The agency that oversees the entire U.S. intelligence community has released an unusual public statement on Thursday outlining its ongoing investigation of the origins of the novel coronavirus outbreak, amid reports suggesting the White House has been pressuring analysts to conclude that the outbreak spread from a lab in Wuhan, China.
“The entire Intelligence Community has been consistently providing critical support to U.S. policymakers and those responding to the COVID-19 virus, which originated in China,” reads the statement released from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
ODNI does not typically comment on intelligence-gathering matters, let alone publicly confirm a particular finding. The last press release that came close to commenting on intelligence was in early March, when ODNI signed onto a joint statement warning voters that “foreign actors continue to try to influence public sentiment and shape voter perceptions.”
The agency went on to confirm in its statement on Thursday that it is still investigating the origins of the outbreak, including the theory, pushed by some in the White House, that it was the result of a lab accident in Wuhan.
“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security,” the statement reads. “The IC will 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.”
Current and former national security officials said they were surprised by the release, and suggested it could be a sign that the intelligence community feels it is being pulled into a political battle. The administration has been pressuring analysts, particularly at the CIA, to search for evidence that the virus came from a lab and that the World Health Organization helped China cover it up, according to a person briefed on the discussions.
“I thought it was a terrific statement,” former acting CIA director Michael Morell said during an event hosted by George Mason University on Thursday. “A lot of people have been concerned about politicization [of the intel community], and you have senior administration officials all over the map about the origins of the virus…it was perfectly appropriate and a very good idea for ODNI to put this out.”
ODNI’s statement does not rule out the possibility that the virus spread after a lab accident, but it emphasizes the fundamental role of the spy agencies: to collect and analyze information, not to search for a particular conclusion. There is currently no evidence to support the theory that it came from a lab, said people briefed on the intelligence, but there is also no intelligence that would allow the agencies to explicitly rule out the possibility.
“If you think about it, uncovering the actual truth — whether it passed from animal to human, or came from a lab — is probably something we’ll never know,” Glenn Gerstell, who served as the National Security Agency’s general counsel from 2015-2020, said during the same GMU event on Thursday. “We’d have to find some kind of smoking gun…I wouldn’t be surprised if we never end up with the actual definitive answer.”
In an op-ed published on Tuesday, three intelligence veterans who either rarely criticize the administration or rarely comment on it at all — Morell, former White House deputy national security adviser Avril Haines, and former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen — warned of what they say are Trump’s ongoing efforts to politicize the intelligence community, most recently by firing the IC inspector general who informed Congress of the whistleblower complaint against him.
“This pattern of politicization is particularly concerning now,” they wrote, “as the country confronts the coronavirus pandemic.
“The answers to key intelligence questions—Did the coronavirus emerge from nature or escape from a Chinese lab? To what extent did the Chinese government misrepresent the scope and scale of the epidemic?—will have profound implications for the future of U.S. national security policy, especially concerning China. We know Trump’s preferred answers to those questions. What we don’t know is whether the career analysts in U.S. intelligence agencies will be allowed to speak the truth when they uncover it.”
Morell noted separately on Thursday that if the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, the U.S. would shoulder some of the blame since it funded research at that lab through government grants from 2014-2019.
“If it did escape from the lab, not only bad on China but also bad on the U.S. for giving funding to a lab with safety concerns,” Morell said, referring to State Department cables from early 2018 that warned of the lab’s risky coronavirus experiments and shortage of trained technicians.
“So if it did escape,” he added, “we’re all in this together.”