Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: The coronavirus pandemic should change the way we look at national security

Key Points
  • The pandemic has pulled the future forward, forcing a changed perspective of national security, and now we must quickly adapt how we operate to reflect this reality, writes former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks about military operations during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing flanked by Attorney General William Barr (L) and Defense Secretary Mark Esper April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing how we approach national security. It is giving tangible form to issues that had been brewing in the emergent digital environment and putting America's security challenges in urgent relief.

Despite effort and some accomplishment, advancement against new threats has been slow. This is in part because the effects of a changed world were not immediately visible, and the limitations of our existing approach were not strategically relevant enough to command attention and action. And, democracies tend to be slow to act short of crisis.

The current pandemic has accelerated our response to this changed world. It has pulled the future forward, forcing a new look at national security. Now, we must adapt how we operate to reflect this reality, and act with urgency.

Here are five things that should change about our approach to national security because of this crisis.

The definition of national security. Today, national security is disproportionately the purview of the federal government; military and political threats command most of our resources; and, defense against physical threats to the homeland and our foreign interests dominate our attention. National security now must encompass protection from, and response to, influence operations; rampant cybercrime; pandemics; humanitarian crises; and climate change.

The threat surface and responsibility. Our private sector is increasingly exposed to actions of adversaries and competitors because in a technical, interconnected world, they are foundational to national strength, they are reachable through cyberspace, and because our laws limit the ability of the federal government to protect them. More, the private sector is a national-security decisionmaker with technology choices and global enterprises — two examples are 5G and offshore supply chains — that must account for the impact of profit-based decisions on national interests.

Global information sharing and partnerships. What we needed most with the pandemic was trusted data, willingness and ability to share information before crisis with entities with whom we don't have relationships, and a baseline to understand change. The same is true for other global phenomena that manifest slowly and locally but have widespread impact over time. Even more, we need to exercise not just wiring diagrams and communications paths, but how we execute planned actions across geographic, hierarchical, and organizational boundaries.

The priorities and craft of intelligence. No crisis better demonstrated the need for objective truth than the Covid-19 crisis. That is fundamentally the role of intelligence: to know the truth, to see beyond the horizon, and to allow decisions before events dictate. It is possible that if the details about the origin of the virus, its spread, and the numbers of affected were known earlier, different life-saving decisions could have been made. The intelligence community needs to look at its priorities to consider these new threats, develop new collection strategies and collectors, sell out on data-analytic and AI superiority, use abundant unclassified data in its analytic products and anticipatory analyses, and produce more products, at the appropriate classification level, to provide advantage for emergent decision makers.

Commitment to digital and the importance of data superiority. Resolution of every issue in 2020 and beyond goes to and through data. So three things need to happen: we need to make our infrastructure digital, and protect it accordingly; be able to do every function from wherever we are located; and the United States must be the world's leader in the data science, analysis, and use, according to our values of security, privacy and civil liberty.

Here's one thing that won't change.

The existence of bad actors. Even though we have all been affected by Covid-19 and our fortunes were tied together, that doesn't negate the threat of bad actors. All the traditional adversaries and competitors are still pursuing their interests at the expense of ours. Our perennial competitors are still advancing, and new attack vectors are always being used: state-sponsored cyberattacks to obtain advantage in therapies and vaccines; acceleration in opportunistic cybercrime against unprotected networks; and influence operations to shape public opinion, whether for fraud or to undermine democracy, are all evidence of that truth.

Each of these create opportunities for leadership, innovation, and partnership that will shape our future — and almost all require technical capability to support.

To address these changes, we need technologies to protect the edge, to allow decision-making and culture-building at distance, to allow collection and analysis of massive amounts of data that matter, to make disadvantaged populations less disadvantaged, technological solutions to trusted networks and true data, to reimagine government.

Sue Gordon is a CNBC contributor and the former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, where she advised the president on intelligence matters and provided operational leadership of the 17 agencies and organizations of the intelligence community. She is an active board member, university fellow, and advises private companies in the areas of technology, strategy and leadership.