American intelligence agencies remain unable to pinpoint the source of the COVID-19 pandemic without Beijing government help — a sign spy services continue to suffer from the wholesale loss of Chinese informants more than a decade ago.
A declassified updated assessment on COVID-19 origins, ordered by President Biden shortly after he took office, confirms that the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community remain divided on whether the virus began in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan or emerged naturally from an animal host such as a bat.
“China‘s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19,” the 18-page report released Saturday concluded.
All judgments in the report are gauged by analysts as having low to medium levels of reliability. China has angrily denied the virus leaked accidentally or on purpose from the lab and has blocked U.S. and international efforts to get more on-the-ground data on the early days of the deadly global pandemic.
However, despite the lack of solid conclusions about the virus origin, the unidentified intelligence analysts who produced the assessment appeared convinced the virus was not engineered as a biological weapon, or that senior Chinese leaders knew about the virus before the outbreak began.
The sole unitary agreement among the group of spy agencies that include the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency is that the virus “most likely” emerged from natural exposure to an infected animal or from a “laboratory associated incident.”
The report was ordered by Mr. Biden in May and the agencies spent three months in producing the assessment under the direction of the National Intelligence Council, an analysis unit in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The information was current as of August, but the results also reflect the lasting damage of an earlier U.S. intelligence setback.
The CIA suffered one of its most serious failures beginning in 2010 when the agency lost almost all its recruited agents inside China, according to people familiar with the still-classified cases. As many as 27 recruited Chinese agents were either imprisoned or executed, including at least one execution that took place in a public courtyard of an intelligence building as other Chinese intelligence officers stood by.
The losses were blamed on a CIA traitor or a communications security failure that allowed the Chinese to track down the agents and arrest them. The main culprit for the losses in China was former CIA clandestine service officer Jerry Chung Shing Lee, who after leaving the CIA traveled to China in April 2010 and began working for the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China‘s KGB-like spy service.
It would take the FBI and CIA more than seven years before Lee was arrested. He pleaded guilty to spying in May 2019. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Other counterintelligence officials believe the speed and comprehensiveness of the agents’ roll-up in China could not be traced solely to Lee. These officials suspect in addition to Lee’s actions, there was a compromise of the secure communications system used to contact the recruited agents, allowing Chinese intelligence to electronically gain access.
The system had been imported from the Middle East and had been used by security forces in war zones. As a result, the system was not secure enough to withstand targeting from MSS electronic counterspies. The system used in China that led to the loss of the agents also had been imported from the Middle East and may have been compromised by former Air Force counterintelligence officer Monica Witt.
The CIA has declined to comment on the agent losses, but The New York Times reported last month that senior CIA officials sent a top-secret cable to all agency stations warning that numerous informants had been captured or killed.
Mark Kelton, former deputy CIA director for counterintelligence, declined to comment on the agent losses. But Mr. Kelton said charging documents in cases of Americans arrested recently for betraying the country showed damage beyond economic losses.
The traitors’ “provision of classified information to Beijing has resulted in lives lost among Chinese — those who worked with us in opposition to the evil, oppressive PRC regime,” he said. “They were, and are, heroes in the fight for freedom.”
In the just-released public intelligence report, analysts say they have traced the virus outbreak to “no later than November 2019” with the first known cases appearing in Wuhan in December 2019.
“China‘s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19,” the assessment says. “Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States.”
The analysts stated that Chinese actions reflect the Chinese government‘s “uncertainty” about where an investigation into the virus origin would lead and “frustration [that] the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China.”
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former intelligence director for the Pacific Fleet, said the intelligence analysts’ conclusion that the virus origin could be determined because “critical information” was withheld by the Chinese Communist Party is “negative intelligence of some level of PRC complicity” in the deadly pandemic.
“The notion that the U.S. intelligence community must have unambiguous and empirical evidence from the PRC is an absurd proposition,” Capt. Fanell said. “The art of intelligence requires analysts to piece together disparate pieces of intelligence — both positive and negative — and come to a conclusion in order to help national decision-makers make the best decisions in defending America and its citizens.”
The weak assessment, as well as comments from the president and senior administration officials, suggest a return to earlier U.S. policies that sought to avoid provoking Beijing, he said.
“It is hard to come to any other conclusion given the plethora of other information made available in the public domain,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the reason to find the origin of the coronavirus is not to blame China for the outbreak but to prevent future pandemics.
Classified intelligence most likely would lend greater support linking the Chinese government to the outbreak.
“This report will continue to erode the public’s waning trust in the intelligence community — not a good thing,” Capt. Fanell said.