December 07, 2020

Dateline: Pearl Harbor

Exactly 79 years ago today, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, an American naval base on Oahu, Hawaii, catapulting the U.S. into World War II. "A day which will live in infamy," President Franklin Roosevelt would call it--a day which lives on in the memory of the oldest Americans (though not, evidently, of the NY Times, which did not mention it in today's newspaper). The attack, which destroyed more than 300 planes and killed or wounded 3400 Americans, dealt a devastating blow to America’s sense of invulnerability and to our isolationist tendencies. It was also the last time the armed forces of a foreign nation would penetrate the American homeland. And yet, deep into the 21st century, the U.S. continues to place disproportionate weight on armed invasion as the major threat to the security of all Americans, young and old.

As the Covid-19 pandemic, the devastating wild fires on the west coast, and the unprecedented number of named storms this season demonstrate, America must address several other crucially important problems if its citizens are to remain safe and its democracy strong. Epidemics and climate change are two of the principal non-military threats; cyber-attacks and attacks on science are two additional substantial threats. 

Why do these non-traditional forms of attack constitute a threat to the national security? Epidemics have the potential to harm or kill tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of Americans; in addition, they can disrupt the economy (either because sick people cannot work or as society limits economic activity to protect health); and they can damage or destroy fundamental institutions such as the health care system by overwhelming its capacity. Climate change, by causing sea level rise, risks destroying coastal property or submerging entire cities; by contributing to natural disasters such as mudslides and wild fires, climate change endangers life and property. Rising maximum temperatures may make parts of the country uninhabitable or cause death from hyperthermia; they might destroy industries such as cod or lobster fishing as entire animal species migrate north in search of cooler waters. 

Cyber-attacks, whether carried out by state actors, by international terrorists, or by domestic criminals, can disrupt the financial system, the energy grid, our elections, or other fundamental institutions essential to the health and safety of Americans. Attacks on science constitute a fourth non-traditional threat, one that is just coming to be recognized as endangering both progress and our democracy: progress because a citizenry that rejects science will reject legislators who support science, resulting in diminished funding of the research essential for improvements in health and security; democracy because citizens cannot tell truth from falsehood will not have the information necessary to vote in their best interest. Undermining science will, in addition, exacerbate climate change and increase the likelihood of pandemics.

The idea that threats might not come from a foreign state actor but rather from microorganisms (in the case of a pandemic), from the anthropogenic production of greenhouse gases (in the case of climate change), from a computer hacker (in the case of cyber-attacks), or from lies and propaganda distributed via social media (in the case of the attack on science and, more generally, on truth, knowledge and expertise) represents a fundamental change in the way we need to think about national security. And just as the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, so too should the current pandemic push us to reconsider the effort we devote to fending off other non-traditional types of attack. 

Consider the case of microbial threats. The idea of investing in pandemic preparedness is not new: the danger of pandemics and the importance of a coherent response strategy has been acknowledged by public health professionals since the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920. Each of the subsequent pandemics of the 20th century (Asian flu in 1957 and AIDS beginning in 1981), as well as the first pandemics of the 21st century (SARS in 2003, Swine Flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2014), brought renewed interest in both prevention and mitigation. Increased understanding of the origins of these outbreaks has led to a recognition of the importance of surveillance: we now realize that all the major pandemics have been zoonoses, they have arisen from viruses that jumped from one species, such as bats, to another species, humans, because of disruptions in the natural habitat of the original host. Furthermore, realization that global interconnectedness promotes rapid spread of the most readily transmissible organisms has resulted in an appreciation of the importance of international cooperation in combating pandemics.

Such recognition and realization emerged from thoughtful and comprehensive reports such as the workshop on "ethical and legal considerations in mitigating pandemic disease" sponsored by the Institute of Medicine. Its proceedings were published in 2007. This was followed in 2016 by a chilling report from the National Academy of Medicine, “The Neglected Dimension of Global Security: A Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises,” that made explicit the connection between national security and epidemics.

These documents did not just collect dust in government archives; their conclusions were, to a limited extent, translated into US public policy. Beginning with President Clinton, each presidential administration has put forward a new or revised pandemic preparedness plan. Congress authorized the establishment of a Global Emerging Infections Surveillance program within the Department of Defense in 1997, a program intended to improve surveillance, to foster prevention, and to plan for a response to potential new microbial threats. George W. Bush had his “Biodefense for the 21st Century” plan, precipitated by the anthrax scare, though this focused principally on bioterrorism, the deliberate dissemination of disease-causing organisms by state actors or individual terrorists. Obama had two: the “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” in 2009 and the “National Strategy for Bio-Surveillance” in 2012. Trump had his “National Biodefense Strategy” in 2018, which addressed naturally occurring, deliberate, and accidental biological threats, and theoretically centralized the federal response in the Department of Health and Human Services. 

These policies sound good on paper. But implementation, coordination, and funding have lagged. For example, the Centers for Disease Control budget allocation for prevention of zoonotic diseases in 2020 was $636 million out of a budget of $6.5 billion; Trump’s proposed 2021 budget asks for $550 million. The total Department of Defense allocation for FY 2021, by contrast, is $933 billion.

More generally, both the current (FY2020) and proposed (FY2021) federal budgets include support for combating pandemics and cyber-attacks, but do little to support combating climate change (the phrase is nowhere to be found) and nothing to defend against attacks on truth or on science. Even when the threats are acknowledged, the programs responsible for combating them are disseminated through multiple disparate agencies, are poorly coordinated, and receive only modest funding. 

Pearl Harbor Day should serve as a reminder of how threats to national security have changed in the three quarters of a century since Japanese bombers crossed the Pacific and entered American airspace. For starters, we should have a cabinet level department to take these new threats rather than embedding them into the Department of Defense, which has been structured to focus on the military. Perhaps we should simply reconfigure the Homeland Security Department, which no longer focuses on the prevention of terrorist attacks, the rationale for its establishment, but rather devotes its efforts to the enforcement of immigration policies. Immigration is not a threat to national security; but pandemics, climate change, cyber warfare, and the attacks on truth in general and on science in particular pose a real and present danger.




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