Richard Fadden is a former national security adviser to the Prime Minister, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and deputy minister of national defence. Peter Jones is a former senior policy adviser in the Security and Intelligence Secretariat of the Privy Council Office and is now a professor at the University of Ottawa.
As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is aggressively pushing a theory that the novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese government lab. The U.S. government’s accusation is that the virus was released from the lab when a worker became accidentally infected, without realizing it, and went home. This past weekend, Mike Pompeo – Mr. Trump’s Secretary of State and the former director of the CIA – made the latest round of stark allegations on a Sunday talk show, but he could only point to circumstantial evidence: “We’ve seen the fact that they kicked the journalists out … We saw the fact that those who were trying to report on this, medical professionals inside of China, were silenced. They shut down reporting – all the kind of things that authoritarian regimes do …”
Leave aside that Mr. Trump’s White House has also kicked out reporters and silenced U.S. government medical professionals who disagree with it. The problem with these assertions is that America’s intelligence professionals are of a different view, that the virus made the jump to humans in a non-lab setting in southern China – and have said so publicly.
U.S. officials have said that Mr. Trump, increasingly desperate to deflect attention from his dismal handling of the crisis, put pressure on the U.S. intelligence community to find evidence for his theory. This raises the spectre of the fiasco that took place when George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on “slam-dunk” intelligence that a program to build weapons of mass destruction was under way. Subsequent investigations showed that the intelligence “evidence” was largely fabricated, or the result of deliberately skewed analysis of facts that could have been interpreted in various ways. The intelligence community is now determined to avoid this kind of pressure and to base its analyses on unbiased and factual reporting, and we are seeing this play out.
Of course, whether or not the virus originated in a Chinese lab, certain facts remain.
First, China did try to cover up the emergence of the threat for a crucial period when it might have been better contained, and the country has lied about it since. Whether this was a deliberate attempt from the top in Beijing, or local officials in Wuhan trying to avoid scrutiny, the world missed a chance to better contain this. China must answer for that, at the very least.
Second, Mr. Trump’s management of the pandemic has been a scandal of its own. Instead of co-ordinating and leading based on science, he has picked needless fights and used the crisis as a vehicle for self-promotion. One-third of all cases worldwide are in the U.S., despite representing around 4 per cent of the global population. More than twice as many people have died in the U.S. than in any other country. Testing of the population has been a fiasco, although few can claim success on that score. Mr. Trump has failed his country when it most needed real leadership. He has also failed the world, doing everything he can to drive countries apart, rather than bring them together as a superpower might.
This is why Mr. Trump, who has always been a sleight-of-hand carnival barker, is aggressively attempting to change the channel and get Americans – and especially his all-important political base – mad at China. China bears responsibility, at the very least, for the consequences of its irresponsible secrecy in the initial stages of the crisis. If a proper and non-partisan investigation (should that ever be possible) does reveal that it did originate in a government lab, China’s complicity will be all the more damning. But the origin of the virus is a separate issue from Mr. Trump’s performance in the ensuing crisis. And while it’s unclear how, if and when China will face scrutiny, the American public has the chance to pass judgment on the President in November – which is why he is desperately trying to get it to focus on anything else.
In the final analysis, all countries need to focus on working together to find solutions. No country deserves a perfect mark for its handling of the crisis and all should be held accountable when the dust has settled and the time comes to learn lessons. But now is not the time, and no single country or leader should be judge, jury and executioner.
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