WASHINGTON — Amid a concerted push to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has issued an intelligence analysis claiming China purposely delayed notifying the World Health Organization about the spread of the contagion in order to stockpile medical equipment, according to two recent government documents obtained by Yahoo News.
The analysis, which some former officials and experts are questioning based on its limited methodology, relies exclusively on trade data to draw its conclusions.
In recent weeks, President Trump and some of his top allies have been pushing a theory being investigated by the intelligence community that the virus originated from a Chinese lab in Wuhan, rather than from a “wet market,” where exotic wildlife is sold. “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with ABC on Sunday.
Just two days before that interview, analysts at the Department of Homeland Security citing a “new analytic technique” concluded that China had, in fact, concealed the spread of the coronavirus in order to hoard medical supplies. Specifically, they looked at Chinese imports and exports of medical equipment, ranging from surgical face masks to ventilators, from October 2019 to February 2020, and then compared that data with statistics from the prior five years.
“We assess the Chinese Government intentionally concealed the severity of COVID-19 from the international community in early January while it stockpiled medical supplies by both increasing imports and decreasing exports,” the analysts wrote in the document, dated May 1. “We further assess the Chinese Government attempted to hide its actions by denying there were export restrictions and obfuscating and delaying provision of its trade data.”
An accompanying “reference aid,” issued the same day as that report, reviews the trade data in more detail, citing the increase and decrease of exports and imports of specific medical equipment.
Both documents are unclassified but marked for official use only. ABC first reported the existence of the intelligence document. Yahoo obtained it and the accompanying reference aid and is publishing them in full.
Nate Snyder, who served as a DHS counterterrorism official during the Obama administration, questioned the purpose of the document, which he called “ridiculous.”
“We know through the intelligence community this was bad, that China was likely downplaying the severity of it, and was attempting to mitigate it themselves quietly,” Snyder said. “Yet we ignored that and all the intel and indicators. So I’m not sure what this product is trying to prove aside from finding convenient open sources to point the finger further at China.”
Snyder was particularly critical of the accompanying reference aid, which includes some of the data DHS uses to back up its claims.
“This thing really isn’t deeply cited,” said Snyder, who worked on similar reference aids during his time at DHS. He noted that the sources cited by the reference aid include a local Maine news site and a blog entry posted by a commercial company.
Snyder said this type of document would be shared throughout the intelligence community and with senior policymakers. “The significance of it is now that it’s out there as a reference point, it can be cited and used in synopsis or arguments within the intelligence community now that it’s got the stamp of approval,” he said. “This is considered an official source.”
Among the examples DHS cites is a 200 percent increase in imports of surgical facial masks in January and February 2020, and then a nearly 50 percent decrease in exports in February. For ventilators, DHS reports that China increased its imports by 54 percent in February and decreased exports of the devices by 45 percent.
Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA senior intelligence officer, warned against drawing immediate conclusions about a DHS report based on trade data alone.
“I’d rather hear the [intelligence community’s] analytical judgment, with a low, medium or high level of confidence,” he said. “It’s trade data. That’s not going to answer the question of China’s strategic intent. You need a human source who says this is connected, who can potentially prove intent.”
Hoffman highlighted the challenge of accurately collecting the data on which DHS was relying, given that China has a history of providing unreliable numbers. “China is a ruthless dictatorship, with a long history of not revealing the truth,” he said.
It is unclear precisely what data DHS relied on for the report, since it cites an unspecified “commercial vendor” as the source for data, but says it has “high confidence” in the conclusions about exports and imports.
“This assessment is based on a commercial service that collates world trade data,” the reference aid says. “The data is highly reliable because official U.S. trade data shows similar patterns to the world trade data from the commercial service.”
Joshua Meltzer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in trade policy, was less critical of the data but warned against drawing too sharp a conclusion. “It doesn’t tell you what is going on; it does support the theory of the case that they were stockpiling,” he said.
“It’s going to give you supporting data for the theory,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be conclusive. It does raise a red flag.”
In the reports, DHS says it has “moderate confidence” in its assessment, which it says also considers the effects of U.S. tariffs that could have also contributed to a decline in exports from China to the United States earlier this year. DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding said the DHS report likely doesn’t change what the U.S. government already knows about China’s concealment. “I think you can already draw conclusions already based on the timeline of what we know to be true,” he said, pointing to China’s delays in shutting down international travel and informing the WHO on human transmission of coronavirus.
“You don't even need the DHS report to know this was obfuscated on purpose by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
Spalding, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Stealth War: How China Took Over While America's Elite Slept, points to open source information from January that showed China was hoarding personal protective equipment. “You can look at the records, on social media, you can see pictures of pallets and equipment that essentially have been stockpiled by Chinese companies,” he said.
The trade data is “another fact in the overall understanding of what they did,” he said. “It’s additive — it’s not required to make a determination.”
Hoffman, the former CIA official, says that regardless of the report, China’s efforts to withhold critical information about coronavirus are not in doubt.
“At the end of the day, China saw more value in concealing than in sharing information and revealing they had a problem which was going to impact the rest of the world,” he said. “They should have requested partnership rather than lying.”
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