Not only is it rare for intelligence agencies to issue public comments on its operation, it’s even rarer to have them do so to claim they missed a major issue. Yesterday, ABC News claimed that the DIA had warned the White House about the coronavirus outbreak in “late November.” The alleged report from the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), based on “wire and computer intercepts, focused on the threat to US forces in the Asia theater.
There’s only one problem, the NCMI responded late yesterday. They’ve looked all over for this alleged document, and it doesn’t exist:
JUST IN: Director of DIA’s National Center for Medical Intelligence issues rare, unrequested statement regarding COVID. pic.twitter.com/tCw0GRchJ6
— W.J. Hennigan (@wjhenn) April 9, 2020
Anonymous sources also told CNN that other intelligence agencies were tracking the information, but that the date of their first report wasn’t “clear.” However, in the CNN report, they note that the information didn’t make it into the presidential daily briefing for weeks:
US spy agencies were tracking the rise of the novel coronavirus as early as November, weeks before that information was included in President Donald Trump’s daily intelligence briefing, a former US military official told CNN.
While the exact date of the first report remains unclear, sources told CNN that intelligence gathered in November and in the weeks following offered multiple early warnings about the potential severity of the pandemic now surging in the US.
Well, which is it — did intel agencies think this wasn’t worth adding to the PDB, or did they think it was a potentially “catclysmic threat”? And who is this former military official, and when did he become “former”? Compare that to the ABC story, and it starts to look like “sources” don’t know what they’re talking about:
The report was the result of analysis of wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images. It raised alarms because an out-of-control disease would pose a serious threat to U.S. forces in Asia — forces that depend on the NCMI’s work. And it paints a picture of an American government that could have ramped up mitigation and containment efforts far earlier to prepare for a crisis poised to come home.
“Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” one of the sources said of the NCMI’s report. “It was then briefed multiple times to” the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House.
This sounds rather far-fetched anyway. As near as can be determined, the first identified COVID-19 case — the “patient zero” — became ill on November 17. Chinese doctors didn’t begin to suspect a new virus to be at work until weeks later, and that information comes from whistleblowers within China’s medical community rather than Beijing. The discovery of this Patient Zero was made through contact tracing and testing after they realized they had a new disease on their hands toward the end of December, the point in time where they should have been warning everyone of the outbreak and its human-to-human transmission.
With that in mind, it seems very unlikely that intel agencies would have been picking up this chatter in “late November,” or maybe even late December. China didn’t lock down Wuhan until two months later in late January, following up rapidly by locking down two more cities just a couple of days afterward and then the entire Hubei province the next day. That was only a few days before Donald Trump barred travel to and from China. That fits with the exponential spread of COVID-19 and an unknown Patient Zero in mid-November a lot better than a full-blown outbreak in mid-November. The latter would have produced a much earlier explosion of cases in other countries, especially since travel continued in and out of the impacted region for months. The US ban on travel with China didn’t take place until the end of January, and we were the first to impose one.
The extraordinary statement from the DIA and NCMI should settle the matter, but the math certainly does. This sounds like part of the same war between the White House and the intelligence communities, perhaps stoked this time by investigations into the Russia-collusion nonsense, or just by personal animus. It’s yet another reminder that we should take anonymously sourced stories from the media with a grain of salt, and double-check the math wherever possible.