The contentious briefing highlights Republicans’ unwillingness to accept the inconclusive findings of the administration’s 90-day investigation to determine the origins of the pandemic and portends that the issue will likely remain a key plank of GOP criticism of the Biden administration.
Some lawmakers have seized on the ongoing ambiguity surrounding the origins question as an opening to argue that Biden has not been tough enough on China.
Republican insistence about exploring the lab leak theory comes against the backdrop of ongoing friction between China and the United States over the pandemic’s origins. President Joe Biden has vowed to continue to push China for answers about the source of the virus and, in September, pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on the matter in a phone call.
No firm conclusions
The Biden administration concluded its 90-day review into the origins of the pandemic in August without reaching any firm conclusions about whether the virus developed naturally or escaped from a lab. Officials continue to believe that both scenarios are likely, but that hasn’t satisfied Republicans who charge that the administration isn’t interested in thoroughly investigating the lab leak scenario.
During the September 29 briefing, which was intended to provide House Intelligence Committee lawmakers with an opportunity to ask questions about the probe and its findings, Republican members pressed intelligence briefers to identify outside experts who were involved in the investigation, the five sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
Those lawmakers grew frustrated when the briefers declined to name the experts, the sources said. One source noted that Congress has the power to compel that information — although it has not done so to date and appears unlikely to do so under Democratic control.
At one point during the hearing, in a move that disturbed some Democratic members of the committee, GOP lawmakers read through a list of names and asked briefers to give a yes or no answer as to whether they were involved, according to multiple sources familiar with the meeting.
Intelligence officials would not typically be expected to disclose those names in a briefing setting, although one source familiar with the meeting noted that Republicans were seeking to identify non-government scientists who had been consulted — not intelligence officials.
Under particular scrutiny is Peter Daszak, the US representative to the World Health Organization’s investigation into the pandemic’s origins last year, which declared the virus had almost certainly developed naturally. CNN has reached out to Daszak for comment.
Daszak had previously partnered with the lab in Wuhan, China, where some believe that the virus may have originated, to do the kind of research on bat coronaviruses that some scientists and intelligence officials now think could have led to the pandemic. Critics, including some Republican lawmakers, have raised questions about whether Daszak’s past work with the lab constitutes a conflict of interest.
China has repeatedly denied the possibility that the virus may have escaped from a lab and has declined to cooperate in further international investigation into the matter.
After the WHO investigation, Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus almost immediately declared publicly that there had not been sufficient investigation into the possibility of a lab leak.
House Republicans, citing mostly publicly-available information, have claimed that “the preponderance of evidence suggests” the coronavirus was accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan in 2019, according a GOP report released in August by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. Rather than relying on classified intelligence, the report was based largely on news and academic articles and interviews.
The Republicans have repeatedly sought to characterize the Biden administration as uninterested in conducting a rigorous investigation into the possibility that the Covid-19 virus might have escaped from a lab.
“Unfortunately, the Biden administration is refusing to take investigating the origins of this virus seriously,” McCaul said in June.
Intelligence officials have confidently concluded that the virus was not the product of a Chinese bioweapon program.