The quarantining of most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, coming on the heels of President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, is raising fears that U.S. adversaries might seek to exploit a perceived weakness.
Few expect any sort of overt military action, but there are other ways to wreak havoc on the United States.
Chief among them is disinformation. Experts have been warning ever since Trump tested positive for the coronavirus last week that disinformation is likely to kick into overdrive.
Now, with six of the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff waylaid at home, warnings are being amplified about the national security implications of the growing COVID-19 outbreak among U.S. leadership.
“All these kinds of things are just a huge distraction for us where our national security apparatus is consumed with matters domestic and internal,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a Washington Post event after news broke of the Joint Chiefs quarantining. “So this is an ideal time for adversaries, particularly in adversary intelligence services, to look for ways to further confuse us, to distract us.”
Adding that “you can bet particularly our good friends the Russians are doing this,” Clapper warned of them “further sowing seeds of disinformation.”
“They will appeal to all the various tribes and continue to capitalize on the polarization in this country,” he said. “So it is a vulnerable time, and it’s an opportunity for them while we’re not looking and not being alert to further sow seeds of disinformation, casting doubt, discord, distrust in the country.”
The quarantining of top military officers stems from the Coast Guard’s No. 2 admiral contracting COVID-19. The Coast Guard announced Tuesday that its vice commandant, Adm. Charles Ray, tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday after feeling mild symptoms over the weekend.
The test result came after Ray met with most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon on Friday.
That put Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley into quarantine, as well as the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and National Guard. The vice chairman, Gen. John Hyten, was also in the meetings and is quarantining.
The only member of the Joint Chiefs who didn’t meet with Ray was Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, who was traveling.
Berger’s deputy, Gen. Gary Thomas, met with Ray instead and went into quarantine Tuesday. The Marine Corps announced Wednesday evening that he has tested positive for the virus.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, also met with Ray and went into quarantine.
It’s unclear exactly where Ray caught the virus, but his schedule within the incubation period included a visit to the White House, which is now considered the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak that includes Trump himself.
Ray — along with Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top defense officials — attended a White House ceremony for Gold Star families on Sept. 27.
The event happened the day after Trump announced he was nominating Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, a gathering for which several attendees have since been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Since Trump’s diagnosis, the Department of Defense has sought to allay any national security concerns.
When Trump’s positive test was first announced last week, the Pentagon insisted there has been “no change to DoD alert levels.”
After news broke Tuesday of the Joint Chiefs quarantining, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman reiterated that “there is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
“Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location,” Hoffman said in a statement.
The military chiefs are well-equipped to work from home, and besides Ray and Thomas, none have tested positive for the virus yet.
But the development has raised questions about whether adversaries will try to take advantage of the situation nonetheless.
After the military quarantines were revealed, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said “the national security implications of the president’s recklessness cannot be overstated” even though the military “can still operate while leadership is quarantined.”
“Since announcing that he tested positive for the virus, the president’s antics have been downright reckless and harmful,” Smith said in a statement. “Our adversaries are always looking for any weakness to exploit. President Trump’s pathetic attempts to exude strength aren’t fooling anyone — Americans know he is weak and so do those who wish us harm.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), another senior member of the Armed Services Committee, questioned why so many senior military leaders were meeting in person in the first place, as well as attending a White House reception in which they were pictured maskless.
“What if the Joint Chiefs’ responsibilities cannot be done remotely while they are isolating?” Speier wrote in a series of questions on Twitter. “How many other senior military leaders have tested positive? Why weren’t we safeguarding the health of senior military leaders like the natural security asset that it clearly is?”
Barry Pavel, senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, stressed that there is “no degradation in operational command and control” from the Joint Chiefs quarantining.
But, he added, adversaries such as Russia and China could misperceive that the United States is distracted and decide to act. For example, he cited concerns about China moving against Taiwan or Russia trying to grab more territory.
Pavel also listed what he called Russia’s “non-kinetic war” against the United States in the cybersecurity, influence and disinformation realm.
“This is a KGB officer’s most wildest dream coming true almost on a daily basis,” he said. “And so I think it’s a big threat. Who knows what proportion of our current public divisions are sown by Russian influence and bots or are just part of our current division. I don’t know the answer to that question. But they’re certainly right now exploiting it.”
To diminish those concerns, Pavel said, the Pentagon should keep emphasizing its military readiness, as well as demonstrating it by taking actions like publicizing a previously planned exercise.
“It’s probably a good idea to keep repeating those messages,” he said, “to be reiterating those messages, sending them publicly, privately, by third parties and through various forms of military activity so adversaries have no misunderstanding about our readiness and capabilities despite the chairman being quarantined in his quarters.”