International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. On the occasion of the outbreak of the pandemic of Coronavirus Covid-19, IFIMES analyzes security-intelligence activities in the period of pandemic. We bring the most interesting excerpts from a comprehensive analysis titled “Security-intelligence activities at the time of Covid-19 pandemic.”
Global epidemic caused by the coronavirus will inform major changes in international relations, and even internal political relations in majority of countries in the world. Some analysts have started to speak about recession and collapse of economies of numerous countries and organizations, such as the European Union (EU), Organization of Economic Cooperation and development (OECD), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), etc., and the significant rise of China and, to a smaller extent, some other countries as well.
All of a sudden political event disappeared from the media titles and primetime news. Political analysts and analyses have become second to mass appearances of doctors and medical experts in the print and electronic media. Naturally, this is understandable if we take into account the information that so far 1.5 billion or one fifth of the global population has been in self-isolation. Furthermore, for the first time we see groundbreaking changes in the medical industry.
Everything changes at the time of the Covid-19 virus, even the media, the method of reporting and editing. In their programs, TV anchors no longer have guests in their studios, because their guests actively participate in the program via Skype. The guests are not willing to leave their home or city to go to a TV studio. This is the model that has utilized by some global programs, such as “Clever media”, which is on the Top 10 list of the Youtube platform with several billion viewers and has been ahead of traditional media since 2007. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, has millions of viewers around the world. As of last week, Noah does not go to the studio as his talk-show is now produced from his home. This is another form of work-from-home, that is from a sofa, which is also known as “sofa talk shows.”
Social networks and blogs have devastated the print media in the past decade, and at the time of Covid-19 publishing many print media outlets have suspended publishing of the print editions and converted to electronic and PDF formats. Bearing in mind the fact that the coronavirus can survive 24 hours on paper, the people avoid buying newspapers. Furthermore, at the time of (self)quarantine and police curfew it is not possible to physically distribute the newspapers to their retailers.
Regardless of the prevailing opinion in this phase, one should not prejudge or dramatize the situation or make any foregone conclusions. However, in the past decade, the media world has experienced major changes and a shift to electronic media, social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
In the midst of the virus crisis, specific media started to deal with intelligence issues. Namely, their analysts no longer deal with classic reports and analyses of the situation at the political, social and economic level. A part of the media has engaged in a media-propaganda warfare against specific persons/organizations/states by publicizing misinformation about the coronavirus and in such a way causing general panic among the population of the respective country. Therefore, such analyses do not have much to do with the epidemic or medicine, but are a typical case of intelligence work and war.
Some were perplexed by the emergence of selective information in the media, which indicated that some intelligence services had crossed the line of the crisis of global epidemic. As the public perception is that there are major differences and incongruities between the intelligence activities, medical profession and epidemiology, the question is raised about the interest of intelligence services at the time of a global epidemic? How to use information obtained on epidemic in the political spectrum and international relations?
The possible change in intelligence operations at the time of epidemic, which has gripped the world, could have been expected because intelligence services deal with collection, classification and analysis of data related to others (subjects) in the area of security, politics, science, economy, etc. Information obtained with respect to these aspects can be used for definition of guidelines for foreign, security, defense, economic, development and other policies, which are of relevance for national security of any country.
In normal circumstances, security-intelligence services can launch operations aimed to track epidemics or contagious diseases in the region and wider international area, in order to provide necessary protection to its citizens/states. Namely, they would monitor the effects it has on the states affected by the epidemics at the political, economic and security level, as well as with respect to available resources, in order to prevent, that is eliminate, the threat to health.
Intelligence services implement such activities in accordance with instructions received from the political level and with the aim of identification of the scope of economic damage that the respective country has sustained. The consequences of the epidemic on the economy, budget, standard of living of citizens, positioning in regional and international relations, as well as the assessment of the level of success or failure in the fight against the epidemic are also analyzed. As the epidemic reflects on the political power of a state and the number of people who died or were infected, the data is also used to analyze and make projections of future demographic development of the respective country. All this information is obtained from the intelligence apparatus and used for development of an elaborate data base with facts on the basis of which politicians formulate their strategies of relations towards various countries that are affected by the epidemic. However, such information can also be (ab)used for various forms of pressures, such as political and economic, as well as putting military pressure on a specific country.
