It's time to listen to the doomsday planners

According to conversations with more than a dozen people who have seen them, worked on them, or written them, virtually all government continuity plans since 9/11 have been centered around two plots: nuclear terrorism (either all out war or an explosion in the Washington, D.C., region) or a bioweapons release (limited in scale and scope, with victims easily tested and identified). After the anthrax attacks of 2001, the U.S. focused on intelligence suggesting that al-Qaeda (and later Iraq, under the government of Saddam Hussein) had explored the most effective ways to disperse a biological agent. “That’s why we immediately turned to smallpox,” a current government official told me. “The R0”—the rate of person-to-person transmission based on a pathogen’s contagiousness—“was so high and smallpox was available, at least to some of the nation-state enemies.” Russia, for example, had an active bioweapons program, run by a network of labs called Biopreparat, into the 1990s, and it experimented with weaponizing smallpox. A former Russian intelligence officer, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue and who now lives in the United States, confirmed to me that the program was operational after 9/11. (Russia denies that it is experimenting with pathogenic weapons, but its recent use of chemical and radiological poisons to kill former agents is well documented.) The U.S. intelligence community worries that adversaries could weaponize COVID-19 before there’s a vaccine, taking advantage of the gaps in preparedness exposed by the current response…

But getting the military, which designed and ran most of the exercises, to think more broadly about the range of threats, was a challenge. “One of my pet peeves at the time was that the range of options … were either business as usual or a nuclear missile was minutes from Washington,” Larry Pfeiffer, a top continuity official in the Obama administration, told me. “And I would say, ‘Look, 99 percent of continuity issues have nothing to do with nuclear missiles. What about dispersals of bioweapons, or someone throws a backpack over the fence line?’” added Pfeiffer, who is now the director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University.

To be sure, even if Trump hadn’t thrown out the Obama administration’s pandemic playbook, it’s hard to know just how seriously the government would have taken planners’ assessments. The president sets the tone, and staff tend to rework their assumptions to fit the president’s. A mercurial president more concerned with keeping himself in the news, and willfully ignorant of negative developments, is not likely to react quickly to potential emergencies. A different president might have improvised differently. But the playbooks—and their assumptions—need to be revised. And the doomsday planners need to have their day in the sun.