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There’s a meme that appears now and then on Facebook and other social media: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”
That’s funny. What’s not is that the Trump administration and its coterie of China-bashers, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and aided by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, have recently been dusting off the fake-intelligence playbook Vice President Dick Cheney used in 2002 and 2003 to justify war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. At that time, the administration of President George W. Bush put enormous pressure on the US intelligence community to ratify spurious allegations that Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda and that his regime had assembled an arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Fantasy claims they may have been, but they did help to convince many skeptical conservatives and spooked liberals that a unilateral, illegal invasion of Iraq was urgently needed.
This time around, it’s the Trump administration’s reckless charge that Covid-19—maybe man-made, maybe not, advocates of this conspiracy theory argue—was released perhaps deliberately, perhaps by accident from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, the city that was the epicenter of the outbreak late last year. It’s a story that has ricocheted around the echo chambers of the far right, from conspiracy-oriented Internet kooks like Infowars’ Alex Jones to semi-respectable media tribunes and radio talk-show hosts to the very highest reaches of the administration itself, including President Trump.
Unlike with Iraq in 2003, the United States isn’t planning on going to war with China, at least not yet. But the Trump administration’s zeal in shifting attention from its own bungling of the Covid-19 crisis to China’s alleged culpability in creating a worldwide health crisis only raises tensions precipitously between the planet’s two great powers at a terrible moment. In the process, it essentially ensures that the two countries will be far less likely to cooperate in managing the long-term pandemic or collaboratively working on vaccines and cures. That makes it, as in 2002–03, a matter of life and death.
Back in 2002, the Bush administration launched an unending campaign of pressure on the CIA and other intelligence agencies to falsify, distort, and cherry-pick intelligence factoids that could be collated into a package linking Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. At the Pentagon, neoconservatives like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith set up an ad hoc team that eventually took on the name of Office of Special Plans. It was dedicated to fabricating intelligence on Iraq.
Just in case the message didn’t get across, Vice President Cheney made repeated visits to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to badger analysts to come up with something useful. In 2003, in “The Lie Factory,” which I co-authored with Jason Vest for Mother Jones, we reported on how Wolfowitz, Feith, allied Defense Department officials like Harold Rhode, and neoconservative apparatchiks like David Wurmser, then a senior adviser to Iraq-war-touting State Department Undersecretary John Bolton (and now an unofficial adviser to Donald Trump on Iran), actively worked to purge Pentagon and CIA officials who resisted the push to shape or exaggerate intelligence. A year later, veteran spy-watcher James Bamford described the whole episode in excruciating detail in his 2004 book, A Pretext for War.
In 2020, however, President Trump is not just pressuring the intelligence community, or IC. He’s at war with it and has been busy installing unprofessional know-nothings and sycophants in top positions there. His bitter antipathy began even before he was sworn into office, when he repeatedly refused to believe a sober analysis from the IC, including the CIA and FBI, that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had aided and abetted his election. Since then, he’s continually railed and tweeted against what he calls “the deep state.” And he’s assigned his authoritarian attorney general, Bill Barr, to conduct a scorched-earth offensive against the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the FBI, and the Justice Department itself, most recently by dropping charges against admitted liar Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s first national security adviser.
To make sure that the IC doesn’t challenge his wishes and does his bidding, Trump has moved to put his own political operatives in charge at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, created as part of an intelligence reorganization scheme after 9/11. The effort began in February when Trump named US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting DNI. A highly partisan, sharp-elbowed politico and spokesman for former national security adviser John Bolton, he harbors far-right views and is a Trump loyalist, as well as an acolyte of former Trump aide Steve Bannon. On arriving in Bonn as ambassador, Grenell soon endorsed the rise of Europe’s anti-establishment ultra-right in an interview with Bannon’s Breitbart News.
To bolster Grenell, the administration has called on another ultra-right crusader, Kash Patel. He has served as Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’s aide in the campaign to discredit the Russia investigation and reportedly acted as a White House backchannel to Ukraine during the effort to stir up an inquiry in Kiev aimed at tarring former vice president Joe Biden.
Following that, Trump renamed Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, one of the president’s most enthusiastic defenders during the debate over impeachment, to serve as Grenell’s permanent replacement at ODNI. In 2019, Trump first floated Ratcliffe’s name for the post, but it was shot down days later, thanks to opposition from even Republican members of Congress, not to speak of intelligence professionals and various pundits. Now, he’s back, awaiting likely confirmation.
It remains to be seen whether the Grenell-Ratcliffe tag team, combined with Trump’s three-year campaign to disparage the intelligence community and intimidate its functionaries, has softened them up enough for the administration’s push to finger China and its labs for creating and spreading Covid-19.
The Wuhan Lab Lies
As is often the case, that campaign began rather quietly and unobtrusively in conservative and right-wing media outlets.
On January 24, the right-wing Washington Times ran a story entitled “Coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program.” It, in turn, was playing off of a piece that had appeared in London’s Daily Mail the previous day. Written like a science-fiction thriller, that story drew nearly all its (unverified) information from a single source, an Israeli military intelligence China specialist. Soon, it moved from the Washington Times to other American right-wing outlets. Steve Bannon picked it up the next day on his podcast, “War Room: Pandemic,” calling the piece “amazing.” A few days later, the unreliable, gossipy website ZeroHedge ran a (later much-debunked) piece saying that a Chinese scientist bioengineered the virus, purporting even to name the scientist.
