Throughout the response to Covid, I’ve considered the question of which institutional failure has been most responsible for the devastation we’ve experienced: public health, the press, the judiciary or the intelligence community.
The broad failure of each of these institutions contributed in a major way to the catastrophe. In polls, respondents usually attribute the disaster primarily to public health and the press. But in my opinion, going back to the beginning of the Covid story, the worst, overarching institutional failure of all has been that of the Western intelligence community.
Since they were first formed in the 20th century, America’s covert intelligence agencies have been the subject of controversy. Though a number of measures are in place to keep these agencies in check and ensure they’re staffed by reputable and patriotic individuals, the fact is that these sprawling agencies operate with a degree of secrecy unlike that of any other Government institution, and there’s always been a question as to whether this is really compatible with democratic governance. One need not be a political radical to see how this secrecy can make it extremely difficult to hold these agencies accountable, giving them an unhealthy kind of ‘competitive advantage’ over the rest of our institutions, even if not deliberate.
In practice, historically, while we don’t tend to see intelligence agencies acting with overtly malicious intent, we do periodically see the intelligence community abusing their veil of secrecy to cover up their mistakes, as they did during the quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. And unfortunately, evidence continues to mount that that’s exactly what they’ve been doing during Covid. Most notably, an explicit discrepancy in a recent House Intelligence Select Committee Report on the early events of the response to Covid proves beyond a reasonable doubt that some key intelligence officials are covering up how soon they knew about the novel coronavirus.
The report in question was prepared by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee; thus, it’s written for the purpose of arguing that the Trump administration didn’t act fast enough, and it makes for characteristically mind-numbing reading. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, who did just about everything in his power to railroad the White House into a panicked response — including by appointing Deborah Birx, who coordinated lockdowns across the U.S. — is effectively held up as the Soviet hero who could have saved us all if only Trump had listened.
But the most important part of the report comes in the form of a brief note on pages 31 and 32 regarding news reports from 2020 in which a number of officials told media outlets that intelligence about a public health crisis in Wuhan had begun to appear as early as November 2019.
Specifically, the first article, from ABC News, appears in April 2020 titled ‘Intelligence report warned of coronavirus crisis as early as November: Sources‘, stating, “As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting.”
The second article appeared the next day in NBC News, titled ‘U.S. spy agencies collected raw intelligence hinting at public health crisis in Wuhan, China, in November‘, stating, “U.S. spy agencies collected raw intelligence hinting at a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, in November, two current and one former U.S. official told NBC News.”
A third article — which is not mentioned in the House Intelligence Committee Report — appears in National Geographic in August 2020 and specifically discusses DARPA’s virus intelligence chief Michael Callahan, stating: “Michael Callahan, an infectious disease expert, was working with Chinese colleagues on a longstanding avian flu collaboration in November when they mentioned the appearance of a strange new virus.”
In Deborah Birx’s book, she also notes that Matt Pottinger offered her a role in the White House as Public Health Security Advisor “in November 2019” as well.
Yet with regard to these reports, each independently confirming that intelligence about the coronavirus began to appear in November 2019, the House Intelligence Committee Report has this to say (emphasis mine):
Press Reporting on November and December Intelligence
According to NBC News, sometime in late November, communications intercepts and overhead images indicating a public health crisis in Wuhan were distributed to some U.S. federal public health officials in the form of a “situation report” from an unspecified agency. ABC News reported that the report came from NCMI. According to ABC News, the alleged report “concluded it could be a cataclysmic event”. DIA, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House were briefed multiple times. According to NBC News, formal assessments of the novel virus were written in December and “that material and other information, including some from news and social media reports, ultimately found its way into President Trump’s intelligence briefing book in January”.
NCMI’s Director and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff denied the report on the record. Col. R. Shane Day, NCMI’s director, released a statement that the media reporting “about the existence/release of a National Centre for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) Coronavirus related product/assessment in November of 2019 is incorrect”. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten told NBC news that “We went back and looked at everything in November and December” and “the first indication we have were the reports out of China in late December that were in the public forum. And the first intel reports I saw were in January”.
Despite extensive efforts and direct questioning, the Committee has not been able to corroborate the NBC News and ABC News reporting.
The Committee has conducted an extensive investigation to identify the moment when the Intelligence Community [IC] first learned of COVID-19. Staff met with numerous working level officials at NCMI, CIA, NSA, ODNI, among other IC agencies; Staff also interviewed former NSC officials. The Committee has also reviewed all finished intelligence that is available to it as a routine matter and requested indexes of finished production from the IC to ensure that the Committee has reviewed all finished intelligence.
Every official interviewed by the Committee — from working level analysts at NCMI to an official with relevant knowledge at the NSC — said that their first indication of a novel virus came with the publication of the ProMED notice published at 11:59 p.m. on December 30th 2019 that reported the announcement of a novel virus by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee.
