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Former FBI official says coronavirus could affect national security

Spc. Latorris Thomas, Senior Airman Serena Nicholas and Airman first class Akira Tanton of the Illinois National Guard check patient names multiple times as they prepare to administer a coronavirus test to a first responder in a vehicle Thursday, March 26, 2020 on the Northwest Side. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The COVID-19 pandemic that is taking hold across the United States may have positive and negative effects on national security, said Anderson University John S. Pistole, former deputy director of the FBI from October 2004 to May 2010.

On the up side, he said, having a common enemy besides another country might help to bring the world together.

“One of the things you would hope would happen is that nations would work together more closely as opposed to trying to steal each other’s information,” he said.

But if others aren’t inclined toward cooperation, Pistole said, the new coronavirus may prove devastating, especially if one nation has an advantage over another.

“Unfortunately, bad guys can try to exploit situations like this,” he said.

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Though the military has been relatively open about its initial coronavirus cases, reports over the past few days point to a lockdown on information so the nation’s enemies can’t track potential weakness.

On the domestic terrorism front, the FBI has warned of a potential increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans as people fault them for the spread of the disease, which is believed to have started in Wuhan, China.

In addition, they also have interrupted a plot by white supremacists to weaponize the virus by becoming ill and exposing themselves to Jews, as well as the plans of a man who wanted to bomb a Missouri hospital where people with the coronavirus are treated.

The spread of the coronavirus and the measures taken against it, such as limitations on foreign travel, also work against those who gather intelligence, Pistole said. Some spies may become ill, and others may find it difficult to meet with informants and handlers.

“If the spies aren’t able to meet with people, that limits the ability to gather information,” he said.

National security also could be destabilized if residents lose confidence in government officials’ ability to halt the spread of the coronavirus or the damage it may do to the economy, Pistole said.

“At some point, economic security is tantamount to national security,” he said.

And it’s not just governments, most of which use special encrypting programs and equipment, that are vulnerable, Pistole said. Companies that use common public communications systems, such as Zoom, are at risk of having their proprietary information stolen.

“If those are not secured some way, companies especially could be vulnerable,” he said.

Pistole said it remains to be seen if federal and state officials acted quickly enough or took the right steps by enacting shelter in place measures. And he’s also not certain whether a nationwide order would have been the better way to go.

“I don’t think we needed to do a nationwide lockdown two weeks ago because most of the nation was not yet affected,” he said. “It seems like governors in particular, both here and across the country, took this seriously and did everything they could.”

What he does know, Pistole said, is that a strong economy is vital to national security because those who remain unemployed with no prospects for earning money also can cause unrest, he said.

“If we don’t have a strong economy that we can support, we open ourselves to greater risk from a foreign perspective,” he said.

However, once the nation gets through the current crisis, officials will need to learn from their missteps and prepare for future pandemics, said Pistole, who sits on a federal Homeland Security panel.

“We may not be able to plan for every scenario, but good planning would give you a better chance for a good outcome,” he said. “Part of good planning is to acquire and stockpile that when you need it.”

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© 2020 The Herald Bulletin