U.S. intelligence agencies missed reporting on the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in late January that would soon lead to a deadly global pandemic, according to White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
Mr. O’Brien said in an interview that National Security Council reforms involving staff streamlining and more efficient decision-making procedures that were put into place over the past several months were significant in helping President Trump recognize the seriousness of the coming pandemic in late January.
“The [intelligence community] first briefed the president on this on Jan. 23,” Mr. O’Brien told The Washington Times in a recent interview. “On Jan. 28 at the Oval [Office] briefing, the [intelligence community] was still saying this is something like the flu and not as serious as SARS.”
Getting consistent expert advice of the challenge posed by COVID-19 has been a challenge for public health officials and government leaders around the globe. Just this week, the World Health Organization was trying to clear up confusion caused by an official who said transmission of the virus by people showing no symptoms of the disease was “rare.”
Mr. O’Brien’s comments provided new details on the quality of the information U.S. intelligence agencies supplied to the White House in the crucial early days of the fight to contain the impending COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier reports and comments by Mr. Trump said spy agencies initially underplayed intelligence on the virus at the Jan. 23 briefing.
Mr. O’Brien indicated that the agencies continued to play down the danger for five additional days.
After the Jan. 28 briefing, Mr. O’Brien said, he “elevated the issue” for the president, who immediately grasped the magnitude of what would eventually become the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. now has recorded over 110,000 deaths related to the new virus strain, the most of any country in the world, and critics say the slow response of the Trump administration in the first weeks of the threat exacerbated the impact in the U.S.
Several advisers at the time recommended against imposing a travel ban on China in order to limit the spread. Two days after the Jan. 28 briefing, Mr. Trump went ahead with imposing a ban on most flights from China.
“There were, of course, concerns expressed over how the ban would affect the stock market and the world economy, but the president put the health of the American people first,” Mr. O’Brien said.
“Within two days of the president being told by the NSC that COVID-19 constituted a serious national security risk, on the 30th, he had made the decision to ban travel from China.”
The ban went into effect on Jan. 31, the same day the president announced the formation of the task force on the virus that eventually became the unit headed by Vice President Mike Pence.
“The stories about the president not moving quickly are just not true,” Mr. O’Brien said. “He moved very quickly. As soon as he was alerted by the NSC that this was a serious problem, he took decisive action.”
Focus of concern
The virus outbreak was an issue that Mr. O’Brien and other officials at the White House, including Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, and Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade and manufacturing policy, were more focused on at the time. Mr. Navarro sent a memorandum on Jan. 29 warning of potentially dire consequences from the disease on both human life and the economy.
“This is not a criticism of the [intelligence community],” Mr. O’Brien said. Intelligence analysts were “going off of the information that [they] had. But the virus was something we saw a little bit more over the horizon on than some of our colleagues.”
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had no immediate comment.
A senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed that the intelligence analysts underestimated the danger of the coronavirus outbreak, which Chinese government authorities officially acknowledged on Jan. 23 — more than a month after the first cases were detected in Wuhan, China.
The initial Jan. 23 report was provided by CIA analyst Beth Sanner, who in 2019 became the main presenter of Mr. Trump’s daily presidential briefing, or PDB, as the high-level, top-secret presidential intelligence briefing is called, The New York Times reported.
Mr. Trump, a frequent critic of the quality of U.S. intelligence, tweeted May 3 that intelligence agencies “just reported to me that I was correct, and that they did NOT bring up the coronavirus subject matter until late into January, just prior to my banning China from the U.S.”
The president also said in the tweet that intelligence briefers “only spoke of the virus in a very non-threatening, or matter of fact, manner.”
The comments followed several press reports, including a Washington Post article, defending intelligence agency responses to the coronavirus and noting that more than a dozen PDB reports carried articles on the virus in January and February.
A U.S. intelligence official said those reports were misleading and that the reporting increased only after the Chinese official announced the outbreak.
Critics say Beijing also provided false or delayed information to WHO that resulted in inaction around the world in response to the outbreak. For example, Chinese authorities told WHO that the virus was not transmitted from human to human and that travel should not be restricted. Both were wrong and yet were published in a Jan. 12 WHO statement.
Asked about published reports that intelligence reports from daily briefings discussed the threat of the virus, Mr. Trump said May 3 that other political leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, were playing down the danger.
The first information about the virus from intelligence agencies arrived on Jan. 23, he told Fox News Channel. The first U.S. response was made a short time later, “but I didn’t do it because of what they said,” he added.
Investigating the response
Mr. O’Brien said a number of federal agencies are conducting investigations into the response to the virus outbreak, and Mr. Trump and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows are considering the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to examine the issue.
Another option is for several agencies, including the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, to conduct a major inquiry and produce a report on their findings, he said.
“We are gathering a lot of information across a whole spectrum of agencies even now,” Mr. O’Brien said, adding that he is convinced that the truth about the virus and its origin will eventually be revealed.
“It is hard because the Chinese have clammed up and shared so little information about the virus,” he said. “And, so many people who were originally whistleblowers and mouthpieces about what was happening in Wuhan have been silenced.”
Mr. O’Brien said China has been linked to what he termed “five plagues” in recent years: COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the H1N1 flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and the avian flu.
“The world needs to get the public health situation in China under control. China needs help, and we want to help them,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said he believes Beijing would prefer him to say China “is terrible and launched this COVID-19 virus on purpose rather than suggest the Communist Party requires assistance from the rest of the world.”
“I am taking the tack that it is a public health problem in China — whether it is a wet market or a lab, neither one of them is a good answer as to where this virus started,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said his efforts to streamline and downsize the NSC have worked well regarding U.S. policies toward China.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has taken a number of significant actions regarding U.S.-Chinese relations, including pressing the federal workers’ retirement plan to stop investing in Chinese companies linked to human rights abuses or cyberattacks.
The NSC also led the way in the administration’s decision to restrict China’s Huawei Technologies Ltd. from acquiring advance U.S. microchips.
“These steps and others will protect Americans from some of the unfair and anti-competitive conduct we have seen from China over the past 40 years,” Mr. O’Brien said.