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Here’s How The National Security Agency Will Protect Itself During A Pandemic

Secret documents sketch out the worst-case scenario for “a 1918-like pandemic and no effective response.”

Posted on March 13, 2020, at 4:54 p.m. ET

Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that intelligence community personnel have at least three months’ worth of food on hand in the event of an uncontrolled pandemic.

The recommendation was contained in an unclassified influenza contingency plan drafted in 2009 by the National Security Agency. It details the sweeping steps the spy agency should take to keep its personnel safe and working on critical intelligence matters in the event of such a crisis.

The 50-page document — obtained by BuzzFeed News last July following a six-year Freedom of Information Act battle — tracks closely with steps that have now been widely adopted by Americans facing the current coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic this week. The contingency plan was drafted in response to a 2006 directive from then-president George W. Bush that called upon federal government agencies to implement a "national strategy" for a potential influenza pandemic.

The new coronavirus is a novel virus in the same family as those that caused SARS and MERS. So far it has spread to more than 132,000 people across the globe and killed 4,900 people, mostly in China. While the coronavirus is much more deadly than influenza, a flu pandemic can also have devastating impacts. The 1918 Spanish flu killed almost 50 million people worldwide.

NSA/FOIA

Since 2013, BuzzFeed News has filed more than two dozen public records requests with multiple federal agencies seeking their influenza pandemic plans. Many agencies have refused. As recently as Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission cited an exemption under FOIA that applies to "the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.”

The NSA did not respond to a request for comment about whether the contingency plan it issued a decade ago has been updated and if it can be applied to the coronavirus pandemic. However, an official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the intelligence community, told BuzzFeed News the agency intends to implement guidance issued by the Office of Personnel Management to ensure the intelligence community’s “mission remains uninterrupted.”

“The IC has numerous missions requiring a global workforce presence,” the official said, referring to the intelligence community. “Agencies are developing preparation and response plans consistent with federal guidelines and regulations.”

During a pandemic, the NSA's 2009 plan states that every time “affiliates” — civilian or military personnel assigned to work at that agency — enter a government building they would be screened for fever or other flulike symptoms, in an area outfitted with “special airflow and filtration capabilities.” The plan also limits employee travel and requires a physician’s clearance to return from work after illness. In a crisis, the plan would give NSA leadership the ability to quarantine individuals, campuses or NSA headquarters.

Some workers would be asked to do jobs they don’t normally do to “staff critical mission functions” for the NSA. During a pandemic, the agency would make “evacuation payments” to workers so they can reach a “safe haven” and continue working. The NSA also planned to provide access to psychologists or social workers to “address stress.”

The plan pointed out that simple steps, such as social distancing and proper hand-washing, are effective at slowing the spread of the virus. And the plan said that the goal of public health officials should be to slow down the rate of infection and limit the burden on medical staff and hospitals.

NSA/FOIA

The plan is supplemented by a PowerPoint presentation titled “Pandemic Planning” that was written by the Department of Health and Human Services and contains specific recommendations for the intelligence community.

In one slide, HHS made stark predictions about a possible viral outbreak. “We don’t know when the next pandemic will occur, which influenza virus will cause it, or how severe it will be,” the document stated.

A slide titled “Pandemic Severity Index” ranks threat levels. The top level is at “Category 5” — at which at least 2% of infected people die. “Assuming a 1918-like pandemic and no effective response,” the document said, more than 1.9 million Americans would die and 9.9 million others would require hospitalization.

Another slide titled “Pandemic Policy to Maintain the IC Mission Objectives” suggests that intelligence officers based overseas leave foreign countries early, return home and have “enough food for 12 weeks” and stockpile masks and medication.

HHS updated its pandemic influenza plan in 2017.

  • Picture of Jason Leopold

    Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.

    Contact Jason Leopold at jason.leopold@buzzfeed.com.

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  • Picture of Anthony Cormier

    Anthony Cormier is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. While working for the Tampa Bay Times, Cormier won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

    Contact Anthony Cormier at anthony.cormier@buzzfeed.com.

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