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Earlier this week, the mystery surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 took another bewildering turn when the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic revealed that a “multi-decade, senior-level, current [CIA] officer” stepped forward to claim that when six of the seven specialists tasked by the CIA with investigating the origins of the virus concluded with low confidence that it likely came from a lab in Wuhan, the CIA paid those scientists hush money to reverse their decision. The six experts who were offered “financial incentives”—otherwise known as bribes—eventually concluded that the origin of the pandemic was uncertain. For its part, the CIA has denied the whistleblower’s claims. This denial was issued by CIA spokesperson Tammy Kupperman Thorp who, until just two years ago, worked as a journalist for CNN and NBC News covering, among other things, the CIA.
Despite intense investigations for the past three years, the origins of the worst pandemic in generations remain, to this day, unknown. What is certain, however, is that a massive official cover-up took place. There is proof that Anthony Fauci knowingly deceived the public, that academic scientists and once-prestigious science journals colluded with him in that deception, and that scientists investigating the virus at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence were censored when they concluded it most likely came from a laboratory. Now there appears to be evidence that the CIA was involved as well.
What we still don’t know is what exactly was covered up. China isn’t a U.S. ally. So why would the CIA want to hide evidence that the virus might have come from a Chinese government laboratory? The answer may have to do with the fact that funding for the infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology came from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—which is relevant because USAID, while nominally America’s foreign aid agency, has decadeslong ties to the CIA and a history of acting as a cutout for the intelligence agency.
This is not the first time questions regarding America’s intelligence agencies’ ties to the Wuhan lab have come up. In June, I reported that one of the earliest gain-of-function experiments done at the Wuhan lab—where Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli houses what is likely the largest collection of bat-borne coronaviruses in the world—were funded by USAID. The aid agency’s funding was initially omitted from the paper that published the results of those experiments. But these new whistleblower allegations, which come from the CIA itself, present the first plausible evidence connecting America’s lead intelligence agency to efforts to sway official assessments of the pandemic’s origin.
The whistleblower’s testimony appears to reveal how deep the ties between virus research, the military-industrial complex, and China really run, and corroborates the diligent work of researchers and journalists who have been investigating the virus’s origins for the past three years. What these investigations have shown is that agencies including the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (formerly led by Fauci), as well as USAID, funneled millions of taxpayer dollars through an otherwise obscure New York NGO called EcoHealth Alliance to virus research programs. USAID, which was caught as recently as 2014 building a fake Twitter in Cuba on behalf of the CIA, gave $64.7 million to EcoHealth Alliance. At least $1.1 million of the USAID money went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses.
In one collaboration between WIV’s Shi Zhengli and University of North Carolina—the study where USAID was mysteriously omitted from the funding disclaimer—researcher Ralph Baric produced a new hybrid virus that would later be described as the “prototype” for making SARS-CoV-2 in a lab. Baric is widely credited as the leading figure in coronavirus-related gain-of-function (GoF) research, the controversial line of experimentation by which scientists intentionally engineer viruses to be either more virulent or more deadly. Back in 2012, GoF work set off alarm bells when two different studies succeeded in giving avian flu—which has a species-ending 60% death rate in humans but has a hard time infecting mammalian cells—the ability to spread through the air between mammals.
Why would the United States government want to give Chinese researchers, who answer to their CCP bosses, the ability to conduct research that could potentially lead to mass deaths? And why would they want to fund it? One answer lies in Fauci’s true role inside the government. Contrary to the popular depiction of Fauci as an altruistic public health official, he was in fact deeply embedded in the U.S. military establishment through his role as the first head of U.S. biodefense, which made intelligence gathering essential to his work. Unlike nuclear weapons development, which requires the underlying physics to be transferred into technologies capable of delivering a warhead that detonates a nuclear reaction, advanced virus research provides little to no differentiation between the results of scientific experimentation and what essentially amounts to a bioweapon.
This is known in the field as dual-use research—work that could simultaneously produce advances capable of serving civilian and military ends. But scientists like Richard Ebright have argued that, to date, gain-of-function research and its scientific sibling—the virus-hunting that gathers previously unknown pathogens from the wild for scientists like Baric and Shi to study and modify—have produced no civilian benefit whatsoever. Indeed, despite USAID’s $200 million virus-hunting and surveillance program, “Predict,” it was Chinese doctors who alerted the world to the new pathogen rampaging around through Hubei province in late 2019, while those in the U.S. running nine-figure global surveillance programs remained, at least for a while, blissfully unaware.
Proponents of this type of research often point out that respiratory viruses make ineffective weapons since they infect your enemy’s population as well as your own. But this is not entirely true. The possession of an effective vaccine by one side prior to the release of a deadly virus transforms the pathogen from a common scourge into a strategic weapon. And this is, of course, why vaccines are of primary importance to America’s national security apparatus; without them the nation is susceptible to an attack that not only destroys the bodies of those it targets but, as we’ve seen, disrupts global trade and tears through the social fabric. It presents the potential for exactly the kind of superweapon that Dick Cheney panicked over in the early 2000s when he anointed Fauci, then just one among 27 directors of NIH institutes and centers, as head of American biodefense. (It’s also why, despite his penchant for prevarication, a taste for the limelight, and a deft hand at obfuscation, it’s hard to deny that Fauci’s intention was to serve his government and country.)
