The House Armed Services Committee meets to discuss the emerging challenges COVID-19 brings to biological security

Mr. Lasseter responds to Representative Keating’s question about his recollection of the HPCon alert timeline at beginning of the global pandemic in January and February.

By: Sarah Ricker

After months of wondering what had to have gone wrong for the United States to be so overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in a matter of months, members of the House Armed Services Committee want answers.

The committee met last Friday for a joint hearing with the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, as well as the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation to discuss how COVID-19 has increased the need for biosecurity and how to address the short comings of leadership within the Department of Defense the Department of State in the early months of the pandemic.

Among the government entities represented at the hearing, was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, David Lasseter, who emphasized throughout the hearing the importance of a “flow of information” in the intelligence community.

Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts from the House Armed Service Committee agreed that the “sharing of information is critical” and asked Lasseter, “As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed and military intelligence followed it, what kinds of levels of alert occurred in January and February?”

Lasseter responded by explained that the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, identified three priorities to combat COVID: to protect our people, to maintain mission readiness, and to ensure the support of the whole of government effort. He added that it was in March, not February, when DOD was brought to an alert level that reduced the number of people present at their jobs.

“Information flow did happen and does happen. I think we’ve pointed out, all of us here today, that information flow is vital, while the intelligence community collects information,” Lasseter said when he was interrupted by Keating.

“Can you just get to the point?” Representative Keating said and restated his question of whether DOD’s alert ever changed in February.

Lasseter could not provide that information from memory but said that the levels of alert at that time would have been flowing within the intelligence community.

Representative Keating expressed his frustration further by explaining this information flow was not extended to the legislative branch. “I’m concerned about the sharing of information, which was slow to Congress,” he said, “Because, indeed, if we are going to do this, what you’ve said as witnesses, placing the importance on sharing that information- it’s critical. Then it is my concern that that was not being done in a timely fashion.”

Witness Jonathan Moore, the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs (OES), had the same opinion about information flow as it relates to China, which he addressed in his opening testimony.  He said the Chinese Communist Party did not meet their responsibility to alert the world about the threat of Coronavirus. Instead they silenced doctors, scientists and journalists to “further their own geo-political agenda.” Moore also explained that the CCP also “re-shaped the narrative” by donating masks and making “grandiose claims” about the creation of vaccine’s quality and efficacy.

Representative Sherman of California from the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation, had concerns about these beginning months of the pandemic and asked Moore, “What is the administration’s operating assumptions and how would we assign percent likelihood to the four possibilities as to how this plague began?”

Of the four possibilities were the wet market, a Wuhan scientific lab (engaged in peaceful activity) with an unintentional release, a Wuhan military lab with an unintentional release, or a deliberate release from a Woo-Han lab.

Moore said, “There are varying levels of possibility. What we do know, is that the ‘COVID-19’ was described in academic research that was published several years ago including in the People’s Republic of China, identified as existing in animals. It is a virus of zoonotic origin.”

He emphasized that the “wet market,” also known as the live animal market, was an aspect of Sherman’s question is very important due to the extreme problem of wildlife trafficking from the People’s Republic of China.  

Under Representative Sherman’s rapid questioning, Moore answered confidently. “There has not been a fundamental permanent change in blocking illegal wildlife trade including its sale at wet markets including the People’s Republic of China. It’s a practice which does exist in other countries as well and we are working to end it,” he said, speaking for OES.

Representative Andy Levin of Michigan from the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation asked whether the lack of answers and the threat of COVID-19 made us weak in the eyes of international actors who wish to harm the U.S.

Phillip Dolliff, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Programs at the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, could not answer this question in its entirety in an unclassified context, but added, “I take your point… the pandemic poses an enormous challenge of safety.”

Another challenge these departments are facing is the decrease in funding.

Jim Langevin of Rhode Island and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee said, there were “significant cuts” to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and asks, “what additional work would DTR be able to perform if Congress is in fact able to restore the funding?”

Oxford said DTRA would be able to restore activities in 22 countries on original emphasis in these areas which gives broader coverage. The other witnesses agree that with funding restored their reach would greatly improve, especially in the country’s time of need.

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