A couple of weeks later, Fox News weighed in, laughably citing a Dean Koontz novel, The Eyes of Darkness, about “a Chinese military lab that creates a new virus to potentially use as a biological weapon during wartime.” The day after that, Senator Tom Cotton—appearing on Fox, of course—agreed that China might indeed have created the virus. Then the idea began to go… well, viral. (Soon Cotton was even tweeting that Beijing might possibly have deliberately released the virus.) By late February, the right’s loudest voice, Rush Limbaugh, was on the case, claiming that the virus “is probably a ChiCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized.” (A vivid account of how this conspiracy theory spread can be found at the Global Disinformation Index.)
Starting in March, even as they were dismissing the seriousness of Covid-19, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly insisted on referring to it as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” ignoring criticism that terminology like that was both racist and inflammatory. In late March, Pompeo even managed to scuttle a communiqué from America’s allies in the Group of Seven, or G7, by demanding that they agree to use the term “Wuhan virus.” It didn’t take the president long to start threatening retaliatory action against China for its alleged role in spreading Covid-19, while he began comparing the pandemic to the 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
And all of that was but a prelude to the White House’s ramping up of pressure on the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community to prove that the virus had indeed emerged, whether by design or accident, from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, a branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An April 30 article in The New York Times broke the story that administration officials “have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak,” and that Grenell had made it a “priority.”
Both Trump and Pompeo would, in the meantime, repeatedly assert that they had seen actual “evidence” that the virus had indeed come from a Chinese lab, though Trump pretended that the information was so secret he couldn’t say anything more about it. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Asked during an appearance on ABC’s This Week if the virus had popped out of a lab in Wuhan, Pompeo answered: “There is enormous evidence that that’s where this began.”
On April 30t, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a terse statement, saying that so far it had concluded Covid-19 is “not manmade or genetically modified,” but that they were looking into whether or not it was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” There is, however, no evidence of such an accident, nor did the ODNI cite any.
A Finger on the Scale
The run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002–03 should be on all our minds today. Then, top officials simply repeated again and again that they believed both Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent ties to Al Qaeda and his nonexistent active nuclear, chemical, and bioweapon programs were realities and assigned intelligence community collectors and analysts to look into them (while paying no attention to their conclusions). Now, Trump and his people are similarly putting their fat fingers on the scale of reality, while making it clear to hopefully intimidated intelligence professionals just what conclusions they want to hear.
Because those professionals know that their careers, salaries, and pensions depend on the continued favor of the politicians who pay them, there is, of course, a tremendous incentive to go along with such demands, shade what IC officials call the “estimate” in the direction the White House wants, or at least keep their mouths shut. That is exactly what happened in 2002 and, given that Grenell, Patel, and Ratcliffe are essentially Trump toadies, the IC officials lower on the totem pole have to be grimly aware of what their latest bosses expect from them.
There was near-instant pushback from scientists, intelligence officials, and China experts about the Trump-Pompeo campaign to finger the Wuhan lab. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the preeminent American scientist and Covid-19 expert, promptly shot it down, saying that the virus had “evolved in nature and then jumped species.” That’s because actual scientists, who study the genome of the virus and its mutations, unanimously agree that it was not generated in a lab.
Among America’s allies—Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand—in what’s called the Five Eyes group, there was an unambiguous conclusion that the virus had been a “naturally occurring” one and had mutated in the course of “human and animal interaction.”Australia, in particular, rejected what appeared to be a fake-intelligence dossier about the Wuhan lab, while German officials in an internal document ridiculed the lab rumors as “a calculated attempt to distract” attention from the Trump administration’s own inept handling of the virus.
Finally, according to Bloomberg News, those studying the issue inside the intelligence community now say that suspicions it emerged from a lab are “largely circumstantial since the U.S. has very little information from the ground to back up the lab-escape theory or any other.” In the end, however, that doesn’t mean top IC officials beholden to the White House won’t tailor their conclusions to fit the Trump-Pompeo narrative.
John McLaughlin, who served as deputy director and then acting director of the CIA during the Bush administration, believes that we are indeed seeing a replay of what happened in Iraq nearly two decades ago. “What it reminds me of is the dispute between the CIA and parts of the Bush administration over whether there was an operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida,” he said. “They kept asking the CIA, and we kept coming back and saying, ‘You know, it’s just not there.’”
Whether the tug-of-war between Trump, Pompeo, and the IC is just another passing battle in a more than three-year-old war between the president and the “deep state” or whether it’s something that could lead to a serious crisis between Washington and Beijing remains to be seen. Ironically enough, in January and February of this year, the IC provided President Trump with more than a dozen clear warnings about the dangers to the United States and national security posed by the coronavirus, following clarion calls from China and the World Health Organization that what was happening in Wuhan could spread worldwide—warnings that Trump either failed to notice, disregarded, or downplayed through March.
Were Donald Trump not so predisposed to see the intelligence community as his enemy, he might have paid more attention back then. Had he done so, there would undoubtedly be many fewer dead Americans right now and he wouldn’t have had to spend his time in his own lab concocting what might be thought of as batshit excuses for his dereliction of duty.
By the time this affair is over, the invasion of Iraq could look like the good old days.