I’m all-in on the effort to make sure the world understands what a garbage Beijing mouthpiece the WHO is. Trump is right to want to defund them for their complicity in China’s early cover-up of the extent of the plague. That helped lull western governments like ours into a deadly sense of complacency about the threat.
But we can’t blame them for everything. We have our own people who specialize in intelligence about global health. And according to ABC, those people were setting off sirens as far back as late November that something was happening in Wuhan that could be “cataclysmic,” in the words of one source. Reportedly there were wire intercepts, computer intercepts, and satellite photos suggesting a widening contagion in the region, all gathered weeks before Chinese Dr. Li Wenliang famously began warning people around December 30 about a deadly new disease in Wuhan.
What were U.S. officials doing with that information between late November and late January, when Trump finally ordered a partial ban on travel from China?
“Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” one of the sources said of the [National Center for Medical Intelligence]’s report. “It was then briefed multiple times to” the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House.
From that warning in November, the sources described repeated briefings through December for policy-makers and decision-makers across the federal government as well as the National Security Council at the White House. All of that culminated with a detailed explanation of the problem that appeared in the President’s Daily Brief of intelligence matters in early January, the sources said. For something to have appeared in the PDB, it would have had to go through weeks of vetting and analysis, according to people who have worked on presidential briefings in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The NCMI report was made available widely to people authorized to access intelligence community alerts. Following the report’s release, other intelligence community bulletins began circulating through confidential channels across the government around Thanksgiving, the sources said. Those analyses said China’s leadership knew the epidemic was out of control even as it kept such crucial information from foreign governments and public health agencies…
If it were true that America’s spy agencies were caught that off guard, one intelligence official told ABC News, “that would be a massive intel failure on the order of 9/11. But it wasn’t. They had the intelligence.”
We knew early that China was covering up, so what explains our complacency?
The report itself is never quoted here, which could be significant. Possibly the NCMI thought U.S. troops in Asia were in danger but remained skeptical for whatever reason that the virus would eventually migrate to the United States — although it would be hard to square that confidence with the conclusion that the outbreak was out of control inside China. It’s also hard to imagine the White House taking drastic measures like travel bans, let alone lockdowns, before the threat to the U.S. mainland was undeniably clear. A lesson learned over and over during the past two months at both national and local levels is that governments almost always move too slowly to take extreme action to contain the virus, for understandable reasons. It’s difficult to believe that exponential growth is happening until the evidence is so obvious as to be alarming; before that point, the economic pain involved in enforcing massive social distancing seems too great. Imagine Trump calling for a national lockdown in early December based on the NCMI report, at a moment when China wasn’t even acknowledging it had a problem. People would have looked at him as if he’d finally snapped.
But the fact that it was too early for draconian measures doesn’t mean lesser prudential measures couldn’t have been taken. What was done in December to make sure American medical workers would have the equipment they might need to cope with the virus if it arrived here? If a threat is potentially “cataclysmic,” taking precautions makes sense even if the likelihood of it materializing is remote.
Relatedly, a new poll finds public discontent with the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis growing:
A majority of Americans — 55% — now say the federal government has done a poor job preventing the spread of coronavirus in the United States, up eight points in about a week, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS as the nationwide death toll from the virus rose above 12,000.
Eighty percent feel the worst of the outbreak is yet to come, most (55%) feel President Donald Trump could be doing more to fight the outbreak, and 37% say they have grown more concerned about coronavirus in the last few days, far outpacing the 5% who say their fears have eased recently.
There’s a big partisan split, of course, with 80 percent of Republicans saying the feds have done a good job in preventing the spread and 85 percent of Democrats saying they haven’t. It’s the trend that’s noteworthy. The “rally around the president” crisis bounce is fading in Dems and indies either because ordinary partisanship is reasserting itself amid some extraordinary circumstances or because of all the reporting lately, like this new ABC story, about the feds having missed various opportunities to contain the virus before the point that doing so required a deep freeze of the national economy. Other polls are also showing Trump returning to pre-crisis levels of support:
President Trump's overall approval ratings in five new polls out today:@politico/@MorningConsult: 44% (RVs)@NavigatorSurvey (D): 44% (RVs)@CNNPolitics/@ssrs_research: 44% (adults)@MonmouthPoll: 44% (adults)@QuinnipiacPoll: 45% (RVs)
— Steven Shepard (@POLITICO_Steve) April 8, 2020
As far as I’m aware, the NCMI analysis is the earliest inkling the feds had of an outbreak in Wuhan. Even so, watch Mark Esper tell George Stephanopoulos a few days ago that he doesn’t recall any intel assessment from them to that effect. Bear in mind, the NCMI is a *military* agency; it’s a department of the Defense Intelligence Agency. As Secretary of Defense, Esper should have heard about it if it was as big a deal as ABC makes it sound. “It would be a significant alarm that would have been set off by this,” said one former deputy assistant SecDef to ABC about the NCMI report, which would have triggered a follow-up “by literally every intelligence-collection agency.” If the briefings in December were as extensive as ABC’s sources say, it’s hard to see how Esper would have missed it. Which means he’s either lying to cover up what the feds knew here or the report was less sensational than it’s been cracked up to be.
.@Gstephanopoulos: “Did the Pentagon receive an intelligence assessment on COVID in China last November from the National Center for Medical Intelligence?”
— ABC News (@ABC) April 5, 2020