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An Underwhelming Intel Report on Covid-19 Origins
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An Underwhelming Intel Report on Covid-19 Origins

Plus: The fallout of the Wagner Group rebellion.

Happy Thursday! “Kyle from Chicago,” visiting Nashville for the NHL Draft last night, was stopped on the street this week by the crew from The Penalty Box podcast for a man-on-the-street interview about hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks’ pick of once-in-a-generation talent, Connor Bedard, as the number one overall selection. “On a scale of one to ten, how much would you say you know about hockey?” He responded: “I didn’t play professionally or anything, so probably like a four?” He was being…modest. Unbeknownst to the interviewer, “Kyle from Chicago” was Blackhawks General Manager, Kyle Davidson. Well played.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Gary Shapley—an IRS whistleblower who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee—told Fox News’ Bret Baier Wednesday that the Department of Justice blocked the IRS from executing a search warrant as part of its investigation into Hunter Biden. In a redacted transcript released last week, Shapley told the committee the DOJ also prevented the U.S. attorney overseeing the investigation from bringing felony charges against Biden on at least two occasions. Also Wednesday, President Joe Biden denied he was involved or present in 2017 when his son Hunter Biden allegedly texted a Chinese businessman claiming he was with his father as leverage to push for payments.
  • Wildfire smoke drifting down from Canada caused air quality alerts for dangerous pollutants in 20 states across the United States on Wednesday, reaching as far south as Atlanta and Birmingham. The National Weather Service predicts air quality will improve today.
  • The Biden administration is reportedly considering new export controls that would restrict China’s ability to obtain certain artificial intelligence technologies. Shares of U.S.-based chip producer Nvidia—which created a new, weaker chip for Chinese buyers to evade previous U.S. export restrictions—fell 1.8 percent Wednesday.
  • Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński announced Wednesday the country will boost security at its border with Belarus to prepare for the arrival of Wagner Group fighters exiled to the country after the Russian paramilitary group’s aborted rebellion against the Kremlin. Polish officials estimate 8,000 Wagner fighters will come to Belarus—which is already at odds with Poland over migrant flows—and Kaczyński said Poland will increase its troop presence and build unspecified defenses along the border.
  • Daniel Penny—the U.S. Marine veteran who choked and killed New Yorker Jordan Neely on a subway in May after the mentally ill man began acting aggressively toward commuters—pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges on Wednesday. Penny was indicted by a New York grand jury last month.
  • Israeli officials have reportedly detained four Jewish Israeli settlers accused of burning Palestinians’ cars and looting homes in the West Bank during settler riots, which began after a Palestinian terror attack Tuesday killed four Israelis near Eli, an Israeli West Bank settlement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday denounced the riots, but authorized 1,000 new settler homes in Eli as a “response to terror.”
  • Former U.S. Senator and Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker died Wednesday at the age of 92. A Republican willing to buck his party throughout his three terms in the Senate, Weicker’s political career was kickstarted by his prominent role in the body’s Watergate investigation.

Intel Community Releases Little COVID Intel

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Our TMD writers are no strangers to missing deadlines, but even we were struck by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’ tardiness. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was statutorily required to release a report on June 18, but the agency published it more than a week late—and it came in at a measly 10 pages long. 

Depending on where you’re standing, the long-awaited declassified ODNI report on the pandemic’s origins demonstrates either a lack of proof for the COVID lab leak theory or the theory’s continued viability. With more questions than answers, some lawmakers continue to scrutinize funding for coronavirus research conducted at labs like the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The House and Senate unanimously passed the COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023 in March, requiring ODNI to declassify intelligence on COVID’s origins in light of the Department of Energy (DOE) assessment that the virus had likely originated in a lab. Anyone hoping for a clear verdict, however, will be sorely disappointed. The resulting report reiterated previously known fractures among intelligence agencies over how the pandemic likely began—the FBI and the DOE believe COVID stemmed from a lab incident, four unnamed agencies and the National Intelligence Council fault natural transmission, and the CIA and another unnamed agency remain undecided. “Variations in IC analytic views on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic largely stem from differences in how agencies weigh intelligence reporting and scientific publications and intelligence and scientific gaps,” the ODNI concluded

None of the agencies has a high level of confidence in its assessment, but the report also makes clear “all agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection.” 

