The 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community remain divided on how the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic originated, but the Defense Intelligence Agency is the most forward-leaning among the spy services in asserting that the virus most likely began inside a Chinese laboratory, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
The unclassified version of the intelligence assessment ordered by President Biden three months ago on the virus’ origin was made public last week. The public assessment is a hodgepodge of statements that critics of American intelligence call a “two-handed” analysis.
On the one hand, the agencies said the virus may have come from a Chinese laboratory, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that was engaged in dangerous bat coronavirus alterations near the first outbreak.
On the other hand, the analysts working under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence say the virus likely emanated from an animal spillover that made the jump to humans and triggered the pandemic, which has cost millions of lives and billions of dollars in economic losses.
The 1½-page summary of unclassified “key findings” states that four unidentified U.S. intelligence agencies and the ODNI-led National Intelligence Council have “low confidence” that the outbreak originated from an animal with a virus more than 99% similar to SARS-CoV-2, the formal name of the virus.
“One [intelligence community] element assesses with moderate confidence that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology [WIV],” the assessment states. “These analysts give weight to the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses.”
Three spy agencies were completely skunked and were unable to agree on either the lab leak or an animal transfer, “with some analysts favoring natural origin, others a laboratory origin, and some seeing the hypotheses as equally likely.”
The intelligence agencies blamed China’s refusal to cooperate with international investigations into the virus’ origin for the weak conclusions.
Sources said the Defense Intelligence Agency is the one agency that firmly believes in the lab leak theory. According to one source, the DIA’s confidence is based on work with a little-known institute under its control called the National Center for Medical Intelligence, which was renamed in 2009 from the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center.
The center’s mission is to gather and analyze all sources of worldwide health threats, including foreign medical capabilities, infectious disease and health risks of national military importance. It also is charged with protecting American troops from medical and health threats.
The center is located at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where U.S. biological warfare defenses are studied, and it is considered more experienced in dealing with virus threats than other spy agencies. U.S. officials say the CIA lacks staff expertise on health dangers and relies heavily for its analyses on nongovernmental experts, many of whom have been skeptical about the lab leak theory.
The assessment states that the wide discrepancies among agencies on the virus’ origin are a result of “differences in how agencies weigh intelligence reporting and scientific publications, and intelligence and scientific gaps.”
Former National Security Agency official John Schindler sharply criticized the unclassified assessment as a failure of the agencies to inform the public of one of the most important issues facing the world.
“Simply put, the public deserves a real intelligence assessment on where COVID-19 came from, to include unclassified findings which actually say something,” Mr. Schindler stated in his substack blog Top Secret Umbra.
The enormous political, economic and social costs of the pandemic that began in China call for a more defined answer than the public ODNI assessment, he argued.
“Americans should demand more than a page or so of bureaucratic spook-speak that really doesn’t say much of anything except: Really, who knows what happened in Wuhan?”
Pentagon restarts PRC military exchanges
After four years of limited exchanges between the U.S. and Chinese militaries during the Trump administration, the Pentagon is restarting a controversial bilateral military exchange program that is restricted by Congress over concerns that such interactions will only boost Beijing’s war-fighting capabilities.
Last week, Michael Chase, deputy assistant defense secretary for China, held a video conference with Maj. Gen. Huang Xueping, who is deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army’s office for international military cooperation, Reuters reported Saturday. However, the meeting was in keeping with the Trump administration policy of limiting military exchanges to lower-level officials and avoiding “senior-level exchanges” that China has used to influence American policy.
It was the first exchange by the two militaries under the Biden administration.
During the Trump administration, military contacts were restricted to meetings with PLA officials under a strict policy that required all exchanges to be aimed at producing substantive results, not simply feel-good talks. Just 20 such exchanges were held during the entire Trump administration.
Pro-China officials in the U.S. military and government have long sought to keep a robust exchange program going for both high-level and low-level officials under the notion of “building trust” with the Chinese Communist Party’s armed forces. The exchanges are needed, they argue, to increase communications that could prevent a war from starting because of a mishap or miscalculation.
However, the military exchange program has long been problematic and mired in controversy.
Congress stepped in to restrict military exchanges with China in 1999 after the Chinese learned a key vulnerability of U.S. aircraft carriers during a visit to a carrier and then purchased wake-homing torpedoes from Russia. The PLA also learned how to conduct military logistics after seeing the advanced methods used by American military suppliers.
Critics familiar with the military exchange program, which began in 1979, say the meetings have failed to produce better relations and mainly involve Chinese military officials reading long lists of propaganda talking points. Worse, when crises have arisen, Chinese military officials have cut off all communication with their U.S. military counterparts.
That was what happened during the 2001 incident involving a PLA fighter pilot who rammed his jet into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea, killing the Chinese pilot and nearly causing a crash of the EP-3. The U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the crew was imprisoned for days.
The PLA also went silent during the 1989 military crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“In the past, China frequently limited [military-to-military] ties to signal displeasure and attempt to pressure the United States to change certain policies (usually related to arms sales to Taiwan), but it has done this less frequently in recent years,” the Congressional Research Service said in a recent report.
Retired flag officers call for resignations on Afghanistan
Dozens of former generals and admirals signed an open letter calling for the resignations of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over the chaotic events in the fall of Afghanistan.
The group of 87 former flag officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps called for the resignations “based on negligence in performing their duties primarily involving events surrounding the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” they wrote.
“The hasty retreat has left initial estimates at [around] 15,000 Americans stranded in dangerous areas controlled by a brutal enemy along with [around] 25,000 Afghan citizens who supported American forces,” the former officer said.
Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley should have recommended against President Biden‘s deadline-driven withdrawal plan, the letter states.
“If they did not do everything within their authority to stop the hasty withdrawal, they should resign,” the letter said. “Conversely, if they did do everything within their ability to persuade [Mr. Biden] to not hastily exit the country without ensuring the safety of our citizens and Afghans loyal to America, then they should have resigned in protest as a matter of conscience and public statement.”
The former generals and admirals said the results of the failure in Afghanistan will be felt for decades, and the Americans and Afghans who worked with the United States could be taken hostage by the Taliban, now in power in Kabul.
“The death and torture of Afghans has already begun and will result in a human tragedy of major proportions,” the letter states.
“The loss of billions of dollars in advanced military equipment and supplies falling into the hands of our enemies is catastrophic. The damage to the reputation of the United States is indescribable. We are now seen, and will be seen for many years, as an unreliable partner in any multinational agreement or operation. Trust in the United States is irreparably damaged.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.
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