House Intel panel chair weighs in on Xi visit, origins of Covid
After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee told CBS News he thinks Xi may be eyeing a future consolidation of the power of authoritarian regimes.
Asked about the national security implications of a closer relationship between China and Russia, Republican Rep. Mike Turner, of Ohio, replied, “President Xi is saying, ‘I want to go to a new era where authoritarian regimes win over democracy and freedom.’ That’s essential for us to double down. And we’re going to make certain that we make certain our military is strong, that we rise to this occasion of challenge and that we ensure that they don’t get the change that they’re asking for.”
Turner, a member of the congressional Gang of Eight, is briefed on the most sensitive government intelligence. The Ohio congressman has also been deeply involved in efforts to declassify intelligence about the origins of COVID-19, which according to the CDC has contributed to the deaths of more than 1.1 million Americans.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation to require Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, to declassify any information about links between the origins of the pandemic and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the same city where the pandemic was first reported.
“I think that they’re going to see that there is substantial evidence concerning a lab leak and that there’s only speculative evidence with respect to a natural occurrence,” Turner said. “And this is going to be very different than what people concluded upon reading the declassified material that the administration has released.”
Some virologists say spread from another species into humans is a more likely explanation for how the outbreak began. A recent analysis of samples collected from a market in Wuhan found the virus was shed in close proximity to live animals susceptible to infection. However, these scientists also urged further studies into key questions around COVID’s origins.
“We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results. Understanding how the pandemic began remains both a moral and scientific imperative,” World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
Turner predicted that the declassified intelligence would “help people become informed as to really where else the investigations need to go and that there is significant information that we have that would lead people to the conclusion, as Director Wray has said of the FBI, that (it) is his conclusion that it would be a lab leak in origin.”
In early March, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an interview with Fox News that “the FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident.”
While intelligence agencies have not been able to reach a consensus on the origin of the pandemic, the Energy Department, too, recently concluded with “low confidence” that it is plausible that an accidental lab leak was the source of the coronavirus.
In Ottawa Friday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told CBS News’ Christina Ruffini that the Energy Department’s report “is still classified,” and said that the intelligence community is currently “going through the process of determining what can be unclassified.” She added that currently, the sources and methods in the department’s report remain classified.
In January 2021, a State Department fact sheet released by the outgoing Trump administration found “several researchers inside the WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) became sick in (the) Autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
Turner said he would press the intelligence community “to release the names of individuals who were involved, and that may have been in contact in a lab release situation,” so that his committee is able to follow up with them.
He also intends to seek information about the scientific experts who advised the U.S. government about COVID-19 origins.
“I think they should release the information as to who they were talking to before, what scientists, what experts did they talk to that gave them the ability to say that they think it was of natural occurrence,” he said.
Those types of names, information, dates, data that had not been made public, I think will allow for greater scrutiny, really, of this whole incident and what the administration needs to do next.”
Grace Kazarian contributed to this report.