The report reads like an adiaphorous shrug, offering little new information and pointing out the lack of definitive evidence for or against either theory of COVID’s origins. It discounts, for example, reports of three WIV researchers—including one working on U.S.-funded coronavirus research—falling sick with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019. If they had COVID, a lab origin looks pretty likely—but according to the report, there’s no guarantee that they did. “The researchers’ symptoms could have been caused by a number of diseases and some of the symptoms were not consistent with COVID-19,” it concludes. (For whatever it’s worth, some of the researchers themselves have also denied that they were sick with COVID.) 

Lax Wuhan Institute safety standards also aren’t a smoking gun, the report argues. Sure, “some WIV researchers probably did not use adequate biosafety precautions at least some of the time prior to the pandemic in handling SARS-like coronaviruses, increasing the risk of accidental exposure to viruses.” But on the other hand, the IC does “not know of a specific biosafety incident at the WIV that spurred the pandemic.” 

Republican lawmakers have expressed frustration with the ODNI report, labeling it a nothingburger that failed to disclose all the intelligence information required by the Origin Act. Sens. Josh Hawley and Mike Braun sent a letter to Haines Tuesday calling for a more substantive accounting. “Obviously, the U.S. government is in possession of more information than that,” they wrote. “This half-baked effort falls woefully short of the statutory requirements and undermines congressional intent.” The Senators requested the ODNI provide a new, fuller report within a week.

Even as President Biden signed the Origin Act into law in March, he made clear some intelligence would remain secret. “In implementing this legislation, my administration will declassify and share as much of that information as possible, consistent with my constitutional authority to protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security,” he said. Last week, a White House National Security Council spokesperson described the report as the furthest the intelligence agencies could go while still “protecting sources and methods.”

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones frustrated by the lack of transparency. “The Biden administration missed the deadline by five days and then released a summary document that not only failed to declassify and release ‘all’ U.S. intelligence but indeed, failed to declassify and release any new U.S. intelligence,” Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, tells TMD. Ebright has long been a critic of gain-of-function research, which imbues viruses with new properties and which many proponents of the lab-leak theory believe was behind the original strain of COVID-19.

Although COVID burst onto the scene more than three years ago, the debate over its origins has serious policy implications for future pandemic research and preparedness. If COVID-19 was the result of natural transmission, regulating or closing live animal markets and preserving habitats to prevent close contact with animals could help prevent the next global calamity. If a lab leak was the culprit, calls to end such research—or at least dramatically tighten lab safety and security measures—would grow even louder.

But with the intelligence community increasingly unlikely to ever provide a final answer, some lawmakers have decided to forge ahead on their own, cutting U.S. funding for the kind of virology research conducted at WIV. Last week, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa successfully attached amendments to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would cut all Department of Defense funding to the EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based public research organization that has faced tremendous scrutiny for its role in directing government funds to WIV for coronavirus research. Senators have yet to formally pass the NDAA—the process typically takes months—but the Senate Armed Services Committee last week overwhelmingly approved markups to the bill, including Ernst’s amendments. 

Earlier this year, the inspector general’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services released a report that found the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had failed to properly monitor grant funding it had issued to EcoHealth, a portion of which EcoHealth sub-granted to WIV. The report did not include evidence that WIV or EcoHealth research was responsible for COVID, but it did reveal that, according to the NIH, EcoHealth failed to comply with reporting requirements in 2018 and 2019 around unexpected viral growth in its grant-funded experiments.

The NIH eventually suspended its grant to EcoHealth in April 2020, but reinstated a modified version of the grant last month, axing funding for WIV and requiring stricter oversight from NIH— specific pre-approval for spending and any subgrants, and requiring EcoHealth undergo a financial audit. “It is important to study these questions of disease spillover risk in emerging infectious disease hotspots to be better prepared to deal with the next pandemic,” EcoHealth said upon the continuation of funding. “[The updated grant] clarifies that the work does not involve recombinant virus technology, dual use research of concern, nor experiments intended to enhance the virulence or transmissibility of human pathogens (so-called ‘gain of function’ research).”