In sum, the first warnings of COVID-19 came from the non-IC based public health track — in this case disease surveillance conducted by local public health authorities in Wuhan.
In other words, according to the House Intelligence Committee Report, the reports from ABC and NBC in 2020 — each based on independent conversations with several officials saying intelligence on the new coronavirus began to appear in November 2019 — are simply false. I personally reached out to the authors of these articles regarding this information, but they did not respond to request for comment.
The House Intelligence Committee Report does not mention the National Geographic article stating that Michael Callahan first heard about the new virus in November 2019, but the implication is that that article is false as well.
Instead, according to the House Intelligence Committee, “Every official interviewed by the Committee — from working level analysts at NCMI to an official with relevant knowledge at the NSC — said that their first indication of a novel virus came with the publication of the ProMED notice published at 11:59 p.m. on December 30, 2019.”
This conclusion by the House Intelligence Committee is, frankly, patently absurd. The Committee would have us believe that not one, not two, but three of America’s most objective and middle-of-the-road news outlets each made the exact same mistake as to the date in which intelligence on the new coronavirus began to appear, each based on their own independent sources.
This is, quite plainly, unmistakable evidence of a cover-up. Some officials in the U.S. intelligence community have changed their story. Whereas in 2020 they were comfortable telling the public that intelligence about the new coronavirus began to appear in November 2019, they are now all insisting that they had no knowledge of the new coronavirus until December 30th 2019.
Exactly why these intelligence officials have changed their story remains something of a mystery. The most obvious explanation is that in the years after 2020, the response to Covid — especially the initial lockdowns of 2020 — proved to be an unmitigated disaster. The fact that some members of the intelligence community became aware of the new virus in November 2019 begs the obvious question of how they could have possibly believed these lockdowns and mandates had actually been effective in stopping the virus in Wuhan — when Xi Jinping didn’t even order the Wuhan lockdown until the end of January 2020 — making the intelligence community appear even more incompetent than they already do.
For three years, it’s been a mystery why the intelligence community has remained largely silent as Western nations imported these illiberal measures such as lockdowns, mass intubation, mask mandates and vaccine passes — each of which originated in China — that proved so catastrophic for the economies, societies and principles of the free world. As I’ve written at length in Snake Oil, perhaps the most important explanation is the abundant evidence that leading intelligence officials became convinced from an early date — likely falsely — that Covid was the result of a dangerous leak from the Wuhan lab, and they’ve been extremely reluctant to reverse course. A more banal but equally important explanation is that, like the rest of the ‘laptop class’, intelligence officials simply didn’t mind the response to Covid very much and enjoyed being able to work from home, where little real intelligence work was done.
Within independent media circles, a common explanation you’re likely to hear is that intelligence agencies were ‘in on it’, but this, when you stop and think about it, is absurd. It’s ludicrous to think leading officials sat down with or sent out a memo to all their subordinates saying something like, “We’re actually using the response to Covid to usher in new forms of control over the public, but we can’t tell anyone ;)”. That said, a far more plausible scenario, for which there is some evidence, is that there’s serious corruption at the very top of these intelligence agencies, and these leading officials can be very effective at nipping any kind of serious investigation into the subject. There are some monstrous historical precedents for this kind of high-level corruption; Kim Philby, for example, as head of MI6, leaked intelligence to the Soviet Union that resulted in thousands of Allied deaths, seemingly for no reason other than a deep devotion to Marxism-Leninism.
By virtue of their secrecy and the difficulty in holding them accountable, intelligence agencies have to be held to higher-than-normal ethical standards. While accusations may be a dime-a-dozen, hard evidence that members of the intelligence community are lying to the public is rare. Here, we can see in plain black-and-white that intelligence officials have lied: in 2020, multiple highly-credible news outlets reported independently that intelligence officials told them information about the new virus appeared by November 2019, and now they’re saying they didn’t know about it until December 30th 2019.
Whatever the reason may be, the evidence is unmistakable that some intelligence officials are lying as part of a cover-up of earlier reports that information on the novel coronavirus appeared by November 2019. The fears of those critical of U.S. intelligence agencies have evidently been justified: they’re abusing their secrecy to shield themselves from accountability. It’s absolutely unacceptable for members of the intelligence community to be caught in a lie about an event so cataclysmic as the response to Covid; arguably this is worse than Vietnam or Iraq because it pertains to events that had an enormous impact on the lives of Americans on American soil. Given the broad complicity we’ve seen among members of the mainstream media and political class, we may need a change in political leadership for this cover-up to get the kind of high-level attention it deserves; but for the sake of our democracy, it’s vital that it does.
Michael P. Senger is an attorney and author of Snake Oil: How Xi Jinping Shut Down the World. This post first appeared on his Substack page, which you can subscribe to here.
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