Intel community may be stalling COVID origins assessments for political reasons, ex-director says

"We don't need a running intelligence community straw poll" of which agencies support lab-leak versus natural-origin hypotheses, but rather transparency from all, former State official tells lawmakers.

Updated: April 18, 2023 - 11:38pm

The CIA's "unjustifiable" refusal to formally assess COVID-19 origins suggests the Biden administration is afraid to face the "enormous geopolitical consequences" of a confirmed lab leak "head-on," in line with its reluctance to confront China on its spy balloon, according to President Trump's final director of national intelligence.

John Ratcliffe told the House Oversight Coronavirus Pandemic Subcommittee at a Tuesday hearing that the CIA has "unrivaled capacity to acquire information and near limitless resources to do so," casting doubt on its official explanation that it lacks enough information to evaluate

The FBI and two Department of Energy labs have concluded a Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) leak is a likelier source for SARS-CoV-2 than is a natural origin. Four unidentified intelligence community (IC) agencies lean toward the latter hypothesis, according to DNI Avril Haines' unclassified October assessment. 

Personal and political motivations may be at play in the holdout IC agencies, according to Ratcliffe. He cited a January 2021 unclassified report where IC analytic ombudsman Barry Zulauf told the Senate Intelligence Committee that in-house China analysts "appeared reluctant" to share analyses that could aid Trump administration policies "they tended to disagree with."

"I do think there were headwinds to get new information" from analysts when he was DNI, Ratcliffe said, and "on occasion" he felt analyses were withheld from him or altered.

Subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) pledged the panel would examine the motives of IC analysts reviewing the origins evidence. He said he's seen further evidence of this as a House Intelligence Committee member privy to more sensitive information.

Wenstrup noted the Chinese embassy in D.C. told the subcommittee last week it "firmly oppose[s]" the hearing. He said "these intimidation tactics will not work."

The Biden administration, he said, "still has not disagreed with the facts," which he summarized as: WIV has worked with the Chinese military on animal experiments since at least 2017 and performed gain-of-function research at "low biosecurity levels" in conjunction with the federally funded EcoHealth Alliance, which refuses to share its work with the U.S.

His opening statement refers to an "expert in emerging disease outbreaks" who told the subcommittee two weeks ago that the documented sickness of Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers in fall 2019 "would be consistent with a research-related lab outbreak." Press Secretary Olivia Coleman told Just the News this referred to a "private interview."

If Chinese officials had confirmed the researchers were infected by the novel virus and told the world, Ratcliffe told Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.), COVID could have remained a "regional and local" pandemic.

A former Republican congressman from Texas, Ratcliffe emphasized a WIV leak is "the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense," particularly given China's refusal to offer "even a shred of exculpatory evidence" while destroying tests and samples, intimidating doctors and lying to international health authorities.

The evidence column for zoonotic "spillover," promoted by scientists who covertly consulted with then-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci in early 2020, would be "nearly empty" in a head-to-head IC comparison with lab-leak, he said.

Wenstrup, a medical doctor, said he did his own research during COVID lockdown, stumbling across a 2015 Nature Medicine paper by virologists Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina and WIV's Shi Zhengli about the chimeric virus they created. That paper was attached to Fauci's cryptic Feb. 1, 2020 email to his top deputy, and Wenstrup assumes he was "as alarmed as I was" when reading it in light of the Wuhan outbreak.

Congressional Democrats who derided lab-leak for at least a year as a conspiracy theory, and possibly racist, now emphasize COVID origins can likely never be nailed down because of Chinese Communist Party intransigence, so lawmakers should focus on future domestic and international pandemic preparedness.

While "we are learning more every day" thanks to President Biden's 90-day COVID origins review from 2021, ranking member Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said, there is still "no consensus" among federal agencies despite "extreme partisan rhetoric" that "cherry-picks evidence" to "vilify public health leaders." 

Democrats' lone witness, Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production, emphasized the "ambiguity" IC analysts deal with and the "constant partisan pressure" they are under for clear answers. "We may never resolve this issue" without Chinese cooperation, and it's harder because the IC is shorthanded on medical experts, he said, explaining: "We can only recruit the people who come to the recruiting table."

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) made a late appearance to question the IC's reluctance to assess COVID origins. "Even the guys who called us names knew this came from a lab," he said, referring to scientists on Fauci's Feb. 1, 2020 conference call after Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen told the NIAID chief the novel virus looks "potentially" engineered.

Asked if he found it strange that Fauci wasn't communicating with him even as the NIAID director repeatedly deemed natural origin the settled science, Ratcliffe told Jordan the White House coronavirus task force was communicating with the IC but its claims weren't consistent with intelligence.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) asked if Fauci lied under oath when he told Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) the U.S. didn't fund gain-of-function research at WIV. Ratcliffe said Fauci's testimony was "inconsistent" with public and still-classified intelligence. He had the same view of information from National Institutes of Health officials.

"COVID was not some immaculate infection" that was "spontaneously generated," said David Feith, a former State Department official who helped write then-Secretary Mike Pompeo's WIV fact sheet. If it came from a lab following gain-of-function research, "this was akin to a Hiroshima event" showing that "one mistake in one place" can create global havoc.

The stigmatization of lab-leak by Fauci and the mainstream scientific community "drove underground" these risks, and some colleagues wanted to stifle growing leak evidence because it would show U.S. involvement, according to Feith.

"We don't need a running intelligence community straw poll" of which support leak versus natural origin but rather transparency, he said. "The authorities who know the most about this threat didn't speak up," and the public should know what evidence flipped the Department of Energy's view from natural to leak.

Wenstrup said he's been pressing DNI Haines to identify the experts consulted in agency assessments so the subcommittee can determine the factors behind the wide range of opinions within the IC. All three witnesses said this is reasonable for congressional oversight.

Ratcliffe and Feith agreed with Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) that the "proximal origin" paper resulting from the Fauci conference call was not factually correct in deeming lab-leak implausible. State's subsequent memo affirming natural origin was "at best overstated," Feith said, with undisclosed conflicts of interest among authors.

Fauci never conveyed the early concerns about a possible lab leak to Ratcliffe, he said, out of fear of drawing "unwanted attention" to U.S. funding relationships and endangering Western scientists' relationships with WIV.

"These scientists flipped 180 degrees with no new evidence," Comer concluded. "This is a how-to manual in orchestrating a coverup."