Bearing in mind the importance that such intelligence activities have for national security, specific countries are well prepared for them and are strive to establish a blockade of information in an attempt to cover up the epidemic, hoping that they will manage to stop or restrain its proliferation. If the epidemic escapes control, the state applies methods for reducing that is underreporting the number of infected persons and casualties in official statements/records.
The most prominent examples of such a conduct include the approach taken by Iranian authorities at the beginning of the proliferation of the current epidemic. The authorities provided to the World Health Organization (WHO) their data on the epidemic, which presented only 20% of the true number of the infected and casualties.
Namely, due to their military and political conflict with Washington, the Iranian authorities withheld information because they wanted to conceal the true figures on their casualties and treated such information as a top secret. Namely, they hoped that in such a way they would not give an additional opportunity to their adversary to use the consequences of the epidemic against Iran by calling on the Iranian people to rise against the Iranian authorities because of their inability to address the epidemic. Another reason behind such an approach is that the Iranian authorities do not want to seek assistance from the international community because they are afraid that in such a way American and western intelligence services would get an opportunity to infiltrate and enter the state as medical and humanitarian workers or members of organizations, which would undermine their national security.
The same scenario took place in China in 2002, after the emergence of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which affected the city of Foshan in November 2002. That was the first global epidemic in the third millennium. Authorities in Beijing withheld the truth and treated the data on the epidemic as a top secret. However, the German intelligence service (BND) had its secret sources of information within China and was able to develop a plan for monitoring the epidemic by spying on important telephone communications and verification of information obtained from multiple sources within China. This was a major success of the German intelligence service, which developed an important data base on the epidemic and its nature, as well as the scope of human and economic losses sustained by China. Furthermore, it also exposed the strategy of China to cover-up the epidemic. At the same time, the data was also very important for establishment of efficient measures in the fight against the epidemic, and delaying/preventing its arrival to Germany.
Maybe such intelligence activities, in combination with the early alarming and preparations for arrival of the coronavirus, were crucial for Germany, which currently ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of infected persons according to the classification of the World Health Organization, and its number of lethal casualties is still relatively low in comparison to other European countries.
Currently, the leading intelligence agencies are speedily allocating their human and technological resources with the aim of exposing what is happening in China at the time of the current epidemic. The Central Investigating Agency (CIA) has started to collect real data on the epidemic in this country and the ways in which this country has addressed the epidemic and constrained its proliferation, to such an extent that even the US satellites are set to monitor the developments on the ground.
The experts have indicated that significant funds had been appropriated to US intelligence services for the purposes of collection of information on the new coronavirus. This means that the search for and analysis of relevant information is not limited only to monitoring of official reports, media or social networks, but that all other intelligence resources such as satellites, agents and informants, as well as communication surveillance, is also being used. As agents are obligated to abide by professional secrecy, there is no doubt that the US will increasingly employ its intelligence agencies, particularly in China and Iran, in relation to the effects of Covid-19 in these countries.
It is interesting that these operations are in no way within the purview of the CIA. The US is one of the few countries that has a medical/health intelligence agency -which is known as the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) and is a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The main purpose of these intelligence operations is not preservation of human lives, but assessment of the scope of damage inflicted on the Chinese economy, which has become a threat to the economies of western countries. A summary of medical treatment measures used by China provides an important base of information on the scientific situation in the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry, as well as the level of development that this country has achieved. Intelligence services will try to steal chemical formulas of the vaccines and therapies before they get registered or to lure pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of new medicaments to move from their home country to their respective country in exchange for exorbitant financial amounts, so that they can have a monopoly over production and trade of such medicaments and used it for economic and political purposes.
