Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Gregory Treverton

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Gregory Treverton.


Read excerpts from the interview below.


Clemons: When you were basically the CIA's chief organizer of threats, where was pandemics on your list of possible problems for us?


Treverton: It's been on the list for a very long time, I think. And, you know, I remember before I was in the government, when I was out of government, running a center at the Rand Corporation, and this was early 2000s, we ranked threats to the United States as nuisance, serious or existential. And the only threat in the existential category was pandemics. My predecessors of the National Intelligence Council in their 2004 report, Global Trends, they painted almost exactly the scenario we are in, unfortunately, with globalization reversing, global travel stopping, huge economic hits, so strategically, in terms of strategic warning, this has been on our list for a very long time. The problem is it hasn't always been as salient as it should have been. We have an episode, and then we kind of forget it. We've gone back to business as usual several times, even after SARS, even after 12,000 people died in 2001 from H1N1.


Clemons: The leadership of both political parties saw something like this coming. Why did we fail? What was the real reason for the breakdown in preparing for this?

Treverton: It goes way back I think and as always there are so many causes that are intertwined. Plainly, we haven't been investing in public health in general. Budgets of CDC and FDA have been going down, not up. But we've had these previous episodes, and then we tended to say, “Well, now we're through that," and we'll go back to business as usual, not recognizing that this is something that's gonna be continually there and that we have to be prepared for. So, the infrastructure wasn't really there. And then we got this combination of the Chinese ... hiding. So, we lost time there. But even when we got warning in mid-January. In mid-January, we should have known that if there was something going on in China, it was gonna be here, right? We knew globalization was gonna bring it here. And at that point, we really should have done what the Germans did, begun stockpiling tests and preparing. But we didn’t. And that I think a lot of that probably does lie at Mr. Trump's door, since he continued to say, "nothing much here, no big deal, it will be over quickly." But there was also, it seems to me, challenges from bureaucracy. The CDC and FDA look a little bit to me like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11, not really cooperating as closely as they needed to and maybe a little bit overconfident thinking, “Well, we can handle this.” Well, it turns out they couldn't.


Clemons: I think the big question is, what do we do for the future? And how do we look at that decisionmaking and action behavior that we saw from various parts and move forward and in the pages of The Hill you made a suggestion. So, what did you suggest?

Treverton: Well, it seems to me that first we need to have a thorough investigation I think, and really lay out all the facts, something like the 9/11 panel. That seems to be inevitable and a good thing to do. The big questions for me there are do you want to try and do the usual bureaucratic solution. As after 9/11 we created the Department of Homeland Security. Do you want to create a Department of Health Security? Not sure that's the best idea, but that is certainly gonna be on the agenda I would think. At least I hope it's on the agenda because this is in terms of needless loss of American lives, this, I think, is going to rank as the biggest government failure in the history of the republic. You can talk about 1918. But in 1918 we really didn't know what to do. This time around we knew what to do. We just didn't do it. So, I think the first instinct will be do we need to create some special government agency? The real challenge is making the interface between public and private work better. What didn't happen here was early enough the, I suppose being cautious when your commander in chief is saying no big deal, then people at CDC and FDA are not gonna take risks. They're not going to circumvent procedures. They're not going to say OK labs, go ahead and start making these tests without prior permission. That just wasn't gonna happen. So, that's to me the critical challenge is working better across that public-private interface since really all the capacity, much of the capacity, once the labs are turned loose, they could do a lot, but they weren't turned loose until way late, way late in the game.


Clemons: Were you surprised at the reports from states that they were having to compete against one another sort of a law of the jungle and trying to secure PPE equipment and testing equipment, and that there just seemed to be an absence of direction and an absence of organizing platform?

Treverton: I mean, it was a terrible spectacle to behold, right? Here's a time when you really want national leadership, right? This is the nation's problem. It's not individual states. And we have not basically, we had this kind of free for all, as you describe, just amazing. Some of the state leaders, like my governor, like Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCuomo likens COVID-19 to the Grinch: 'The season of viral transmission' For Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty Cardinal Dolan hails Supreme Court decision on churches, COVID-19 MORE came through looking like real leaders. But they had to be. But what we really needed was a concerted, organized, national plan. The problem there is who exactly should lead it. You know in that case, FEMA is not the strongest of government agencies. This is not something you can easily put the Pentagon on, but there needed really be an organizing principle and a strategy, we didn't really have a strategy, as you say, that resulted in this incredible free-for-all with states competing for masks and PPE. And then, as you say, having FEMA hijack some of them for purposes we are not quite clear about. It was exactly a sort of textbook in how not to manage a crisis.


Clemons: How do you achieve bipartisan approval in setting up the kind of commission you talked about? And do you have confidence that such a commission could be pursued given what you see in the Senate and the House today?

Treverton: I'm not sure. I mean, it is a terrible time, and so far the pandemic seems to if anything, sharpened, intensified our gridlock, not diluted it. So, I am not optimistic. Not the simple passage of time, who knows what's gonna happen in November, but with the simple passage of time, I hope that some of the shots that the intelligence community has taken will go down, will not persist and that they will continue to be looked at. This is an awkward one because pandemics are obviously something of interest to intelligence, but they are primarily a medical matter. And so part of the problem here may have been that we had a little bit of a gap between what the medical pieces of the government are doing and what the intelligence community was doing. We now know that the intelligence community was giving warnings, but those ... weren't necessarily connected to anything operational.


Clemons: Is it long overdue that we begin looking at the fact that no matter where this virus came from, and I should say most every legitimate person I know believes that it evolved naturally, but it raises the question of is this now something where people begin to try to look at copycat possibilities? And what will this do to our intelligence establishment?

Treverton: Biological threats have been high on everybody's list. They haven't gotten as much attention as other things, like nuclear or terrorism, but I think they've been high on the intelligence community’s list for a long, long time. We'd written in the past that one of the challenges is if something like this happened, you wouldn't immediately know whether it was naturally occurring, or accident, or somebody doing it on purpose, and that will continue to be true. It does seem to me that as we re-think what to do after [COVID-19], we really need to rethink what we mean by national security. We are spending lots of money on the military, lots and lots of money on the military, and not very much on public health. But now we find that the biggest threat we’ve faced, probably in a very long time is this, a pandemic, not an aggressive foe.


Clemons: Are there any other blind spots to our national conversation or thinking about our security today that you think should be on the table?

Treverton: I don't think there are great blind spots. We've been for so long, so mesmerized by terrorism. I used to make audiences angry after 9/11 by saying that their chances of being killed by a terrorist were slightly less than being killed by lightning. But we did spend an awful lot of time and effort and money on terrorism. I think one of the things that was a blind spot was this, has been a blind spot, is biological issues and particularly, naturally occurring. This wasn’t exactly naturally, may have been an accident, but certainly was a bad thing happening. ... But that was a major, major blind spot in our continuing thinking. We kept raising it, but we didn't really do anything to act on it. We actually drew down the reserves of PPE, protective equipment, not built them up. So, it really did catch us by surprise when it shouldn't have.