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Echoes of Russia reversal in the intelligence community's COVID origins probe

As early as May 2020, some in government believed lab-leak theory deserved more study, timeline shows.

Updated: May 31, 2021 - 11:39pm

When President Biden recently revealed a schism in the intelligence community over the origins of the COVID-19 virus — with some now seeing it plausible a lab leak caused the pandemic — he did far more than just order a 90-day review.

He acknowledged implicitly that the prevailing assessment of America's spy agencies during the last year of Donald Trump's presidency — that the virus evolved in nature – was now fully in question.

Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, went a step further and revealed some U.S. intelligence analysts believed the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology much earlier but their views were suppressed from policymakers.

The COVID origins evolution echoes in some respects the deeply flawed Russia collusion probe, when the FBI dove headfirst into an election-year dossier funded by Hillary Clinton and opened a probe of Trump adviser Carter Page even as the CIA warned Christopher Steele's intelligence was Moscow-fed disinformation and Page was one of the Agency's own assets.

The parallels have some questioning whether the intelligence community can still operate with clear eyes and give policymakers a 360-degree view of issues, including dissenting analysis, in this hyper-partisan era of America.

"Our intelligence community doesn't need another 90 days to assess the origins of the coronavirus," said Fred Fleitz, a longtime intelligence analyst and former chief of staff to the National Security Council. "There has long been enough open-source information to conclude with high confidence that the virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology."

Fleitz said the intelligence community ombudsman has already concluded that spy agencies "deliberately played down and omitted intelligence" that China tried to meddle in the 2020 presidential election because they did not want to produce analysis that supported President Trump's policies. 

"I believe it is very likely the same thing happened with the IC's analysis of the coronavirus origin and the Chinese coverup," he said.

Kash Patel, a former National Security Council adviser to Trump, said the failure to properly report on the origins of COVID-19 is the latest episode showing the intelligence community and the mainstream media taking positions contrary to Trump's for reasons other than facts.

"Every single time President Trump had the intelligence correct and based policy decisions in sound reasoning," Patel said. "The only people rejecting the proper course of conduct was the mainstream media, aided by the clown show that is Adam Schiff."

While Biden has given American spy agencies 90 days to give the latest assessment, there is growing proof that the U.S. intelligence community had access to contrary evidence when it gave its first assessment in April 2020 that COVID-19 likely evolved from nature.

"The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified," the ODNI said on April 30, 2020.

President Trump and his advisers vehemently disagreed with the assessment, continuing to insist the most likely source of the virus was a lab leak.

While the spy community placed its bet squarely on natural evolution, it promised to "continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan."

Nearly a month before that ODNI statement, the conservative publication National Review pulled together a devastating compilation of open-source intelligence pointing to the Wuhan lab as the possible original source of the virus.

A month later, experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reportedly concluded on May 27, 2020 that natural evolution or a lab leak were the two most likely scenarios to explain the COVID-19 outbreak and both needed to be further studied.

Lawmakers are now demanding they be given access to that report.

For weeks and months after, more intelligence rolled in pointing to a lab accident, according to Nunes' recent report. That included:

  • U.S. State Department intelligence showing "several researchers at the Wuhan lab were sickened with COVID-19-like symptoms in fall 2019."
  • Media reports that there was no cell phone activity inside the WIV between Oct. 7, 2019 and Oct. 24, 2019, suggesting a possible shutdown or blackout at the facility.
  • Warnings from U.S. diplomats in China in 2017 that the Wuhan lab was "conducting dangerous research on coronaviruses without following necessary safety protocols, risking the accidental outbreak of a pandemic."
  • China has a history of viral leaks from its research labs, including one in 2004 in Beijing tied to an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, an earlier coronavirus known as SARs.

Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA station chief, said Trump's instinct that the virus originated from a lab accident was likely right and that his White House team should have held the intelligence community's feet to the fire to get evidence more quickly.

"When Trump said what he did on the lab, he was vocalizing his intuition," Hoffman said. "It was up to his team in the White House to drive the IC to get the evidence to answer the question. I wish they could have done it more expeditiously."

Hoffman said the fact that U.S. intelligence still doesn't have a consensus on COVID's origins more than a year into the pandemic is a clear spy agency failure.

"We should have detected the threat when it first emerged in Wuhan," Hoffman said. "We failed, and that is how we got to the right of boom, and now it has visited our shores and caused so many deaths."

Fleitz said there is a broader problem in the intelligence community when it comes to matters involving chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction: a fear of being wrong and facing the wrath of liberal critics.

"Since the 9/11 and Iraq War WMD intelligence failures, U.S. intelligence agencies have been 'gun shy' about major WMD intelligence assessments because they fear the political repercussions of being wrong, especially from the left," Fleitz said.

"For this reason, intelligence agencies since 2003 have consistently provided muddled and inconclusive assessments of WMD threats from Iran and North Korea. This may have been partly because liberal intelligence analysts did not want to issue assessments they thought might advance the foreign policies of supposedly hawkish presidents."