In this context, we witness a spat between the United States and Germany, when the US tried to lure the Germany-based CureVac Company, which is conducting advanced research in the area of development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, to move to the US, where it has a branch in Boston, and to manufacture the vaccine exclusively for the US. They extended an invitation to CureVac Chief Executive Officer Daniel Menichella to visit the US and meet with US Vice President Mike Pence at the White House, after what additional pressure would be put on him. As a result, the Steering Board of the company immediately removed Daniel Menichella from the position of the first man of the company.
While espionage operations and intelligence services cannot cure coronavirus or stop its proliferation, they can provide more detailed information/data to the makers of political decisions and help them make timely and educated decisions that can prevent repetition of the Italian example regarding the coronavirus. By conducting thoroughly planned steps, a state avoids or reduces the collapse in the healthcare system and the anxiety among the population, as well as makes assessments and establishes political and economic consequences. All this is also related to the misinformation campaigns and strong mutual accusations for the global epidemic, which are currently being made between the US and China.
At the time of the coronavirus crisis, the intelligence services do their usual job, i.e. obtain information to which others do not have access. This is particularly related to countries such as China and Iran, whose official data/records nobody trusts.
The closing of borders, the lockdowns, the police curfew and quarantines that are currently in force in Europe and America, prompted closing down of well-established official channels of exchange of information/data and communication. Under such circumstances, only intelligence services can function well.
Over the previous days, we witnessed a collapse of global financial markets, drops in the prices of oil resulting from the oil-war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the non-functionality of the bureaucratic system of the European Union to the extent that each country “heals its own wounds” without solidarity within the EU. All these are serious threats that have emerged because of the epidemic, which is why intelligence services are very actively covering the epidemic, which has become a threat to national security of majority of the countries in the world, but also to the mankind.
Analysts warn about the changes in a catalogue of areas and emphasize that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the level of revenues to the churches and religious communities, whose revenues according to the current assessments will drop to 15-20% of those that they have had so far, will seriously jeopardize the functioning of churches and religious communities, which in the long run could bring about development of ecumenism, as the people will have to jointly seek solutions to their existential problems.
In the functioning of secret services there is a practice of use of intelligence in the form of a virus aimed to infect security-intelligence system so that they serve the interests of those who had produced the intelligence virus.
In the Balkan region, infection of the intelligence system can be best illustrated using the example of the Agency for National Security (ANB) of Montenegro, which has been intensively working on infecting the security-intelligence system of NATO. The ANB intensified its respective activities with the beginning of organization of mass litanies and prayers by the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC) in response to the adoption of the Law on freedom of religion or beliefs and legal status of religious communities in Montenegro on 27 December 2019. In January 2020, the ANB started to intensively create and send untrustworthy and often false information/data on individuals and organizations that undermine and work against the state and statehood of Montenegro and the NATO organization. Experts believe these sheer imputations and untruths are forwarded to NATO security/intelligence system, but also partner security-intelligence agencies, with the intent to inflict damage on specific individuals and organizations, as well as protect the regime of the Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović (DPS). For those knowledgeable about the situation in Montenegro, it is clear that these are sheer lies and imputations fabricated by the ANB, because Milo Đukanović’s regime is well aware that all these mass gatherings and the alleged undermining of the state of Montenegro and NATO would stop with the withdrawal of the disputed Law on freedom of religion, which Đukanović is now abusing for his parochial interest to remain in power. Therefore, NATO will have to pay bigger attention to verification and classification of all intelligence coming from Montenegro and warn the regime not to abuse its membership in NATO, because nobody is attacking or threatening Montenegro and NATO.
Milo Đukanović’s regime, which has been in power for 31 years already, is scared by the protests of citizens at which 1/3 of all citizens from various ethnic communities gather. Furthermore, certain security-intelligence agencies from the region and some of their members are involved in Milo Đukanović’s corruptive-criminal network and unlawfully work in Đukanović’s interest. This calls for a stronger oversight over their work and their sanctioning in respective home countries.