Whatever the exact mechanism, it is clear that the United States government had an interest in pursuing this research. So perhaps it’s understandable that senior officials at the CIA, who would have known that they were risking a major scandal by obscuring evidence that tied the pandemic to a lab connected to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, would have decided the risk was worth it. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that U.S. government and intelligence agencies, which had been involved in research carried out in those labs for so long, would allow the fact to become common knowledge in the midst of an unfolding pandemic.
Whatever their reasons, the effect on public discussion of the pandemic was immediate, with the media dutifully falling in line with the cover-up. One of the main pillars journalists used to enforce the claim that inquiry into a “lab leak" was an irresponsible and even racist conspiracy was the intelligence community’s tilt toward the explanation that the pandemic likely came from an animal—a phenomenon known as zoonosis. An assessment of a lab origin for COVID-19 by the CIA would have undoubtedly altered the calculus. The New York Times, citing a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted this past spring that “The C.I.A. and another agency remain unable to determine the precise origin of the pandemic, given conflicting intelligence.”
The New York Times and Washington Post were among the first major news outlets to cast a lab origin as not merely unlikely but as a “conspiracy theory.” The papers published twin accounts on Feb. 17, 2020—a month before any scientific study, or even raw data, had been published suggesting a zoonotic origin was likely. In its story from that day, the Times pointed to questions raised in the senate by Sen. Tom Cotton as “fringe” theories about bioweapons. “Mr. Cotton later walked back the idea that the coronavirus was a Chinese bioweapon run amok,” the Times reported.
Cotton, however, never once mentioned the possibility of a bioweapon, nor did he walk back those would-be claims. Instead, the connection between Cotton’s statements and the question of bioweapons was an invention that existed solely in the pages of the Times’ story. There, off-the-wall speculation pulled from Steve Bannon’s podcast (of all places) was juxtaposed with Cotton’s actual remarks, including benign statements like, “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated [from the lab].” If it wasn’t outright propaganda from America’s leading establishment publications, it certainly looked like it: China Daily made the exact same misassociation in a piece published one week prior to the Times’ own article.
The New York Times article was written by reporter Alexandra Stevenson, who claimed in her piece that “experts generally dismiss the idea” that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab. Stevenson, however, failed to name a single expert or cite a study, which raises a critical question: Where did she get that information? But just as notable was the fact that the Times tapped Stevenson for its first major story on the pandemic’s origin. While the paper had plenty of its own science and health reporters to choose from, it instead assigned the story of a global pandemic to Stevenson, a business reporter with little to no experience reporting on viruses, diseases or pandemics. (Stevenson directed previous requests for comment to The New York Times’ communications department, which did not respond.)
In a parallel worthy of The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson is the daughter of William Stevenson, a reporter who, according to his Times obituary, “spent much of his career straddling the worlds of espionage and journalism,” eventually working for the Near and Far East News Group, a British government propaganda outfit. William Stevenson wrote a bestselling chronicle of the life of William Stephenson, a Canadian spy credited with playing a significant role in the creation of early incarnations of the CIA.
This is not to say that the younger Stevenson has ties to intelligence—there is no evidence to suggest this. But it does raise questions concerning the prerogatives and incentives of the professional elite that cuts across government, media, intelligence and, of course, science. The media went to bat for Anthony Fauci, a power broker who, as America’s top biodefense official, sat at the precise intersection of government, science, and national security. This seems inevitable given the shared interests and incentives among the various members of that class. Despite Fauci’s dramatic and destabilizing switchbacks on key issues like masking, the media was relentless in beatifying him as a technocratic saint. We should not be surprised that CIA officials and other members of the military-industrial complex got the same treatment.
This phenomenon of interlocking professional power is evident in the connections between the media and the intelligence community. Carl Bernstein reported in his landmark 1977 story that then-publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger (great-grandfather to the present-day publisher) signed a “secret agreement with the CIA” as part of its effort to give covert operatives cover as Times journalists. As I wrote in The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions, and Fabrications Radically Alter History, the Times collaborated with the Department of War in the 1940s to deny the existence of radiation poisoning from atomic bombs, going so far as to have its top science reporter pen propaganda pamphlets on the topic. In exchange, it got unprecedented exclusive access to the Manhattan Project and, indeed, to the bombing run on Nagasaki itself—as well as a Pulitzer Prize for the resulting reporting.
Just as important as the letter released this week by the House select subcommittee is the utter lack of coverage by news organizations that came out strong and early against a lab origin, like the Times and Washington Post. Despite the implications of the claim—the CIA bribing its own experts to alter professional assessments in a way that would favor the CCP—and the quality of the source, there has been nothing yet from either outlet as of the time of this writing.
As Rudyard Kipling wrote in Kim, his famous novel about international spy games playing out under the cover of seemingly mundane events in 19th-century India, the wheel turns, and turns again.
Ashley Rindsberg is the author of The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History (2021).