NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China is continuing to prevent international investigators from tracing the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has falsely blamed the United States for the deadly pandemic, the annual threat assessment produced by the office of Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines revealed this week.
“Beijing continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States” for the pandemic that has now killed 6 million people worldwide, according to the unclassified threat assessment report made public Tuesday.
The report said American intelligence agencies are continuing to investigate the virus origins but remain divided on the issue. The report also failed to identify the origin of the disease outbreak as Wuhan, China.
“The [intelligence community] assesses that the virus probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019,” the report said.
All U.S. intelligence agencies believe the virus likely emerged from either natural exposure to an infected animal or a “laboratory-associated incident,” the report said.
Four intelligence agencies not identified by name and the DNI’s National Intelligence Council reported “with low confidence” that the first infection of a person with the COVID-19 disease, caused by SARS-CoV-2, most likely began with natural exposure to an animal “infected with it or a close progenitor virus — a virus that probably would be more than 99% similar to SARS-CoV-2.”
By contrast, one intelligence agency reported with moderate confidence that “the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” located in the Chinese city.
Defense officials said the agency leaning toward the laboratory leak theory is the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has conducted ground-breaking research on the virus at the little-known National Center for Medical Intelligence. The center is based at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the U.S. government conducts research into biological weapons.
Three other intelligence agencies are unable to “coalesce” on a conclusion on whether the virus came from an animal or the Wuhan lab without additional information, the report said.
The report warned that global shortfalls in preparedness for the pandemic and questions about COVID-19 origins and biosecurity at laboratories could lead U.S. adversaries to “consider options related to biological weapons developments,” the report said.
“As China, Iran, and Russia continue to publicly tout individual or collaborative efforts to improve biosecurity, they have pushed narratives that further drive threat perceptions, including linking U.S. laboratories abroad to COVID-19 origins, breaches in biosafety, untrustworthy vaccines and biological weapons,” the report said.
Intelligence agencies expect that propaganda message to be amplified by the three nations in the months leading up to the next Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, set for the middle of this year.
“Rapid advances in dual-use technology, including bioinformatics, synthetic biology and genomic editing, could enable development of novel biological weapons that complicate detection, attribution and treatment,” the report said.
U.S. officials have said China is suspected of working secretly on biological weapons genetically designed to attack specific ethnic groups. Beijing refused to provide initial samples of COVID-19 and also has not provided records of dangerous virus research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Beijing also has claimed the U.S. Army brought the virus to China, claims dismissed as baseless by U.S. government spokespeople.
Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said the intelligence report is an effort by the U.S. government to politicize probes of COVID-19’s origin. China supports efforts to trace the virus, he said.
“What we firmly oppose is politicization of origins tracing,” Mr. Liu told Inside the Ring.
“The origins study of the novel coronavirus is a serious and complex scientific issue which should and can only be carried out by global scientists in cooperation,” he added. “The use of intelligence agencies to trace the origins is in itself an iron-clad proof of politicization.”
Pompeo calls for recognizing Taiwan
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is calling for the United States to formally recognize Taiwan’s government as the legitimate government of the island state.
During a visit to Taipei last week, where he met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Mr. Pompeo said now is the time for the United States to end a 50-year policy of strategic ambiguity toward official Taiwan relations.
“It is my view that the U.S. government should immediately take necessary, and long-overdue, steps to do the right and obvious thing, that is, to offer the Republic of China – Taiwan — America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Mr. Pompeo said the United States should continue to treat the People’s Republic of China as a sovereign state. But diplomatic recognition of the 23 million Taiwanese people and its democratically-elected government “can no longer be ignored, avoided, or treated as secondary.”
“This is not about Taiwan’s future independence, it is about recognizing an unmistakable, already existent reality,” he said.
That reality, he said, is that Taiwan does not need to declare independence because the nation is already independent. The United States, both the people and the government, should recognize the political reality.
“The Taiwanese people deserve the world’s respect for a free, democratic and sovereign country,” Mr. Pompeo said.
In his remarks, Mr. Pompeo noted that it was President Nixon who launched the strategic ambiguity policy under Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state. Nixon later said of his opening to the Chinese Communists that the new policy “may have created a Frankenstein,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The ambiguity policy was the result of negotiations between the United States and China during the 1970s that left unresolved the status of the Taiwan government.
Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan during the 1949 civil war with the Communists. Both since that time have claimed to be the sole legitimate government leaders of China.
When the United States established diplomatic ties to Beijing and de-recognized Taipei as the sole Chinese government, the status of Taiwan was left unresolved.
The two rivals have continued to battle politically and China’s President Xi Jinping has vowed to retake the island.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is committed to providing defensive arms to Taiwan to prevent a military takeover.
During the Trump administration, $20 billion in new arms, including new F-16 jets, were offered to Taiwan. Other actions included stepped-up official visits and closer defense coordination.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Adm. John Aquilino was asked if the ambiguity policy should be rejected in favor of a clear U.S. commitment to defend the island, as a way to deter an attack from China.
Adm. Aquilino said he favors debating the policy.
“If I were to look at the alternative between strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity, there are some who believe it would be a deterrent, and there are some that will believe it would be an accelerant” to conflict, he said.
“I think it’s worthwhile of a deep, thoughtful conversation as we look at that option,” he added. “There are pros and cons to both but we ought to look very closely.”
Concerns about Beijing’s view that a U.S. policy shift would be regarded as a move toward formal independence, and thus a cause for war are elements of the debate, he said.
Covert action for Ukraine
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier disclosed during a congressional hearing this week that U.S. intelligence agencies are studying how to carry out covert action programs in support of Ukrainian insurgents if the country is eventually overrun by the Russian military.
The Army three-star general was asked about whether the intelligence community is preparing for covert U.S. support during a post-invasion insurgency by Ukrainian resistance forces.
“The entire [intelligence community] is looking at that issue right now and I think it would be good for a discussion in a closed session,” Gen. Berrier said in testimony to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, testified earlier at the hearing that Russia is pursuing what she called a “maximalist plan” to hold and control Ukrainian territory and replace the current government in Kyiv with a pro-Russian regime.
“We judge it will be especially challenging for the Russians … in the face of what we assess is likely to be a persistent and significant insurgency,” she said.
No details of covert action plans were disclosed during the hearing. In Ukraine, such action could include political operations to undermine Russian control and CIA-led paramilitary activity involving weapons and training inside Ukraine. Covert operations also could be carried out inside Russia against President Vladimir Putin and his close aides. One idea being floated is for the U.S. government to disclose publicly details of the vast private wealth accumulated by Mr. Putin, estimated to be in the billions of dollars and held abroad in secret bank accounts.
Past covert action programs were carried out in Afghanistan against Soviet military forces during the 1980s, and in Nicaragua in support of Contra rebels against Sandinista Marxists, also during the 1980s.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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