“Your government failed you.” With that dramatic testimony before the 9/11 Commission, Richard Clarke, counterterrorism coordinator at the White House during the Clinton and Bush administrations, laid bare the raw truth of the government’s failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
It was shocking. It was cathartic. It was also true.
It — or something like it — has been sorely lacking from the government’s accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Don’t hold your breath. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they will be taking a hard look at their handling of the pandemic, political officials of both parties have transitioned seamlessly from swearing that they were going to “beat this virus” to discussing the virus as “endemic,” with little to no explanation for the failures to prevent, contain, and even to mitigate the virus’s deadly spread.
Comparisons of the preparedness and response to 9/11 and COVID are inevitable, and were made, in fact, in the earliest days of the pandemic, when a government official, echoing CIA Director George Tenet’s warning prior to 9/11, said that the public health care system had been “blinking red” since January 2020.
That comparison no longer seems hyperbolic; in fact, the scope of our nation’s failure to care for its most vulnerable people during the pandemic has been orders of magnitude worse than on 9/11. Ranked in November 2019, on the eve of COVID’s zoonotic spread, as the nation best resourced in the world to confront a pandemic, the United States has the highest mortality rate among the wealthiest nations in the world, and among the highest of all nations. More than one in 400 Americans has died from COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed the nation considered the best resourced in the world to confront a pandemic to be the worst in marshaling those resources to respond.
Contrary to the widespread popular and now bipartisan resignation over our situation, it didn’t have to happen. So why did it? Again, a 9/11 comparison is apt.
The national security apparatus in place prior to 9/11, and the public health infrastructure rated the world’s best prior to the pandemic, were the product of trillions of dollars of investment for the same bedrock purposes: to provide a multi-layered early warning system against a surprise attack and to support the institutions that could combat and mitigate the effects of an attack if it occurred.
Both seemed formidable prior to the critical events. But in both cases the systems failed dramatically and catastrophically, and for the same fundamental reasons: consistent failures in planning to consider the possible ways the threat could be manifested, and to plan for a response that would align decision-making responsibilities to meet real-world demands.
Both crises have exposed as unwarranted the assumptions on which planning had occurred. There were, for example, detailed plans drawn up prior to 9/11 for how the civilian and military authorities would handle cockpit security and hijackings. Hijackings were assumed to be political statements, in which demands would be made in return for an exchange of hostages. In other words, there would be time to react.
When, on 9/11, the hijackers breached the unlocked cockpits, killing the pilots, and turned off or scrambled their transponder signals and disappeared into the radar clutter, and when it became clear that their goal was not to seek to have demands met and land the planes but to use them as weapons of mass destruction, existing plans had to be discarded immediately and the response had to be improvised.
Similarly, in the early days of the pandemic, despite evidence of unexplained transmission, government scientists assumed that as a coronavirus, the new disease would be only modestly contagious, like the SARS virus.
This assumption led to an early decision that only symptomatic people who had been exposed would be tested. As former CDC Director Robert Redfield put it later, “That whole idea that you were going to diagnose cases based on symptoms, isolate them, and contact-trace around them was not going to work. You’re going to be missing 50 percent of the cases.” Dr. Deborah Birx’s memoir, “Silent Invasion,” recounts her agonizingly frustrated efforts to persuade the CDC that the virus was spreading asymptomatically, and that testing needed to be expanded dramatically (“The CDC was operating in a bubble it had itself created”).
The failure to test asymptomatic people who were exposed to COVID early in the pandemic’s spread allowed the virus to disappear from the disease surveillance capability as surely as the hijacked planes had disappeared from primary radar on 9/11, hiding in plain sight as it spread silently, ravaging the population.
Both attacks, moreover, exploited the fault lines among bureaucracies. The 9/11 hijackers moved freely in the gaps of communication between and among international intelligence agencies — the FBI and CIA, the FBI and state and local law enforcement, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NORAD, the FAA and the State Department, and the National Security Agency and critically important agencies.
COVID-19 exploited similar silos of bureaucracy, spreading effortlessly in the first instance in the gaps of communication among world governments, beginning with China’s criminal suppression of the truth about the virus as it lost containment and continued to deny evidence of human transmission.
Once the virus had reached the United States, there was persistent confusion among the states and the federal government about who was responsible for what. As Lawrence Wright puts it in his account, “The Plague Year”: “It was a national problem, but there would be no national plan. The pandemic was broken into 50 separate epidemics and dumped into the reluctant embrace of the surprised and unprepared governors.”
By late 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, ??director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, concluded that this state-centered response to the COVD-19 pandemic was probably misguided: “When you’re dealing with a pandemic that doesn’t know the difference between the border of New Jersey and New York, or Florida or Georgia, or Texas and Oklahoma you have to have a degree of consistency in your response… .”
Just as 9/11 required a major rewiring of our national security structure to account for the reality of transnational terrorism, so our failed COVID response makes imperative a structural realignment of government roles and responsibilities to manage pandemics.
Our Constitution is the essential touchstone. As long as a pathogen can be contained, states should take the lead in containment measures; federal government agencies are there to support them. Once containment is lost, and the potential for mass fatalities across boundaries becomes clear, it is no longer appropriate for the states to take the lead; in its transformation from an epidemic to a pandemic, it also has been transformed from a public health emergency to a crisis requiring that we provide, as the Constitution’s preamble puts it, a “common defense.”
A crisis that, by its nature, calls for a “common defense” — the very justification for the creation of federal power under the Constitution — should be met with a unified and empowered federal response.
This would require a major realignment of responsibilities that should be defined by act of Congress.
But before it can be accomplished, someone — a president, perhaps, or an association of governors? — must lead. Someone must step forward and galvanize reform by calling the pandemic response what it has been: a colossal failure of government. The pandemic needs, in other words, its Richard Clarke moment.
The question raised by 9/11 and the pandemic response is stark and ultimately existential:
Must we accept large-scale institutional failure during crises as inevitable in our republic, costing thousands or millions of American lives?