A medical professional does a thorough check-over of the TCF Center cleaner and maintainer, at the Detroit, Mich., TCF center on April 15.

A medical professional does a thorough check-over of the TCF Center cleaner and maintainer, at the Detroit, Mich., TCF center on April 15. Pfc. Ian Miller / U.S. Army

Defense Intel Head: We ‘Did What We Were Supposed To’ With COVID Warning

DIA chief hints that the public doesn’t yet know just what the military knew about the coronavirus.

What did the U.S. military know about the disruptive and deadly effects of COVID-19 and when did they know it? In April, the Pentagon denied a report that the National Center for Medical Intelligence was concerned about a potential pandemic as far back as last November. But there may be more to the story.

On Wednesday, Gen. Robert Ashley, who runs the Defense Intelligence Agency — NMCI’s parent agency — said that the agency “did what we were supposed to” and that a bigger story would come out eventually. 

“Over the coming months and years, that will get unpacked in probably a much more public way, not for this particular venue. But one of the things we have done, and we have done it early on, is we have looked at everything we knew, who we told, when we told them, and when we knew it, and what leader did that get to,” Ashley said at an INSA event. 

In April, ABC News reported that the NCMI had assessed the potential for COVID-19 to flare into a major and particularly devastating pandemic as early as November of last year. Pentagon officials issued this statement: "As a matter of practice the National Center for Medical Intelligence does not comment publicly on specific intelligence matters. However, in the interest of transparency during this current public health crisis, we can confirm that media reporting about the existence/release of a National Center for Medical Intelligence Coronavirus-related product/assessment in November of 2019 is not correct. No such NCMI product exists.”

Ashley didn’t go much further, but his comment suggests that the Pentagon’s April statement didn’t tell the whole story. 

The pandemic has raised broader questions about whether the U.S. government is spending too much on preparing for armed conflicts and too little on preparing for outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19, which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans in seven months.

“The military was unable to prevent the pandemic and—aside from treating veterans with COVID-19—has been of little use to the civilian health care system in combating it,” wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists’  Elliott Negin in an op-ed published on Sunday by Scientific American.  “The hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government spends on the military every year siphons away money that could be spent to address serious flaws in the U.S. healthcare system.” The piece does credit the NCMI and DARPA for contributing to the national pandemic response. 

Ashley didn’t go into that, but did discuss the NCMI’s importance to the U.S. military’s understanding of global health issues and how outbreaks might affect adversary militaries. 

“Part of our foundational charter is to understand capability and capacity of foreign militaries. NCMI comes back and tells senior leadership that ‘here’s the capacity for a foreign military to deal with the pandemic, to deal with whatever medical issue.’ So that’s your foundational understanding of, you know, not necessarily their artillery systems and other things. It’s their ability from the medical side,” he said.

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