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Beginning in late January 2020, U.S. intelligence agencies reported to senior Trump administration officials that the coronavirus spreading in China threatened to become a pandemic and spark a global health crisis.
But then-President Trump’s public statements over the next two months “did not reflect the increasingly stark warnings coursing through intelligence channels,” including the president’s daily brief, available to Trump and senior members of his administration, according to a report issued Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee.
By February, the intelligence community “had amply warned the White House in time for it to act to protect the country,” committee investigators concluded. Trump claimed in a May 2020 tweet that the intelligence community “only spoke of the Virus in a very non-threatening, or matter of fact, manner,” a statement that “simply does not match the record of intelligence analysis published in late January and February,” the committee found.
U.S. intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic
Committee staff spent two years examining the intelligence community’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Their report, which was staffed by bipartisan aides but written by the Democrats, who hold the majority on the committee, broadly praises the work of intelligence analysts for providing early warning about the virus for policymakers.
But the report also faulted the intelligence community for not being better prepared to provide comprehensive early warning based on exclusive intelligence. Agencies didn’t move in the outbreak’s early days to use their clandestine sources for collecting unique, potentially useful intelligence about the unfolding situation in China, the committee found. Doing so might have provided administration leaders with more insight than was available in public health channels and nonclassified sources of information.
Among the new steps the committee recommends the intelligence agencies take to prepare for the next pandemic is designating a new center with responsibility for global health security; enhancing intelligence agencies’ ability to quickly collect information when a new disease emerges; and providing more resources to the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency that investigators found performed particularly well, but whose early warnings could have been more widely shared with decision-makers.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report.
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Indications that a novel coronavirus might be spreading in China caught the attention of U.S. intelligence as early as Dec. 31, 2019, the committee found, when an analyst at the NCMI reviewed a notice shared on ProMED about a mysterious respiratory illness spreading in China, and that had been discussed on social media. The analyst uploaded the notice from ProMED, a publicly accessible system for monitoring disease outbreaks, into an intelligence database called Horizon, which disseminates reports to military intelligence directorates.
Labeled as a “possible pandemic warning update,” it was the first indication within the intelligence community of covid-19, which had not yet been named.
In the first week of January 2020, “alarming information was circulating throughout the U.S. government,” but most of it came from public health sources, the committee found.
On Jan. 7, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing took note in a cable of the growing outbreak. Some officials at the National Security Council wanted more information but were frustrated that the intelligence community couldn’t provide unique insights from its own clandestine sources.
Soon thereafter, intelligence analysts began focusing more on the disease and started to coordinate analysis for policymakers, the committee found. On Jan. 16, the embassy sent a cable saying that Chinese government officials were engaged in only “limited sharing” of epidemiological data, which was hindering assessments of the risk the virus posed.
The Washington Post previously reported that in January and February, as intelligence agencies ramped up their reporting on the outbreak, they warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing its severity.
In the U.S., too, the president kept downplaying the coming storm.
On Jan. 22, Trump said in an interview with CNBC that the United States had the virus “totally under control,” a statement that didn’t reflect the “growing level of concern” in the intelligence community’s reports, the committee found. The next day, Trump was reportedly told about the virus in his daily intelligence briefing, and officials told the committee that an article was drafted for inclusion in the president’s daily brief, or PDB, a classified document shared with Trump and his senior advisers.
That day, the State Department ordered staff at the consulate in Wuhan and their families to evacuate China. One day later, the NCMI published an assessment that the virus had a “roughly even chance of becoming a global pandemic during the next four months.”
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In a briefing with reporters on Thursday, a committee investigator noted that the World Health Organization didn’t declare a pandemic until nearly the middle of March. He said that the intelligence community’s earlier warning was a “classic example” of the way intelligence analysts can provide insights to decision-makers, which may be necessary for future pandemic response.
“Public health officials will wait until all the data is there before making a call,” said the investigator, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the committee. While the early warning the community provided wasn’t comprehensive, it was a notable example of “where the professional culture of intelligence analysts really shines through,” the investigator added.
The intensity and frequency of the alerts would soon grow. On Jan. 30, the CIA began preparing short intelligence reports called “executive updates” on the spread of the virus. A PDB from early February 2020 warned that covid “could not be contained.” Another report around the same time predicted that the virus would become a global crisis before May.
But the House committee could not determine precisely which reports Trump read or the totality of information that was presented to him. Historically, the executive branch resists sharing full copies of the PDB with investigators, as was the case here, the committee said.
“We don’t know exactly what went up to President Trump,” the investigator said, “but it’s not the intelligence community’s practice to tell the president one thing and the rest of the national security community another.”
The report did not investigate the origins of covid-19, which continue to be a subject of debate. Trump administration officials, led by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, advocated for the hypothesis that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan and escaped possibly through an accidental transmission to lab workers. To bolster that claim, officials cited reporting that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill in the fall of 2019 with symptoms similar to covid-19.
But the House committee staff called those arguments “deeply misleading,” because the U.S. doesn’t know what made the workers sick and whether they had covid-19.