Those guarantees weren’t enough to satisfy Ernst. “EcoHealth has proven it can’t be trusted—with taxpayer dollars or dangerous diseases,” she tells TMD. “We are pulling the plug on Pentagon funding to prevent a repeat of what happened in Wuhan somewhere else in the world.” While Ernst’s NDAA amendments wouldn’t affect the NIH’s grant, the Defense Department has provided $46 million in funding to EcoHealth since 2008—more than any other government agency. 

Meanwhile, the debate over COVID’s origins isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—Republican lawmakers still plan to grill officials about how they handled suggestions of a lab leak. The House Oversight Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic will hold a hearing next month to “assess whether America’s leading health officials acted to downplay the lab leak theory and evaluate the long-term consequences of stifling scientific debate to fit a desired narrative.”

Prigozhin’s Rebellion: The Continuing Saga

Earlier this week, one intrepid reporter on the Defense Department beat voiced what the whole world was thinking when he asked Pentagon Press Secretary Patrick Ryder, “Are we in a Weekend At Bernie’s scenario right now?”

Such is Yevgeny Prigozhin’s lot since last week’s aborted mutiny in Russia—having to show his face publicly (walking of his own volition) at regular intervals just to prove he’s still alive. The Russian oligarch and his Wagner Group—a mercenary army known for doing the Kremlin’s dirty work around the world, including on the battlefield in Ukraine—now face an uncertain future after long-simmering tensions with the Russian military erupted into a short-lived rebellion last weekend.

More details have emerged about the attempted putsch since we last wrote to you, but the story is being told primarily by three notoriously unreliable narrators: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin, for its part, seems to be trying to do two contradictory things at once: condemn treason that it says almost led to a civil war, and project its own stability and control of the situation. To do that, it’s eschewing—for now—most criminal punishment for the perpetrators. 

According to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, offing Prigozhin was on the table when he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday morning as Prigozhin’s mutiny was ongoing. “I thought: it was possible to kill him,” Lukashenko claimed Tuesday. “I told Putin: ‘He can be eliminated. That is not a problem. If not at the first try, but at the second one for sure.’ I said then: ‘Do not do it.’” Apparently, in the name of peace—and for fear of his loyal mercenaries’ reaction—the duo decided to spare the Wagner Group leader.

Though reports from Russian media earlier this week indicated otherwise, the FSB—Russia’s security service—said Tuesday it had closed the investigation into Prigozhin it had swiftly opened Friday night as he threatened rebellion, ultimately bringing no criminal charges against the mercenary leader or any of his men. Lukashenko claimed Tuesday Prigozhin had landed in Belarus to begin his exile, one of the requirements of the deal the Belarusian leader brokered between Putin and Prigozhin.

That same day, during a ceremony at the Kremlin honoring members of the Russian National Guard and security forces, Putin thanked soldiers for their service to the “Motherland” over the weekend. “You have stopped a civil war,” he said, echoing a sentiment he had expressed on Saturday as the mutiny was underway.

The apocalyptic rhetoric, however, seems at odds with the punishment Putin has thus far meted out for the mutineers. That disconnect may be intentional. “Putin is doing everything in his power to make sure that Prigozhin does not become a martyr for the need to change military commands in an effort to win the war” Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, tells TMD. The Russian leader, she added, is also trying to avoid alienating former Wagner fighters he hopes will go on to sign defense ministry contracts.

Putin claimed Tuesday the Russian state paid Wagner the equivalent of almost $1 billion over the last year. “I hope that while doing so they didn’t steal anything, or stole not so much,” he said of Wagner without naming Prigozhin directly. The remarks represent the first time the Russian president has acknowledged public funding for the paramilitary organization, and, according to Stepanenko, the disclosure was perhaps motivated by an effort to make Prigozhin look ideologically bankrupt—and downright corrupt—after pushing back on the defense ministry.

