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Years Before Coronavirus Pandemic, War Games Warned Of Outbreak Threat : NPR

A woman wearing a face mask walks on the deserted Ocean Drive amid the novel coronavirus pandemic in South Beach, Miami, on May 13. Pandemic war game simulation in the early 2000s foresaw an overwhelmed healthcare industry struggling to respond to unprecedented demand.

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A woman wearing a face mask walks on the deserted Ocean Drive amid the novel coronavirus pandemic in South Beach, Miami, on May 13. Pandemic war game simulation in the early 2000s foresaw an overwhelmed healthcare industry struggling to respond to unprecedented demand.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

One day in early March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the country, Margaret McCown was in her office at the Pentagon figuring out how her staff could work from home.

As McCown went over the logistics, she began to feel a sense of déjà vu.

A pandemic. Government on alert. Schools and offices closing. It was a scenario she had seen before. Just not in real life.

“That was that uncomfortable moment where you find yourself a little bit living in your own war game,” McCown said.

Starting in 2006, when she was a war gamer at National Defense University, McCown spent two years running pandemic simulations for senior policymakers. The scenario: A novel flu strain is racing across the planet. The virus is deadly and highly contagious; U.S. officials are trying to contain the outbreak before it hits the United States. (Spoiler: They don’t succeed.)

McCown called the first exercise “Global Tempest.” In the office that day in March, she dug out an article she’d written about it for a defense journal. The title was: “Wargaming the Flu.”

“As I looked through it, I was realizing the extent to which it had really identified some of the things that we were living and some of the debates I was seeing on TV,” she said.

In McCown’s simulations, as in several others in the early 2000s, participants foresaw an overwhelmed healthcare industry struggling to respond to unprecedented demand. McCown’s teams worried about the number of ventilators and hospital beds.

What’s more interesting to McCown is that the gamers also identified the many ways a pandemic could disrupt ordinary life.

“People’s ability to take time off work or having sick leave would impact their ability to abide by social distancing,” McCown said. “And that decisions like when you close schools and so forth would come to be important.”

McCown’s pandemic series involved senior leaders from federal agencies, Congress and the Pentagon. Those and other games of that era predicted, in detail, much of the fallout the government is struggling with now. So the question is: Where’s the disconnect between years of gaming out pandemic strategies and the chaotic response on display now?

War gamers say it’s not their job to tell leaders what to do – they just shepherd officials through their options, trying to get them to think strategically about the potential consequences of different policies. In the end, the decisions on national security priorities are up to those in power. And for a number of reasons, current and former officials say, the specter of a pandemic never made it to the top of the list.

Administrations came and went, each with its own national security agenda. And in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the focus was on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and, later, ISIS. Unlike a virus, those threats were visible, tangible.

“Pandemic may not have waned in importance but other national security issues kind of crowded attention more,” McCown said.

McCown’s flu series was part of a trend in pandemic war gaming that rose in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks. The exercises had ominous names: Dark Winter, Clade X, Atlantic Storm. And they didn’t end well. Some teams faced catastrophic death tolls and riots in the streets.

The participants in McCown’s games grew pessimistic that medical interventions could catch up with the damage caused by the virus. By the end of the series, she said, the teams were “focusing more on what would you do if none of those worked or took a long time to become available.” They discussed nightmare scenarios of poultry culling and civil unrest.

“All told, exercises moved away from what could be characterized as an emergency response understanding of the problem toward a more public health understanding,” McCown concluded in her report.

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas speaks during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill on May 7.

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Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas speaks during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill on May 7.

Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via AP

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who’s been in Congress nearly 40 years, took part in some of the earliest pandemic games, including McCown’s series. Through the Senate agriculture committee, he’s also helped shape U.S. responses to real outbreaks. When the coronavirus hit, he said, he recognized the severity right away. It was the big one he’d been dreading for years.

“We worked on African swine fever — that’s H1N1 — and also the avian flu, and now we’re working very hard on COVID-19,” Roberts said. “So, yeah, this is not my first rodeo.”

Roberts said each experience was instructive – and alarming. It became clear to him that the nation needed to prepare for a potentially catastrophic pandemic, whether caused by an act of bioterrorism or a virus transmitted from animals to humans.

“From time to time there were all these warnings and we were trying to get the attention of all the intelligence agencies: Move this to the top of the line. I don’t know how many times I asked the CIA when I was the intel chairman,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he can’t divulge the CIA’s specific response, but he said that the outbreak threat just never stuck as a national security priority. As Roberts put it: “You could never get it in the top 10.”

McCown, of the Pentagon, said there are lessons and limits to war games. No simulation can prevent a deadly new virus from snowballing into a pandemic. But she said there’s value in “creating that space for people to think through problems in a hypothetical set of circumstances.”

Fourteen years after her first pandemic simulation, McCown said, the experience is coming in handy at work and at home.

“When I’m Cloroxing my car keys and wiping down my door knob and picking up delivery groceries and so forth,” she said, “I’m thinking through big picture of why am I doing this, and, you know, not just the nuisance factor.”

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FBI Finds Al-Qaida Links In Deadly Attack On Pensacola Base : NPR

The U.S. Department of Justice building.

Alastair Pike /AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice building.

Alastair Pike /AFP via Getty Images

During his rampage last December at a U.S. military base in Florida, the shooter paused to try to destroy his iPhone — a sign, authorities said, that the device held important clues.