At the beginning of the pandemic crisis caused by the Covid-19 virus, Montenegro withheld information on the number of the sick/infected in the country. For a period of time Montenegro presented itself as one of the few countries with no Covid-19 cases, which did not actually reflect the real situation in the country. Later it transpired that according to official data Montenegro has the same number of cases as Kosovo (around 150), which has almost four times bigger population and a much more numerous diaspora, a significant part of which lives in Italy.
In order to create a false impression that it had not been affected by the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, Montenegro even engineered fake counterintelligence that the Republic of Serbia had misappropriated/confiscated three Montenegrin respirators. The aim was to once again divert the attention away from the pandemic and the consequences caused by the Covid-19 virus, because it has transpired that the healthcare system in Montenegro is not ready to face the Covid-19 pandemic and is trying to use it for political purposes.
Analysts believe that it is necessary to assist Montenegro in facing the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, because its inappropriate response to the high intensity of the pandemic can cause a large number of human casualties. However, the strongest virus with which Montenegro has been infected for three decades already is the crime and corruption virus, which has penetrated and infected all the segments of the society, and its carrier is the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its leader Milo Đukanović.
There are many other examples of similar intelligence activities by the ANB, such as the subversive activities of Montenegro related to the initiative for establishment of the so-called “Mini-Schengen”, aimed against Serbia and its President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS), as well as an example from a couple of days ago when the regime of Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović and the regime of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (PS), in conjunction with Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi (PDK), participated in the toppling down of the Government of Kosovo headed by Prime Minister Albin Kurti (LVV). Furthermore, Đukanović’s regime has also started to publicize the names of persons who are at risk for contracting the Covid-19 virus, which not only stigmatizes and criminalizes the people in (self) quarantine but also constitutes a violation of their basic rights guaranteed by the constitution.
Analysts believe that the Agency for National Security (ANB) of Montenegro is a typical example of what a modern security-intelligence agency should not be like. In fact, ANB is the buttress of the DPS multi-decade regime and politico-criminal structures. It is also a seminary and hotbed of loyal personnel that will ensure preservation of Đukanović’s regime. A testimony of that is the fact that the current President of the Government of Montenegro Duško Marković (DPS) is a former director of the Agency for National Security (ANB). Furthermore, it is a matter of concern that the ANB continuously creates and inserts into the security-intelligence system of NATO fabricated information about the alleged threats, while institutions of the state of Montenegro conduct diplomatic-intelligence activities against specific individuals and organizations. The key goal of such ANB activities is to ensure survival of Milo Đukanović’s regime in power. Đukanović still cultivates good relations with Russia, regardless of the publicly made verbal accusations against Russia. Analysts believe that if Milo Đukanović is a symbol of NATO values in the region, then the results of the published polls conducted in the West Balkan countries, which show that the trust in and the image of NATO are undoubtedly constantly declining, should be of no surprise and NATO should express concern over this issue.
Analysts also believe that the severity of the epidemic situation in Montenegro is also confirmed by the official data. Specifically, on 26 March 2020, Montenegro officially approached NATO/EADRCC with a request for international assistance (Montenegro requests international assistance in their response to COVID-19) in which it requested, inter alia, a mobile hospital with 1.000 beds, 5,688,353 surgical masks, etc. (Links: Montenegro requests international assistance in their response to COVID-19 https://www.nato.int/cps/en/
Experts reminded that the St George's Hospital in London, which was founded in 1733 and is the largest hospital in Great Britain has around 1,300 beds, while the Beijing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine with 565 beds has daily fluctuation of 8,000 patients and is the second largest hospital in China, and sixth largest hospital in the world. In the region, the largest hospital is the Clinic Center of Serbia in Belgrade, which, size-wise, is among the 10 largest hospitals in the world.
Analysts believe that the key focus for all security-intelligence agencies in this period is to search for, verify and/or protect information not just on activities related to discovery of a vaccine, but also on how the Covid-19 virus was created and how will it evolve in the future. Specifically, to clarify various qualifications and whether the virus is artificially produced or has a natural origin.
Ljubljana, 2 April 2020