CIA Ignores Real Threat

Allow me to begin with two seemingly unconnected events.

First, George W. Bush was speaking the other day at an elementary school, and, via C-SPAN, I was hanging on every word. Literally. Listening to Bush has become a recreational amusement. It's impossible to do so without waiting for him to dyslexiate, strangle syntax, or create vocabulary -- like watching a car race in anticipation of a fireball.

I must admit, though, this time he was negotiating English with impressive ninth-grade skill. But he did get around to saying something foolish. A question was tossed at him pertaining to national security. He seized the moment to highlight his support for a national missile defense system. Since I was flossing, I failed to transcribe his remarks. But here was the gist (actually, Bush usually speaks in gist): if there's somebody out there holding one of our friends "hostage" with a missile attack, like Israel, and he tries something like that, we're going -- or was it "gonna"? -- to be able to shoot that missile down, and he'll be "scared" of us doing that, and our friend will be safe.

Well, sixth-graders, if Saddam Hussein is not going to be frightened by the prospect of retaliation from Israel, which posseses several nuclear bombs, and from the United States, which possesses many nuclear bombs, why would he be scared of a high-tech gizmo that supposedly (but without a guarantee) can intercept a nuclear missile he hurls toward Israel? Didn't Saddam launch missiles against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, despite the presence of the Patriot antimissile system? And a bombed-out, radioactive Baghdad is not a sufficiently horrifying disincentive? This idiotic formulation -- we can frighten off a suicidal madman (for he would have to be suicidal and mad to launch such an assault) with sci-fi weaponry -- is perhaps an appropriate response to the hyped-up threat of the rogue-nation, single-missile attack, a threat that is readily dismissed by most of our allies. Yet this is what passes for a discussion of national security on the campaign hustings.

On to the second event. The day after this Bush chat, a twentysomething Chilean television reporter came by to interview me about the CIA (about which I wrote a book several years ago). The spy gang is much in the news in Chile these days, for the CIA in mid-September released a remarkable document summarizing the assorted clandestine ways it had undermined Chilean democracy in the 1960s and 1970s. The report notes that the agency "actively supported the military junta" that in 1973 overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende and that tortured and disappeared thousands. Even though the military regime engaged in "systematic and widespread human rights," the CIA waged propaganda operations using the news media to create "a postive image for the military junta," the report says.

The most outrageous news in the document concerned Manuel Contreras, the notorious chief of Chilean intelligence in the post-coup years. The CIA revealed that it had maintained a relationship with this thug, who was one of the prime human rights abusers in Chile and who had plotted the 1976 car-bomb assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit, his American assistant, in Washington, DC. That's right. The CIA had on its payroll the guy responsible for the murder of an American.

Surely, this has caused a major controversy in America? the Chilean reporter asked. No, I told her. She shook her head in disbelief. And what about the CIA? she asked. Doesn't Congress and the American public demand it no longer engage in improper activity abroad? Not really, I replied. The CIA does not face much scrutiny -- on Capitol Hill or at large -- and it's hard to tell where it is mucking about these days. She was astonished.

Bush's simplistic national security riff and the reporter's charming surprise came to mind as I was perusing the most recent issue of the Environmental Change & Security Project Report, an inch-thick policy-wonk journal published by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center and financed by the US Agency for International Development and several foundations. (I do enjoy a lively read.) The volume contains a national intelligence estimate produced a few months ago by the National Intelligence Council, a committee of experts from within the "intelligence community" that advises the CIA chief. The estimate -- entitled "The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States" -- notes that "new and reemerging infectious diseases will pose a rising global health threat and will complicate U.S. and global secuity over the next twenty years."

Here was evidence that the CIA could do something useful and that there are public servants at work on assessing and countering real -- not comic-book -- threats. The estimate is chilling. The up-and-coming infectious diseases, it says, "will endanger U.S. citizens at home and abroad, threaten U.S. armed forces deployed overseas, and exacerbate social and political instability in key countries and regisions in which the United States has signficiant interests."

It's no surprise infectious diseases -- such as TB, malaria, and cholera -- are on the rise. "The spread of infectious diseases," the estimate says, "results as much from changes in human behavior -- including lifestyles and land use patterns, increased trade and travel, and inappropriate use of antibiotic drugs -- as from mutations in pathogens." It reports that the U.S. Institute of Medicine believes that the major infectious disease threat to the United States may come from a previously unrecognized killer virus, like HIV. And the estimate says that "epidemiologists generally agree that it is not a question of whether, but when, the next killer pandemic will occur."

By the way, the estimate cites the increase of US food imports as contributing to the rising trend of foodborne illnesses: "The globalization of the food supply means that non-hygenic food production, preparation, and handling practices in originating countries can introduce pathogens endangering foreign as well as local populations." In other words, thank you, Nafta.

The estimate presents a dark picture. Twenty-nine previously unknown diseases have appeared since 1973. (Think Ebola and HIV/AIDs.) Its drafters consider it "plausible" that AIDS -- which is already devastating sub-Saharan Africa -- will spread rapidly through India, China, the former Societ Union and Latin America and that drug-resistant strains of TB, malaria and other infectious diseases "appear at a faster pace than new drugs and vaccines, wreaking havoc on workd health." Moreover, they maintain, "infectious diseases are likely to slow socio-economic development in the hardest-hit developing and former communist countries and regions. This will challenge democratic development and transitions and possibly contribute to h umanitarian emergencies and civil conflicts." The gross domestic product of Kenya in 2005, according to one study cited, will be 14.5 percent smaller than it otherwise would have been due to AIDS. Russia, too, is facing a health crisis. Back in the days of communism, more than 95 percent of the population of the Soviet Union had regular access to essential drugs; now it's 50 to 70 percent. "In our view," the estimate asserts, "the infectious disease burden will add to poliical instability and slow democratic development in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and the former Soviet Union, while also increasing political tensions in and among some developed countries."

The next ten years, the paper predicts, will not be happy ones regarding infectious diseases. Drug-resistance bacteria is likely to have the edge over humans. Moreover, it adds, "development of an effective global surveillance and response system probably is at least a decade or more away." But the estimate writers believe -- or is it more a hope? -- that the decade after that will be a time of progress, for "the worsening infectious disease threat...is likely to further energize the international community." Things will get worse before they get better -- what an upbeat notion.

There are real security threats facing the United States. A plague is a more likely danger to Americans than a lone North Korean nuclear ICBM. Yet political discussions regarding national security rarely cover such non-traditional threats as infectious diseases or move beyond cereal-box positions. It's encouraging that there are some within the intelligence community who have a broader view of national security than the old commie-fixated covert plotters of the CIA and the Star Wars-obsessed governor of Texas.

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