret. However, the German intelligence service (BND) had its secret sources of information within China and was able to develop a plan for monitoring the epidemic by spying on important telephone communications and verification of information obtained from multiple sources within China. This was a major success of the German intelligence service, which developed an important data base on the epidemic and its nature, as well as the scope of human and economic losses sustained by China. Furthermore, it also exposed the strategy of China to cover-up the epidemic. At the same time, the data was also very important for establishment of efficient measures in the fight against the epidemic, and delaying/preventing its arrival to Germany.
Maybe such intelligence activities, in combination with the early alarming and preparations for arrival of the coronavirus, were crucial for Germany, which currently ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of infected persons according to the classification of the World Health Organization, and its number of lethal casualties is still relatively low in comparison to other European countries.
Attention of intelligence agencies focused on China and Iran
Currently, the leading intelligence agencies are speedily allocating their human and technological resources with the aim of exposing what is happening in China at the time of the current epidemic. The Central Investigating Agency(CIA) has started to collect real data on the epidemic in this country and the ways in which this country has addressed the epidemic and constrained its proliferation, to such an extent that even the US satellites are set to monitor the developments on the ground.
The experts have indicated that significant funds had been appropriated to US intelligence services for the purposes of collection of information on the newcoronavirus. This means that the search for and analysis of relevant information is not limited only to monitoring of official reports, media or social networks, but that all other intelligence resources such as satellites, agents and informants, as well as communication surveillance, is also being used. As agents are obligated to abide by professional secrecy, there is no doubt that the US will increasingly employ its intelligence agencies, particularly in China and Iran, in relation to the effects of Covid-19 in these countries.
It is interesting that these operations are in no way within the purview of the CIA. The US is one of the few countries that has a medical/health intelligence agency -which is known as the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) and is a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The main purpose of these intelligence operations is not preservation of human lives, but assessment of the scope of damage inflicted on the Chinese economy, which has become a threat to the economies of western countries. A summary of medical treatment measures used by China provides an important base of information on the scientific situation in the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry, as well as the level of development that this country has achieved. Intelligence services will try to steal chemical formulas of the vaccines and therapies before they get registered or to lure pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of new medicaments to move from their home country to their respective country in exchange for exorbitant financial amounts, so that they can have a monopoly over production and trade of such medicaments and used it for economic and political purposes.
In this context, we witness a spat between the United States and Germany, when the US tried to lure the Germany-based CureVac Company, which is conducting advanced research in the area of development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, to move to the US, where it has a branch in Boston, and to manufacture the vaccine exclusively for the US. They extended an invitation to CureVac Chief Executive Officer Daniel Menichella to visit the US and meet with US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House, after what additional pressure would be put on him. As a result, the Steering Board of the company immediately removed Daniel Menichella from the position of the first man of the company.
While espionage operations and intelligence services cannot cure coronavirusor stop its proliferation, they can provide more detailed information/data to the makers of political decisions and help them make timely and educated decisions that can prevent repetition of the Italian example regarding the coronavirus. By conducting thoroughly planned steps, a state avoids or reduces the collapse in the healthcare system and the anxiety among the population, as well as makes assessments and establishes political and economic consequences. All this is also related to the misinformation campaigns and strong mutual accusations for the global epidemic, which are currently being made between the US and China.
At the time of the coronavirus crisis, the intelligence services do their usual job, i.e. obtain information to which others do not have access. This is particularly related to countries such as China and Iran, whose official data/records nobody trusts.
The closing of borders, the lockdowns, the police curfew and quarantines that are currently in force in Europe and America, prompted closing down of well-established official channels of exchange of information/data and communication. Under such circumstances, only intelligence services can function well.
Over the previous days, we witnessed a collapse of global financial markets, drops in the prices of oil resulting from the oil-war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the non-functionality of the bureaucratic system of the European Union to the extent that each country “heals its own wounds” without solidarity within the EU. All these are serious threats that have emerged because of the epidemic, which is why intelligence services are very actively covering the epidemic, which has become a threat to national security of majority of the countries in the world, but also to mankind.
Analysts warn about the changes in a catalogue of areas and emphasize that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the level of revenues to the churches and religious communities, whose revenues according to the current assessments will drop to 15-20% of those that they have had so far, will seriously jeopardize the functioning of churches and religious communities, which in the long run could bring about development of ecumenism, as the people will have to jointly seek solutions to their existential problems.
International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. On the occasion of the outbreak of the pandemic of Coronavirus Covid-19, IFIMES analyzes security-intelligence activities in the period of pandemic. We bring the most interesting excerpts from a comprehensive analysis titled “Security-intelligence activities at the time of Covid-19 pandemic.”