The key role of intelligence in the coronavirus battle

The key role of intelligence in the coronavirus battle

In order to get their hands on confidential research into a novel coronavirus vaccination, his operatives would have tried to recruit Russian diplomats, Iranian army officers and Chinese doctors, by going to hockey games in Moscow, diplomatic dinners in Tehran and medical conferences in Beijing. If he hadn’t retired last July, Marc Polymeropoulos’ job would have been to bring the information gathered together in a highly confidential report, ultimately addressed to the president of the United States of America.

After having spent 26 years in the service of the Central Intelligence Agency, the 50-year-old Greek American decided to retire from the field. He spoke to Kathimerini recently, from lockdown in his home in the US state of Virginia.

“The first matter of business for the secret service in the pandemic is not looking for ventilators or diagnostic tests, as Israel’s Mossad did. It’s checking whether the scientific data being reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by China, for example, is accurate or not. To do this, they recruit whistleblowers, tap communications between civil servants, and mine information from open sources,” says Polymeropoulos.

“Their second mission is to evaluate whether the spread of the virus and the reactions of the public in the places that are being hit the hardest are affecting the stability of their governments,” he says, citing the example of Iran.

“If Tehran is focused on the domestic front because of the coronavirus, this probably means that it will not try to respond to the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in early January anytime soon. This, you understand, is of great interest to the US government, just as Greece’s National Intelligence Service (EYP) is interested in how strong Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is in Turkey, which also has a large number of infections,” he says.

The ultimate goal of the secret services, however, he says, is to access the results of the latest scientific research for developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccination. “There’s billions involved for whichever country discovers it first,” says Polymeropoulos.

So what went wrong in the US? Why weren’t its secret services able to protect the country from the pandemic more effectively?

“The CIA had warned about what was going on in China with the coronavirus back in January but there was no reaction to these warnings in that crucial period, when there was still time,” Polymeropoulos explains.

He adds that he believes that once the crisis blows over, Congress will conduct an inquiry into why the pandemic was allowed to get out of control, as it did after the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11, another crisis that rocked the world.

Responding to a question about US President Donald Trump’s open confrontation with China and WHO, the Greek-American former CIA operative is clear.

“China has a lot to answer for. Not because the virus was manufactured in some Chinese laboratory – there is no evidence to support this claim – but because it obviously hid the magnitude of the problem. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Trump’s public attacks on China are basically for domestic consumption, to deflect accusations over his own terrible handling of the crisis.”

Asked whether relations between Washington and Beijing are at an all-time low, Polymeropoulos responds, “I just wonder what will happen if China ends up coming up with the vaccine first.”

Kathimerini first reached out to Polymeropoulos a couple of months ago, after he posted a photo on Twitter of a well-known cafe in the downtown Athens district of Kolonaki. We exchanged a few messages and agreed to meet at his favorite Athens watering hole. “I just came back from a walk around ground zero. I mean Exarchia Square and the Polytechnic! I was forbidden from going there when I was on active duty – it was considered too dangerous,” he said almost as soon as we met, referring to the downtown Athens district that is notorious for the activities of self-styled anarchists. After a brief conversation, we agreed to an interview that eventually happened a few days ago, after he had returned to the US.

Polymeropoulos’ father is Greek and his mother American. They met as students at Cornell University in New York and Marc was born in Athens, spending the first few months of his life in Kolonaki. The family moved to the United States after his father got a job at a university there and spent two or three months every summer on Mykonos. “You didn’t need 100 euros to rent a sun lounger and umbrella back then,” he jests of the popular Greek holiday island.

He was recruited into the CIA as a student at Cornell, specializing in the Islamic uprising in Algeria and spending most of his career in counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. His Greek roots were very helpful in his work, especially in the Middle East. “There’s a lot in common between the Greek and Arabic cultures, like the strong sense of family or the sharing of food, and I think that the Arabs I met did not treat me like an American because they understood my Greek side,” he says.

He spent another two years working in Europe and parts of Asia before deciding to hang up his intelligence hat and lead “a normal life.”

“After 26 years in the CIA and most of them spent in war zones far away from my family, I just felt that my body couldn’t cope anymore. I wanted to write a book on leadership based on everything I learned in the service, and I love what I’m doing right here: explaining what the secret services do,” says Polymeropoulos.

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