Spy agencies turn to scientists as they wrestle with mysteries

The nation’s intelligence agencies are looking for ways to increase their expertise in a range of scientific disciplines as they struggle to answer unexplained questions — about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, unidentified phenomenon observed by Navy pilots and mysterious health ailments affecting spies and diplomats around the world.

>> Julian E BarnesThe New York Times
Published : 9 July 2021, 09:50 AM
Updated : 9 July 2021, 09:50 AM

Traditional spycraft has failed to make significant progress on those high-profile inquiries, and many officials have grown convinced that they require a better marriage of intelligence-gathering and scientific examination.

Intelligence officials in the Biden administration came into office pledging to work on areas traditionally dominated by science, like studying the national security implications of climate change and future pandemics. But as the other issues have cropped up, the spy agencies have had to confront questions that are as much scientific mysteries as they are challenges of traditional intelligence collection.

The White House has given the intelligence community until later this summer to report the results of a deep dive into the origins of the coronavirus, including an examination of the theory that it was accidentally leaked from a Chinese lab studying the virus as well as the prevailing view that it was transmitted from animals to humans outside a lab.

The administration has also pledged to Congress to make progress on determining the cause of mysterious health ailments of diplomats and intelligence officers, known as Havana syndrome. And finally, a preliminary inquiry into unidentified flying objects and other phenomena failed to explain almost all of the mysterious encounters by military aviators that intelligence analysts had scrutinised, prompting intelligence officials to promise a follow-up in the next three months.

To bolster the role of scientific expertise, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence brought an experienced public health researcher from the State Department’s intelligence and research division to serve on the National Intelligence Council, according to intelligence and other government officials. The office has also created two national intelligence manager posts, one to look at climate change and the other to examine disruptive technology, intelligence officials said.

The National Security Council, working with the CIA and the director of national intelligence, has established a pair of outside panels to study Havana syndrome, whose symptoms include dizziness, fatigue and sudden memory loss. Outside scientists with security clearances will be able to view classified intelligence to better understand what may have caused the brain injuries.

The work reflects “a broader priority on science and technology,” a White House official said.

One panel will focus on possible causes. The other is charged with helping develop devices that could better protect personnel, according to an administration official.

Scientific might has been vitally important to modern US intelligence agencies since their beginnings. Throughout the Cold War, scientists paired with intelligence analysts to examine adversaries’ nuclear missile development and chemical and biological weapons programmes. The agencies have also cultivated deep engineering talent as they built spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft and devised tools to intercept a wide range of communications.

But the recent intelligence challenges have required a different range of scientific expertise, including some areas that agencies have invested fewer resources in over the years.

“This is a really interesting moment where the national security interests have changed from some of the Cold War interests,” said Sue Gordon, a former top intelligence official. “Priorities are changing now.”

Faced not only with the immediate unsolved security questions but also with the longer-term challenge of improving intelligence collection on climate change, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, has pushed agencies to more aggressively recruit undergraduate and graduate students with an extensive range of scientific knowledge.

“The DNI believes that the changing threat landscape requires the intelligence community to develop and invest in a talented workforce that includes individuals with science and technology backgrounds,” said Matt Lahr, a spokesperson for Haines. “Without such expertise, we will not only be unable to compete, we will not succeed in addressing the challenges we face today.”

Officials are also trying to make broader use of existing initiatives. For example, Haines’ office has been more aggressively questioning its science and technology expert group, a collection of some 500 scientists who volunteer to help intelligence agencies answer scientific problems.

Officials have asked those scientists about how coronaviruses mutate as well as about climate change and the availability of natural resources. While the scientists in the expert group do not perform intelligence analysis, their answers can help such analysts inside agencies draw more accurate conclusions, intelligence officials said.

In other cases, the efforts to bring in outside expertise is new.

During the Trump administration, the State Department commissioned the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to examine Havana syndrome. Its report concluded that a microwave weapon was a likely cause of many of the episodes but was hampered in part because of a lack of access to information; scientists were not given the full range of material collected by the intelligence agencies, officials said.

Outside scientists on the two new panels will have security clearances enabling them to look at the full range of material. The “driving purpose” of the panels is to give them access to classified information that was denied under previous studies, a White House official said.

Intelligence officials and government experts will also serve on the panels. McClatchy earlier reported on their creation.

The administration will also bring in medical experts in traumatic brain injury and technical experts on weapons systems and directed-energy devices to examine the potential causes of the health episodes, according to the administration official.

The government is examining some 130 episodes, though officials concede that some could eventually be set aside if their causes are determined and appear to be unrelated to Havana syndrome.

A number of victims had criticised the government’s handling of the issue, saying too few officials took it seriously. While some officials have remained sceptical, inside the CIA the syndrome has become a top priority of William Burns, its director, who pushed for the new panels.

“As part of our ongoing vigorous efforts to determine the cause of these anomalous health incidents, we look forward to working with top scientists and experts inside and outside government on this panel,” Burns said in a statement.

While scientific research has been a strength of US intelligence agencies, Gordon said, the current problems may require a different approach, bringing in more people from outside and working more with so-called open source information, including raw data collected by scientists but not always examined independently by intelligence agencies.

“I do think that they will probably approach it slightly differently than they might have in the past,” Gordon said, “with a little bit more openness.”

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