From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject The Wuhan Hoax Covid-19 and Trump’s War on the U.S. Intelligence Community
Date May 25, 2020 5:20 AM
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[As is often the case, that campaign began rather quietly and
unobtrusively in conservative and right-wing media outlets.]
[[link removed]]

THE WUHAN HOAX COVID-19 AND TRUMP’S WAR ON THE U.S. INTELLIGENCE
COMMUNITY   [[link removed]]

 

Bob Dreyfuss
May 21, 2020
Tom Dispatch
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_ As is often the case, that campaign began rather quietly and
unobtrusively in conservative and right-wing media outlets. _

,

 

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 U.S. 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 manmade, 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
[[link removed]] 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 U.S. isn’t planning on going to war
with China, at least not yet
[[link removed]].
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 global pandemic 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
2002-2003, a matter of life and death.

IRAQ REDUX?

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
[[link removed]]. It was
dedicated to fabricating intelligence on Iraq.

Just in case the message didn’t get across, Vice President Cheney
made repeated visits
[[link removed]] to
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to badger analysts to come up
with something useful. In 2003, in “The Lie Factory
[[link removed]],” 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 advisor
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] book_, A Pretext
for War_.

In 2020, however, President Trump is not just pressuring the
intelligence community, or IC. He’s at war
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] and
tweeted against what he calls “the deep state
[[link removed]].”
And he’s assigned his authoritarian attorney general, Bill Barr, to
conduct a scorched-earth offensive
[[link removed]] against
the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller
[[link removed]],
the FBI, and the Justice Department itself, most recently by dropping
charges
[[link removed]] against
admitted liar Michael Flynn, briefly Trump's first national security
advisor.

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 U.S. ambassador to
Germany Richard Grenell
[[link removed]] as acting DNI. A
highly partisan, sharp-elbowed politico and spokesman for former
National Security Advisor 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
[[link removed]] the
rise of Europe’s anti-establishment ultra-right in an interview
[[link removed]] with
Bannon’s _Breitbart News_.

To bolster Grenell, the administration has called on another
ultra-right crusader, Kash Patel
[[link removed]].
He has served as Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’s aide in the
campaign to discredit the Russia investigation and reportedly
[[link removed]] 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, the president re-named
[[link removed]] Congressman John
Ratcliffe
[[link removed](American_politician)] of
Texas, one of the president’s most enthusiastic defenders
[[link removed]] during
the debate over impeachment, to serve as Grenell’s permanent
replacement at ODNI. In 2019, Trump first floated
[[link removed]] Ratcliffe’s
name for the post, but it was shot down
[[link removed]] days
later, thanks to opposition from even Republican members of Congress,
not to speak of intelligence professionals and various pundits.
Now, he’s back
[[link removed]],
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 24th, the right-wing _Washington Times_ ran a story
[[link removed]] entitled
“Coronavirus may have originated in a lab linked to China’s
biowarfare program.” It, in turn, was playing off of a piece
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]],” calling the piece “amazing.” A
few days later, the unreliable, gossipy website _ZeroHedge_
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]],
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
[[link removed]].
(Soon Cotton was even tweeting
[[link removed]] that
Beijing might possibly have deliberately released the virus.) By late
February, the right’s loudest voice, Rush Limbaugh, was on the
case, claiming
[[link removed]] 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_
[[link removed]].)

Starting in March, even as they were dismissing the seriousness of
Covid-19, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
repeatedly insisted
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] 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 [[link removed]].

And all of that was but a prelude to the White House 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
[[link removed]] or
the Wuhan Center for Disease Control
[[link removed]],
a branch of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An
April 30th article in the _New York Times_ broke the story
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]]”
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
[[link removed]] about
it. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I’m not allowed to
tell you that.” Asked during an appearance
[[link removed]] 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 30th, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
issued a terse statement
[[link removed]],
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 2002-2003 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
[[link removed]],
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
[[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]] that
the virus had been a “naturally occurring” one and had mutated in
the course of “human and animal interaction.” Australia
[[link removed]], in
particular
[[link removed]], rejected
[[link removed]] what
appeared to be a fake-intelligence dossier about the Wuhan lab, while
German officials in an internal document ridiculed
[[link removed]] the
lab rumors as “a calculated attempt to distract” attention from
the Trump administration’s own inept handling of the virus.

Finally, according to
[[link removed]] _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-Qaeda,” he said
[[link removed]].
“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
[[link removed]] President
Trump with more than a dozen clear warnings
[[link removed]] about
the dangers to the United States and national security posed by the
coronavirus, following
[[link removed]] clarion
calls from China
[[link removed]] and
the World Health Organization
[[link removed]] that
what was happening in Wuhan could spread
[[link removed]] 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 less 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.

_Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular
[[link removed]],
is a contributing editor at the Nation and has written for Rolling
Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and
many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the
United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam
[[link removed]]._

_Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
[[link removed]] and join us on Facebook
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Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in
the Splinterlands series) Frostlands
[[link removed]], Beverly
Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story
[[link removed]], and
Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War
[[link removed]],
as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The
Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power
[[link removed]] and
John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World
War II
[[link removed]]._

_Copyright 2020 Bob Dreyfuss_

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