Democratic investigators on the House Intelligence Committee have alleged that US intelligence agencies may have lost a critical opportunity to gather useful information on the Covid-19 pandemic’s origins by failing to pivot its collection resources earlier. In a report released on Thursday morning, the Democrats also laid out perhaps the most detailed timeline to date of the litany of warnings the intelligence community offered the Trump administration in the early days of the pandemic.
The Democratic report comes just 24 hours after committee Republicans released their own report on the intelligence community’s examination of the pandemic’s origins in what has become an indirect battle for the narrative surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic just weeks before Republicans are poised to claim control of the House.
The Democratic investigators’ report says that the intelligence community was slow to pivot its clandestine resources to the growing crisis – in ways that have likely undermined its efforts to understand how or where the virus emerged.
“It’s a hypothetical – no one could say with certainty, yes or no,” said one committee investigator. “But hypothetically speaking, if you have more information from clandestine sources from the very earliest days of the virus – perhaps before Chinese authorities entirely know what’s going on – you may be better positioned to answer some of those questions [about the virus’s origins] that are I think still open questions.”
Investigators declined to offer specifics about what resources should have been trained on the problem. But according to the report, “the first valuable piece of clandestine collection on the virus” was disseminated only in late January 2020. Analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency unit that provided the intelligence community’s first warning of the pandemic told the House committee that by then, they had grown “frustrated at the lack of clandestine collection to inform their analysis.”
“The lack of clandestine collection was a reflection of the Intelligence Community’s overall lack of preparedness to face an emerging pandemic,” the report found. “The first significant dissemination of intelligence this late in the development of the crisis demonstrates how the IC was underserving expert policymakers and analysts.”
According to the Democrats’ report, the first warning the intelligence community offered to the Trump administration came from a little-known Defense Intelligence Agency unit in Fort Detrick, Maryland, which on December 31, 2019, published an open-source warning of an undiagnosed pneumonia in China, labeling it a “possible pandemic warning update.”
By the end of January, the Office of the National Director of Intelligence had issued a memo directing the intelligence community to direct more resources at gathering information on the burgeoning crisis, calling it “the top intelligence concern in East Asia,” and warnings began to ripple out through the senior levels of government.
On January 24, the same DIA unit warned that there was a “roughly even” chance of a global pandemic. President Donald Trump received what Democratic investigators believe was likely his first formal Presidential Daily Briefing on the virus the day before, and another on January 28.
According to a witness who spoke to the committee about the January 28 PDB briefing, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger “was ‘losing it’ when talking about the disease’s severity and trying to convince the President and those assembled that ‘this will be a really big thing.’”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a warning about the virus in an intelligence briefing on January 29, 2020, and the next day, the CIA began to produce what are known as “executive updates” on the virus – “shorter intelligence products that demonstrate the CIA’s taking a potential crisis serious,” according to the report.
Still, Democratic investigators allege, despite the drumbeat of warnings from the IC, “White House messaging” failed to effectively inform the public of the risk from the virus. Trump’s rhetoric diverged “striking[ly]” from the intelligence communities late January conclusions, they said, demonstrating “an executive branch that was informed, but failed to warn the American people.”
The report notes that on January 30 – two days after the January 28 briefing in which Pottinger was allegedly “losing it” – Trump told an audience in Michigan that, “We think we have it very well under control.”
CNN has reached out to the Trump campaign. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the reports.
“There has been a lot of focus on the first warning to the President on January 28,” the committee investigator said. “There has been much less focus on the rhythm of warnings following that, and what we what we find with a pretty consistent rhythm of warnings starting in late January and then really dialing up the volume throughout February.”
The committee did not receive access to the original PDBs given to Trump but based its conclusions on draft materials and interviews with different intelligence agencies who contributed to the final product, according to investigators.
By February, according to the report, PDB staff “pivoted from ‘warning’ of the emerging virus to assessing what the virus would mean for the world as it continued to spread.” The report goes on to list reporting from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services throughout the month, as well as what appears to be two additional warnings provided on February 11 and February 13 that are completely redacted.
“For six weeks, the President’s message – that the virus was not a significant threat – was flatly inconsistent with what the Intelligence Community was reporting,” the report found.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
Committee Democrats say that despite some improvements, the intelligence community remains unprepared for the next pandemic. In a series of recommendations, the report calls for the intelligence community to develop the ability to pivot collection faster, better coordinate with health security agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and leverage open-source data more aggressively.
Although House Republicans have made clear that investigations of the government’s handling of the pandemic – including the investigation into its origins – are a key target next year, it’s not clear how aggressively the Intelligence Committee specifically will move to pursue the issue when Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio takes the chairman’s gavel. Notably, the GOP report was authored by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who will not be on the committee next year unless he receives a waiver from the incoming House speaker to serve.
Republicans in their report, released on Wednesday night, are accusing the intelligence community of “downplay[ing] the possibility” that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, “was connected to China’s bioweapons program” – an assertion that directly challenges the intelligence community’s own declassified report, released earlier this year, that said that there was “broad agreement” that the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. The GOP report provides no details to back up its claims, citing classification concerns. CNN is unable to verify the GOP report’s claims.
The Republican’s report also alleges that the classified version of the intelligence community’s report on the pandemic’s origins “omits additional vital information and dismisses important intelligence in a cursory manner.”
“Although our unclassified summary cannot reveal details, we can state that the classified Updated Assessment claimed the IC lacked information regarding one key classified issue,” the report states. “However, the Committee otherwise found that very information in other intelligence reporting, and this information is particularly relevant to determining SARS-CoV-2’s potential links to China’s bioweapons program.”
Wenstrup in a call with reporters on Thursday said that while “I can’t reveal it now because there’s a classification status… what we’re wanting to do is let America know that we have found some discrepancy between the two reports.”
Panel Republicans also allege that the intelligence community’s unclassified report “likely skewed the public’s understanding” of the question of whether SARS-CoV-2 was created as part of a bioweapons program because it did not disclose the technical “confidence level” that it had in that assessment, as it did with some other assessments.
When pressed by CNN to detail the discrepancies between the classified and unclassified versions of the report, Republican staff investigators noted that the classified version included the confidence level for the bioweapons assessment and suggested that this was part of why they were “making a big deal of it,” but declined to go into further detail.
The intelligence community’s declassified report said that it has not reached a conclusion on the origins of Covid-19, instead confirming that officials were split about whether the virus originated naturally or escaped from a lab.
The GOP report also claims, without evidence, that the unclassified report “omitted other key information that was in the classified version in a manner that likely skewed the public’s understanding of key issues” and stonewalled efforts by Congress to provide further oversight over the government’s investigation and its findings.
Turner, in an interview with CNN earlier this week, also declined to offer any specifics about how he felt that the unclassified report did not accurately represent information in the classified record.
“I personally do not believe that the unclassified version adequately reflects the assertions or conclusions in the classified version,” Turner said. “That discrepancy is one of great interest to us.”
Wenstrup in the report and his remarks to reporters said that Republicans will move to subpoena the intelligence community for more information if officials do not testify voluntarily.
“We’re not vindictive in our approach,” Wenstrup said. “We just want to get to the truth.”