This week, the House Oversight Committee hosted a hearing on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple expert witnesses pointing to the strong likelihood that it spawned from a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The hearing comes on the heels of FBI director Chris Wray publicly declaring that the FBI “has for quite some time” made that same assessment, as has the U.S. Department of Energy.
The slow crawl to the truth continues, even as the Biden administration and some U.S. security agencies continue to suppress what can clearly be assessed from the intelligence they possess.
We would know, because we have never wavered in our assessment that a lab leak is the only explanation that has ever been credibly supported by the intelligence, science and common sense – both during and since our time in the office that oversees the entire U.S. intelligence community.
During a Senate confirmation hearing in 2020 – the first in-person Senate hearing after the pandemic began – one of us (Mr. Ratcliffe) promised publicly to, upon confirmation, ensure the intelligence community was “laser focused” on getting to the bottom of the virus’ origins. Once in office, we worked with partners across the intelligence community to make this issue a priority.
We pushed to declassify intelligence revealing some of what we knew about the virus’s origins and the Chinese Communist Party’s initial cover-up, but faced constant opposition, particularly from within the CIA.
In spite of the good faith efforts of top Trump administration officials, the New York Times in 2020 quoted an anonymous former intelligence official saying we were “conclusion shopping” and compared our pursuit of the truth to “the Bush administration’s 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to al Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence.”
Here’s the reality: There is a complete absence of intelligence or scientific evidence that the virus naturally occurred in nature. President Trump was being truthful in 2020 when a reporter asked him if he had seen evidence that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab and he said simply, “Yes, I have.”
So why, you may ask, are some in the U.S. government – and in particular within the Biden administration – so loath to acknowledge that the lab leak theory is not only probable, but nearly a certainty?
The Intelligence Community rightly sought out virologists and other experts to help form its assessment. One of them was Dr. Robert Garry, who while privately emailing concerns to Dr. Anthony Fauci and others that the virus was manipulated in a lab, publicly criticized such speculation as conspiracy theories. He wasn’t alone.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins urged his colleagues to promote that the virus was naturally occurring for the sake of “international harmony.” In fact, many in the scientific community downplayed the lab leak theory.
Some, such as the World Health Organization, did this out of pure corruption in response to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party, while others did it out of fear that a lab inadvertently sparking a global pandemic could jeopardize funding and acceptance of their work in controversial or dangerous areas such as gain of function research. Even Dr. Fauci infamously argued in a 2012 paper that “the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks.”
Once the initial assessment was made that COVID very well could have occurred naturally, based in part on input from experts in the scientific community, some analysts likely found it difficult to move off of that position, even in the face of new and sometimes overwhelming evidence. The Intelligence Community makes great efforts to overcome this tendency – and analysts often do it successfully – but it is a fight against human nature that can only be consistently won when it is deeply ingrained in the workplace culture.
Partisan politics likely played a role as well. A 2020 report by the Intelligence Community’s analytic ombudsman, the career official tasked with refereeing internal disputes over intelligence assessments, is both disturbing and illustrative.
In the report, which has received only scant media attention, the ombudsman found that CIA “analysts appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward because they tend to disagree with the [Trump] administration’s policies, saying in effect, ‘I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies.’”
In other words, in the run-up to an election, some wanted to focus negative attention from the pandemic on Trump, rather than on a foreign adversary.
The CIA is the world’s premier spy agency. Its reach is unmatched, its ability to acquire information unrivaled. And yet here we are three-and-a-half years later and there is ample public reporting that the CIA just doesn’t have enough information to make an assessment. This is utter nonsense.
The real problem is, the only assessment the agency could make – which is that a virus that killed over a million Americans originated in a CCP-controlled lab whose research included work for the Chinese military – has enormous geopolitical implications that the Biden administration does not want to face head-on. It seems that no offense or incursion merits a confrontation, whether it’s a virus being shipped to our shores, a spy balloon traversing our skies, Chinese fentanyl flooding across our borders, or perhaps one day the Chinese military seizing Taiwan.
Famously etched into the marble wall in the lobby of the CIA’s headquarters are the words of John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The American people deserve the truth – and we do know the truth – regarding the origins of COVID-19. This is the only way to rebuild trust and muster the public will to confront the national security challenge of our time: a reckless and belligerent Chinese Communist Party hellbent on imposing its oppressive, authoritarian values on the world.
Cliff Sims served as deputy director of national intelligence for strategy and communications, 2020-21.