MARCH 16, 2023: I AM TOLD BY A RELIABLE COLLEAGUE THAT THE QUOTE ABOUT TRIGGERING NUCLEAR WAR, NOW ITALICIZED BELOW, IS PROBABLY INACCURATE. APOLOGIES TO GENERAL COTTON FOR THE MISTAKE.
On Thursday, Air Force General Anthony Cotton, the head of the US Strategic Command, the service in charge of nuclear weapons, argued in testimony before Congress for more nuclear weapons, specifically a sea-launched cruise missile or SLCM-N. Back in the nineties, we pronounced this “slickem.” All things old are new again.
General Cotton referred to a “strategic gap or challenge in the availability of low-yield, non-ballistic nuclear weapons that do not generate a radar signature.” Nuclear weapons of this type, he said, “could be used without reaching a threshold that could trigger nuclear war.”
The other intelligence assessment that dropped last week was on so-called Havana Syndrome.
This one was led by the CIA, and, unlike the assessment of how SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans, there is a reasonable role for intelligence agencies. Whether an adversary country is sending agents with a mystery weapon to disable government workers is the kind of thing the intelligence agencies are set up to investigate. The assessment issued last week also represents several years of effort; investigation of one sort or another has been in progress since the first reports of symptoms in 2016.
A summary report has been issued, but the complete report is classified. Beyond the CIA, none of the intelligence agencies was identified in the New York Times or Washington Post reports, which contain additional material.
Several developments this week in stories I’ve been following. I finally have some time to post about them.
Questions about how SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans and the so-called Havana Syndrome have both been subjects of recent intelligence assessments. Intelligence assessments are different beasts from scientific conclusions. I wrote about that for Scientific American.
Intelligence analysis privileges the credibility of sources; science privileges the analysis of data. Intelligence keeps much of its analysis secret; science publishes and argues in public.
Intelligence analysis is a poor way to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Several good scientific studies, linked in my op-ed, point strongly toward the animal market in Wuhan as being the source. Those advocating an origin in a laboratory have put forth a number of scenarios, and very little data. The overall intelligence assessment ranges from “not enough data,” through most agencies’ “low confidence,” to the FBI’s slightly more confidence in a lab leak.
The FBI botched a somewhat similar investigation into the anthrax letters sent after 9/11. There is no reason to believe their assessment, offered without explanation.
The Biden administration used intelligence powerfully in the runup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The intelligence agencies would do well to learn from that experience.