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What They Knew, When They Knew It

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump at a coronavirus press briefing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump at a coronavirus update briefing on April 8, 2020.
Photo by Shealah Craighead, courtesy the White House /the GPA Photo Archive.

Western intelligence agencies are being drawn ever deeper into the mystery of exactly what Chinese leaders knew about the new coronavirus, and when they knew it.

Yet it has been clear for some time that the answer is more than they said, and sooner than they said it. I wrote as much in this space on April 23. The most significant news that emerged from press accounts over the weekend is that while the Chinese authorities were obfuscating the origins and contagiousness of COVID-19, they may have been quietly stockpiling medical gear that the entire world would soon need.

If this is true, it would not necessarily mean that the top of the Beijing hierarchy coordinated a campaign of deception. It may just reflect the Chinese system of government and one-party politics operating as designed. In this comparatively benign interpretation, the public health and trade bureaucracies acted to serve their domestic constituencies. Meanwhile, the country’s all-powerful propaganda apparatus squelched bad news while it could and then ensured that only the official line was disseminated. This is how China usually works.

The Daily Telegraph, a News Corp.-owned tabloid published in Sydney, Australia, reported extensively on a 15-page dossier compiled by the “Five Eyes” intelligence consortium (the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). The dossier reportedly indicated a growing suspicion that the virus got into circulation from a virology lab in Wuhan, China. There is no public indication that the release was deliberate, or that the virus – believed to have originated in bats – had been human-made, modified or otherwise deployed as any sort of weapon. The lab in question studies coronaviruses as part of a global effort to stop pandemics. If it started one, it was almost certainly an accident.

Yesterday The Associated Press and other American news outlets reported on a four-page, unclassified document from the Department of Homeland Security that sounds like a summary of the Five Eyes data. The AP reported that the DHS believes Chinese leaders “intentionally concealed the severity” of the outbreak (which we knew). It also believes Beijing blocked or buried trade data to hide the stockpiling of supplies (characteristic of the way that China covers its tracks in many aspects of global trade, which it often treats as a state secret). The juxtaposition of these behaviors gives rise to the inference in some quarters that the two behaviors were deliberate and coordinated. Perhaps, but if there is a smoking gun, I have not seen any credible report about it.

I don’t use the phrase “smoking gun” just because it jumps to mind. It is worth noting that at key moments in the early stages of the outbreak in China, much of Washington’s attention and practically all the American media’s focus centered on the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

For the same reason, I knowingly borrowed the late Sen. Howard Baker’s famous formulation from the Watergate investigation – “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” – at the beginning of this post. The Watergate investigation where Baker asked his question was a good faith exercise. Leaders of both parties set a high bar of proof and of presidential misconduct to justify overturning the presidential election of 1972. That question echoed differently against the sequence of events in late 2019 and early 2020.

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18. This was just weeks before Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization to the first deaths from an unknown pneumonia in Wuhan. China belatedly confirmed human to human transmission on Jan. 20. The Senate approved the impeachment trial rules on Jan. 21.

Trump’s acquittal – a foregone conclusion after the party-line House vote to impeach him – came on Feb. 5. The next day, the first U.S. death attributed to the virus occurred in northern California, though we would not know this until much later.

Would it have made any difference in the U.S. or global response to the virus in January if American lawmakers and press had not devoted so much attention to impeaching the president? Any answer is speculative. My own speculation is that most likely it would not have mattered. It takes time to gather and evaluate intelligence, regardless of the news cycle’s focus.

Even if, somehow, someone had noticed Chinese stockpiling of medical gear and communicated it to the White House while it was happening, the global response to the new virus probably would not have changed. It is doubtful that even the Chinese understood in early January how readily people without symptoms can spread this disease. Absent that information, and without widespread prevalence of illness, could Trump or any other world leader plausibly have closed national borders to nearly all travel – not just from China – to keep the virus out? I don’t see how.

The latest disclosures about Chinese behavior don’t tell us much that we did not already know about China’s government. Whether the naturally occurring virus escaped a research laboratory or made the jump to humans at Wuhan’s live animal food market makes little difference in the end. Accidents happen at random places and times.

The only lesson I can draw from the new information is that if we want to be as watchful and responsive as possible, maybe we shouldn’t distract ourselves with staged drama like an impeachment trial where acquittal is certain. Although I doubt it mattered very much in the end, if I am wrong it means the price we paid to see it was far too high.

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