U.S. intelligence agencies began warning that Covid-19 could become a pandemic just weeks after the coronavirus was first reported in China, but they missed an opportunity to better understand its spread because they didn’t quickly begin spying on Chinese health officials who were hiding what they knew, says a newly declassified report by the House Intelligence Committee.
The report partly vindicates the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies, noting that they raised the specter of a pandemic well before the World Health Organization declared one on March 11, 2020. And it adds to the body of evidence showing that then-President Donald Trump misled the public about what he was hearing from advisers about the seriousness of the virus. The intelligence warnings summarized in the report debunk Trump’s contention that intelligence officials described the virus “in a very non-threatening, or matter of fact, manner.”
But the report, authored by staff members for the committee’s Democratic majority, also says U.S. intelligence agencies have largely failed to fix their shortcomings in public health intelligence and are therefore not adequately prepared for the next pandemic. That is in part, investigators found, because many intelligence officers don’t see biological threats as a top-tier national security issue, even after more than a million people died from Covid in the U.S.
“We would be moving heaven and earth if we lost a million people as a result of some terrorist incident,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the frequent Trump critic who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
Schiff said the intelligence community has failed to create “the culture … to recognize a biothreat as a hard threat that could kill massive numbers of our citizens the way we view terrorism and other threats,” adding, “And so that’s a cultural change that needs to take place.”
The report didn’t delve deeply into the effort by the intelligence community to examine the question of whether Covid began to infect humans through animal transmission or a lab leak in China.
It said the current U.S. government view on that hasn’t changed since a declassified summary was released in August 2021, revealing that one U.S. intelligence agency assesses with moderate confidence that the virus infected humans after a lab-associated incident, while four others assess with low confidence that the virus emerged naturally.
Schiff said the intelligence community’s “failure to pivot” to collecting Covid-related intelligence from China made it less likely that evidence supporting a lab leak, if that is in fact what happened, will be uncovered.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as an intelligence failure, but they were very slow to pivot and use their unique assets to glean insights that were not in the public record,” Schiff said. “And that, to me, is the most fundamental missed opportunity.”
A separate report issued Wednesday evening by the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee accused intelligence agencies of “misleading” omissions in their public assessment of Covid origins, adding that the Republicans have “reason to believe that the [intelligence community] downplayed the possibility that SARS-CoV2 was connected to China’s bioweapons program based in part on input from outside experts.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on either report.
The Democrats’ report, which is replete with blacked-out sections after a declassification review by ODNI, looks closely at exactly when and how the intelligence community first learned about the virus, what warnings were given to the Trump White House and what steps investigators believe agencies should take to be better prepared for future pandemics. The House investigators didn’t have access to presidential briefing documents, but they said they were able to piece together from documents and interviews what information most likely made it to Trump’s intelligence briefing.
Investigators said they were “unable to corroborate” reports by NBC News and ABC News that U.S. spies collected raw intelligence in November indicating a health crisis in Wuhan, China.
The report says the first intelligence report mentioning the virus that would become known as coronavirus or Covid-19 came on the day of the first media report about it.
On Dec. 31, 2019, an analyst at the National Center for Medical Intelligence, a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency, noticed a report on a public health listserv run by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMED, about an unexplained pneumonia that Chinese officials were seeing in Wuhan.