Classified report with early support for lab leak theory reappears as focal point for lawmakers digging into origins of Covid-19



The report, which was released by researchers at the government-backed Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in May 2020, found that the coronavirus could have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, according to four people familiar with the document. , at a time when the line of inquiry was considered a political taboo.

It is not clear to what extent the document’s findings impacted the government’s understanding of the origins of the virus or whether the document weighed in on a latent debate over whether the type of research being done on coronaviruses in the lab could have contributed to the creation of Covid-19. The report also found that the virus may have developed naturally in the wild – echoing what the intelligence community now says it believes – and several familiar sources with the document minimized its importance.

But the report has taken on new political power on Capitol Hill, as the possibility that the pandemic emerged from research done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology has gained dominant legitimacy in recent months.

The document has been quietly accessible to top lawmakers on Capitol Hill since last year, according to two congressional sources. But some Republicans on Capitol Hill are expressing frustration at not having had access to the document sooner. Members of the GOP’s Energy and Trade Committee have lobbied the Energy Department in recent weeks for more information on the report, which is classified as “top secret.”

“I think many of us think that various oversight committees probably should have been made aware of [the report] a little earlier, ”said Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Virginia who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Republicans on the panel conducted their own investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and also requested additional documents from the National Institute of Health, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State.

“[Livermore] is one of the places we want to get answers because we think they have a bigger piece of the puzzle than we originally thought in March, ”Griffith said.

Sinclair Broadcast Group was the first to report the existence of the document.

A year after its first publication, the report now counts not so much for what it reveals, but because it offered early support for the theory that the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory at a time when , at least publicly, the intelligence community claimed it believed the virus was not “human-made” and was likely naturally occurring. Meanwhile, two former officials close to the Trump administration’s investigations into the origins of the pandemic say the Livermore report was only discovered by policymakers who probed the issue months after its production – raising the specter some former officials of the so-called “deep state” of career bureaucrats inappropriately burying information that validated the political activities of the Trump administration.

Yet other congressional officials familiar with the report – even those who support an investigation of the laboratory leak theory – say Republicans on the energy committee are now touting its findings as a purely political ploy to validate Trump. , whose defense of the theory of laboratory leaks these people believe politicized the search for the origins of Covid-19.

A House Intelligence Committee official said the panel had previously considered the document as part of its investigation and two other members of Congress said lawmakers from at least two other committees previously had access to the information in the report and were informed of its findings last year – if they had wanted to. It is not clear whether lawmakers on the Energy and Trade Committee were among those who knew of the report’s existence.

Several sources warned CNN that the document offered no “smoking gun” that proves one theory over the other. The report largely comes to the same conclusion that the intelligence community has publicly disclosed in recent weeks, according to several people familiar with it, that the “zoonotic” theory of the virus’ origins and the theory of laboratory leaks are both plausible. But it offers circumstantial evidence supporting the theory of laboratory leaks, validating what was then considered a marginal notion.

Republicans are pushing the administration to declassify more information the U.S. government already has that could help scientists and public health experts come closer to an answer.

The Department of Energy – which oversees Livermore and the other national labs – briefed House Energy and Commerce committee staff last week on the report, according to two people familiar with the classified session, and the panel is now pushing for a briefing more comprehensive for all members. . The Labs, a set of 17 elite scientific research facilities, will play a key role in the 90-day intelligence review of the origins of Covid that President Joe Biden publicly announced last month, told CNN a responsible for the White House.

An evolving narrative

Congressional interest in the Livermore report comes as the Biden administration and the scientific community have publicly stated that there is a legitimate possibility that the coronavirus has escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan – leaving Republicans, who have long been put forward this theory, feeling justified.

For much of 2020, the pursuit of the lab leak theory was publicly treated as xenophobic and, in part thanks to an open letter signed by 27 scientists and published in an influential medical journal in February 2020, scientifically flawed.

But in recent months, classified information has emerged that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who were conducting the type of controversial research that some scientists believe may have led to the pandemic fell ill in the fall of 2019, before the epidemic was known to have started.

It also became public that the open letter – which the signatories wrote at the time that they “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 is not of natural origin” – was not just signed but organized by a scientist involved in funding the kind of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that other scientists believe could have spawned SARS-Cov-2.

Several of the scientists involved have since said that they believe the investigation into the origins of the pandemic should include examining the possibility of a laboratory leak and, increasingly, the academic community has started to come up with publications presenting evidence to support this theory.

Many congressional sources lamented the extent to which the lab leak theory was sucked into politics at the time, with some saying Trump’s public support for this hypothesis actually made it harder to investigate as a serious investigation lead. At the time, critics argued that Trump was pushing the theory as a way of blaming the rising death toll on his administration’s handling of the pandemic and on China – instantly tainting the objectivity of any effort to probe this hypothesis. His xenophobic language around the virus – calling it “kung flu” – further stigmatized the investigation.

But former Trump administration officials are now saying their interest in the theory has been vindicated as serious, rather than politically motivated – and that their efforts to investigate the matter have been hampered by public health agencies, as well. than the intelligence community.

Internal investigations

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly defended the hypothesis of a laboratory leak during his tenure, told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Thursday that the National Institutes of Health “was trying to suppress” the efforts of the State Department to survey the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“It was a good job from the State Department team. We got over a lot of internal bureaucracy,” Pompeo said.

“There were people everywhere [intelligence] community that just didn’t want to talk about it, that wanted to stay focused on other things, ”Pompeo said later in the interview.

In April 2020 – a month before the production of the Livermore report – the intelligence community released a rare statement saying that while it would continue to investigate the origins of the virus, it “fits with the broad scientific consensus that the virus COVID-19 was not man-made or genetically modified. ”

Starting in the spring of 2020, two small groups of Trump administration officials were conducting parallel investigations into the origins of the virus: one at the State Department and the other at the National Security Council leadership responsible for biodefense. .

Officials involved in both of these reviews now say their efforts to probe the validity of the laboratory leak theory have been rejected by the intelligence community.

“We were asking very pointed questions,” said a former Trump official, who said their efforts were “rejected.”

At the time, the State Department’s effort was seen by some internal critics as a politicized effort to select facts to prove a favored theory for the president, CNN previously reported.

Officials involved in both efforts insist they were not biased in favor of one outcome or the other.

“We weren’t putting on our foil hats and jumping up and down and saying, ‘This must be a lab leak! “” said Anthony Ruggiero, NSC senior director for biodefense under Trump. “We were like, ‘What about that stuff over there?'”

Republican lawmakers investigating the matter, including seeking more information on the Livermore report, also insist their interest is in the truth, not a preordained conclusion.

“If this leads us to a bat, then fine! Personally, I think it’s more likely a lab accident,” Griffith said.

“I don’t think a single agency has a good enough image to tell the story right now. It’s our job to put all of these pieces together, so I think the American people will have a pretty good idea of ​​what’s going on. happens.”

CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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