Head of U.S. Intelligence: We May Never Know COVID-19’s Origin

On the menu today: Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, ominously declares in an interview that the U.S. intelligence community is no closer to determining how the COVID-19 pandemic began, and may never know with certainty; the need to end the crisis mentality on evictions; and Vice President Kamala Harris apparently thinks she’s “winning” something by refusing to spend a day visiting the border.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence: Hey, We May Never Know the Origin of COVID-19

Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, did a surprisingly extensive interview with Yahoo News, and said quite a bit about the ongoing U.S.-intelligence review of information relating to the origin of COVID-19. Almost nothing she said was particularly encouraging — starting with her declaration that “nearly a month into the review, it appears that the intelligence community is no closer to settling on one explanation of how the deadly virus originated”:

Asked if it’s possible the intelligence community will never have “high confidence” or a smoking gun on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haines responded, “Yes, absolutely.” Haines, who studied physics at the University of Chicago, held out the possibility of a eureka moment but refused to predict a breakthrough. “We’re hoping to find a smoking gun,” she said, but “it’s challenging to do that,” adding that “it might happen, but it might not.”

Haines said she has been closely overseeing the review, which involves dozens of analysts and intelligence officials, and has immersed herself in the details. She is regularly briefed by analysts who represent the rival theories, which may explain her caution about predicting a breakthrough. “I don’t know between these two plausible theories which one is the right answer,” she said in the interview. “But I’ve listened to the analysts, and I really see why it is that they perceive these two theories as being in contest with each other and why it’s very challenging for them to assess one over the other.”

If, after a 90-day review, specifically in response to a directive from the president, the U.S. intelligence community’s answer is, “Well, we just don’t know how this pandemic started,” it will be not just a colossal disappointment; it will also set off a million conspiracy theories about coverups.

The U.S. intelligence community has access to all kinds of information that we mere laymen don’t — signals intercepts of every kind from the NSA, satellite photos and footage, information from allied intelligence services such as the “Five Eyes,” and who knows, hopefully at least one human source in the Chinese government. There’s that rumor of a high-level defector, although some unnamed U.S. official told the Daily Beast that’s not true — but governments aren’t usually eager to confirm rumors of major-league defections. (If that denial is accurate, that raises the question of just where Dong Jingwei, vice minister of the Ministry of State Security, currently is.) At minimum, the U.S. intelligence community should be able to determine if anyone of significance within the Chinese government secretly feared or believed that the pandemic was indeed the result of a lab leak. Between the early lying, the delayed release of key information to the WHO, the taking down of previously accessible databases of virus information, the refusal to allow a WHO team to visit for a year, the refusal to turn over raw data on the first COVID-19 patients, and the suppression of academic research into the virus’s origin, Lord knows the Chinese government has been acting like it’s guilty from the start. And then there’s this simple fact, laid out in Katherine Eban’s piece in Vanity Fair:

Dr. Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said that from the very first reports of a novel bat-related coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, it took him “a nanosecond or a picosecond” to consider a link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Only two other labs in the world, in Galveston, Texas, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, were doing similar research. “It’s not a dozen cities,” he said. “It’s three places.”

There was one comment from Haines in that interview with Yahoo that seemed a little curious:

Haines even posited a third, hybrid theory for the virus’s origin. “It could be, for example, a scenario in which a scientist comes into contact with an animal that they’re sampling from” and contracts the virus in that way.

A scientist contracting the virus while collecting a sample is not morally or ethically all that different from a lab leak. (That particular scenario doesn’t seem all that unlikely, considering the fun-and-games images of bats hanging off the hats of the researchers with exposed skin collecting the samples, and Tian Junhua’s description of the time he “forgot to take protective measures. Bat urine dripped on him like raindrops” and self-quarantined for two weeks.) In either case, an effort at virus research that the institutions publicly insisted was safe was not safe and set off the worst pandemic in modern history. The only mitigating factor would be that no gain-of-function research was involved.

There is no bigger question facing the world right now than how this awful pandemic got started. Sure, thanks to vaccinations, the pandemic’s effect on American life is getting smaller each day. But this progress comes after more than 617,000 Americans succumbed to the virus, at least $16 trillion in economic losses, a lost year of schooling for almost all of America’s kids, the health effects of the “long-haulers,” and a million other disruptions and tribulations in the lives of ordinary people, all around the globe. We’re almost at 3.9 million deaths worldwide, and have more than 179 million cases worldwide. There’s also a good chance that all of these official figures underestimate the true toll in lives lost.

No one wants to go through this again, which means we have to know how it started. A “We just can’t figure it out” from the part of the U.S. government that is specifically assigned to protect us and and find out what other countries are hiding isn’t going to cut it.

By the way, even if this pandemic turns out to be proven to be the result of a lab leak, the risk of human beings catching a new virus from some animal is still a real and persistent risk, and animal smuggling and wet markets represent a significant continuing danger. (Yulin, China, hosted its annual Dog Meat Festival again this year. Dog lovers, you’re not going to want to click on that link.) The global scale of the illicit collection and trafficking of wild animals and their carcasses is jaw-dropping. Also, depending upon whom you ask, anywhere from 200,000 to 2.7 million pangolins are poached each year.

There are a lot of people who would prefer “We’ll never know” to “Yes, at least 4 million people worldwide are dead because of negligence and recklessness in the top virology lab in China.” Because if it’s that latter scenario, then the rest of us will have to do something about it, and the free nations of the world are already drifting into a new cold war with China, even without confirmation of our worst suspicions. Xi Jinping has been preparing for this conflict his entire life; the Chinese Communist Party has been researching, developing, and experimenting with new methods to maximize its leverage over other countries for decades.

It is not overstating it to declare that the upcoming intelligence-community report on the origins of COVID-19 may be the most consequential assessment of the U.S. government since George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” in 1946, recognizing the threat of international Communism and more or less inventing the concept of “containment.”

By the way, I was curious why Haines chose to do this extensive interview with Yahoo News, until I saw who conducted the interview: Daniel Klaidman. Klaidman is a longtime correspondent for Newsweek and the author of Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, published in June 2012. As one reviewer at the Federalist Society characterized the book:

Along the way, Klaidman reveals himself to be sympathetic to the Administration, though not completely uncritical. The book’s weakness is the paucity of any real discussion of the consequences of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism program . . .

It should also be noted that the book’s obvious appeal, Klaidman’s access to the internal conversations and processes of military, intelligence, and political operators, is also a source of concern. Publicizing CIA success was well understood by Rahm Emanuel as a political tool to demonstrate the Administration’s toughness on terrorism. But, with the publication of each detail of our tactics and strategies, their effectiveness is degraded and our enemies are educated.

It seems safe to assume that Daniel Klaidman ranks among Haines’s favorite journalists.

NR: ‘Wind Down the Crisis, and the Crisis Mentality as Well’

The editors of NR, calling for an end to the emergency moratorium on evictions:

Ending the eviction moratorium and other emergency measures may help the labor market return to something closer to normal. But more important is the fact that it will return to Americans control of their own property, preventing unnecessary losses for rental companies and the outright economic ruination of some smaller landlords.

Just Rip Off the Band Aid Already

Brittany Bernstein notes that Republican senator John Cornyn, Republican representative Tony Gonzales, and Democratic representative Henry Cuellar penned an essay in the Dallas Morning News, calling on Kamala Harris to visit the border.

Harris clearly thinks she’s “winning” something by refusing to do so. What she thinks she’s winning is anybody’s guess.

Check Also

The New Cold War

America, China, and the Echoes of History Is the world entering a new cold war? …