The problem was, the FBI didn’t have the password — not for that phone or a second, badly damaged one found later. And Apple wouldn’t unlock them. The case quickly became part of a thorny, longstanding dispute that pits the requests of federal investigators against the privacy and security expectations of hundreds of millions of Apple customers.

More than four months later, U.S. authorities said Monday that they had cracked into the iPhones — without Apple’s help — and had uncovered new evidence of the shooter’s links to Al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. At a joint news conference, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray said their investigation was hampered by not having access to the phones earlier, and that the workaround in the Pensacola case was a one-off that didn’t solve the impasse with Apple.

“We did it ourselves,” Wray said. “Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem. It’s of pretty limited application. But it has made a huge difference in this investigation.”

Wray said investigators recovered a trove of evidence from the phones belonging to 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old Saudi Air Force cadet who was part of a training program at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Wray said the information is helping authorities understand the scope of the gunman’s ties to Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen. He described the connections as significant but stopped short of saying the group “directed” the attack.

“It is certainly more than just inspired,” Wray said. “We know, for example, that he was sharing plans and tactics with them. We know that he was coordinating with them and providing an opportunity for them to take credit.”

Wray said Alshamrani was radicalized as far back as 2015 and stayed in touch with militants after moving to the United States. He said Alshamrani was a “meticulous” planner — the cadet took video while “casing” buildings on base in preparation for the attack, which killed three sailors and wounded eight other people.

Authorities say Alshamrani wrote a will that he shared with Al-Qaida associates so that they could claim credit. Weeks after the attack, the leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula released an audiotape saying the group had directed the attack; the group had a copy of the will and purported correspondence with Alshamrani.

Neither Wray nor Barr detailed how investigators finally got into the phones. But they said the technique was no substitute for better cooperation from Apple.

“Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable,” Barr said.

Apple has previously disputed the Justice Department’s claims, saying in a statement in January that it had turned over “many gigabytes” of information related to the Pensacola shooter. Apple said authorities waited a month after the attack before contacting the company about the existence of the second phone and the FBI’s inability to access either of the two devices.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” Apple said in the statement. “Today, law enforcement has access to more data than ever before in history, so Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations.”

Civil liberties groups and others who support Apple’s stance note that this isn’t the first time authorities have broken into devices after Apple refused to budge. The ACLU — American Civil Liberties Union — issued a statement saying the innovations show that federal agencies don’t need the “backdoor” they’ve asked tech companies to engineer for years.

“Every time there’s a traumatic event requiring investigation into digital devices,” said the ACLU’s Brett Max Kaufman, “the Justice Department loudly claims that it needs backdoors to encryption and then quietly announces it actually found a way to access information without threatening the security and privacy of the entire world.”

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Coronavirus Live Updates : NPR

A protester attends a demonstration over Michigan’s coronavirus restrictions on Thursday at the state Capitol in Lansing.

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A protester attends a demonstration over Michigan’s coronavirus restrictions on Thursday at the state Capitol in Lansing.

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As the pandemic moves from public health crisis to partisan flashpoint, the debate over the coronavirus response in the U.S. is becoming increasingly nasty – and, in some cases, violent.

It’s not just the clusters of gun-toting protesters at state capitols. In sporadic incidents across the country, disputes over emergency measures have turned into shootings, fistfights and beatings. Stories abound of intimidation over masking. And armed right-wing groups have threatened contract tracers and people who “snitch” on neighbors and businesses violating health orders.

Researchers who study the links between polarization and violence stress that these incidents are still rare and extreme reactions; polls show that the majority of Americans support and are abiding by distancing measures. But there are fears that the pandemic — especially landing in an election year — has the potential to inflame divisions to dangerous levels if left unchecked.

“If we don’t intervene as a nation, as citizens, to begin to correct this identity-based polarization, then the erosion of democratic norms will go even further. And that’s the threat of potential social unrest,” said Tim Phillips, head of the Boston-based nonprofit Beyond Conflict, which tracks polarization and supports peace efforts around the world.

Researchers cite leadership as a key factor in the struggle against polarization. But President Trump draws support through identity politics and has signaled repeatedly that he’ll play to his base even in a national health emergency. Take, for example, Trump’s refusal to wear a mask despite the advice of his own health authorities and recent coronavirus infections among White House staffers.

Trump has said, with little elaboration, that donning a mask would “send the wrong message.Rachel Kleinfeld, who studies polarization and violence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the president’s decision not to mask is calculated.

“Trump recognizes that by talking about masking in a certain way, he can play on an identity,” Kleinfeld said. “And it’s an identity of virility versus fear, an identity of urban versus rural, an identity of race, even, given who’s being hit by the virus, and he can do all those things by triggering something that was not polarizing before, which is whether or not you wear a mask in public.”

Polling shows that masking brings the starkest partisan breakdown of any protective measure: 76% of Democrats say they wear a mask when leaving home, compared to 59% of Republicans, according to a survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Phillips said Beyond Conflict, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania, will soon release findings that show Americans are indeed polarized, just not as badly as they think. He said news coverage and social media have led to both sides imagining deeper divisions than actually exist — a point to remember, he said, when looking at scenes of pandemic-related violence.

“When we see the armed militia in Michigan, when we see people sort of defying the police – not just mayors and governors – to open up their stores or open up other locations, we tend to think that that’s representative of the other side, that they must all think that way,” Phillips said.

“And yet there’s polling in the last two weeks, last week, in the United States that across the Republican-Democratic divide, the majority of Americans recognize that there’s a public health crisis and we have to do something about it.”

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