Prigozhin, for his part, tried on Monday to downplay the rebellion. “The goal of our campaign was to prevent the destruction of Wagner Group and hold accountable the individuals who, through their unprofessional actions, made a significant number of mistakes during the Special Operation,” he said, speaking for the first time since Saturday’s mutiny in an 11-minute audio message posted to the social media site Telegram. He suggested his decision to march to Moscow was made spontaneously—shortly after a still-unconfirmed air strike against a Wagner encampment in Ukraine which he claims killed at least 30 of his mercenaries—and maintained he never had any intention of ousting Putin. “We marched to demonstrate our opposition,” he said, “not to overthrow the government.”

That may be true, but new reporting on U.S. intelligence assessments complicates the story. As we wrote earlier this week, American three-letter agencies were reportedly aware Prigozhin was planning some sort of retaliation against Russian military leaders after they issued a June 10 decree forcing all of Russia’s private military companies to sign contracts with the defense ministry—functionally absorbing them into the ministry—by July 1. New reporting from the Wall Street Journal goes even further, suggesting Prigozhin had planned to capture Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov—with whom he has a long-running and well-publicized feud—during a planned visit by the duo to Wagner’s position in southern Ukraine.

The FSB reportedly got a whiff of what Prigozhin was planning, but did little to prevent him and his forces from taking Rostov-on-Don, the southern military district headquarters. Western officials, according to the Journal’s reporting, believed Prigozhin’s original plan had a “good chance” of success but that the Wagner leader was forced to “improvise” after his scheme was leaked.

Details are still murky, but he may have had a man on the inside. According to the New York Times, a Wagner-friendly Russian general, Sergey Serovikin, might have known about Prigozhin’s rebellion in advance. Western officials are investigating whether he was also involved in the planning, and whether Prigozhin might have been expecting more support from the military establishment. As the Wagner leader was making noise about a rebellion Friday night, Serovikin—the second in command of Russia’s invasion demoted from the top job in January—released a video urging the mutineers to return to their camps. He’s yet to be seen publicly since releasing the video, and, according to some reports, is currently in Russian custody.

As the July 1 deadline approaches for Wagner mercenaries to sign defense ministry contracts, the next big question will be, “What happens to Wagner now?” On that, too, Moscow is sending mixed messages. The defense ministry suggested Tuesday it had begun accepting heavy weaponry from Wagner men as part of the group’s demilitarization, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to indicate Wagner would continue its activities in Africa, where the group provides contracted security services to regimes in Mali, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. They’re tasked with fighting terrorists and armed rebel groups, and are known for their “shoot first, ask questions later” ethos that has allegedly resulted in the massacre of civilians. Lavrov said Monday Wagner—whose mercenaries he claimed were working as “instructors”—was doing “a good job” in Africa. 

They were doing “a good job” in Ukraine, too, notching most of the few victories Moscow can claim in its invasion—a fact that, according to Stepanenko, makes reorganizing Wagner and trying to win over the former mercenaries such a high-stakes game for Putin: “He needs these forces to continue fighting in Ukraine.”

Worth Your Time

  • Fifty years ago, a fire on the sixth floor of a nearly five-acre government records building in St. Louis destroyed 17,517,490 military personnel records and damaged some 6.5 million more, obliterating a swathe of history. For Wired, Megan Greenwell recounts the fire, archivists’ efforts to rescue and preserve the documents, and her hunt for her grandfather’s World War II service records. “When I visit the National Personnel Records Center in early March, Ashley Cox, who leads a team of preservation specialists, is opening a folder for a World War II lieutenant named William F. Weisnet,” Greenwell writes. “Cox [thinks] of each record she works with as if it were a person under her care. ‘This particular person got very damaged, and you can go through all the physical therapy ever, but that injury is still going to hurt,’ she says, gesturing at Weisnet’s inch-thick file. ‘So the less that you can aggravate that old injury, the safer it is.’”

Presented Without Comment

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Also Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team reports on Nikki Haley’s attacks on Trump and Scott Walker’s potential Senate bid in Wisconsin, Nick wonders if (🔒) the GOP presidential primary isn’t over before it even gets started, and Jonah defends conservatism from the “opportunists and pyromaniacs” on the right who are “rejecting the ideals we once took as givens.”
  • On the podcasts: Jonah returns for a listener question-fueled Remnant, tackling everything from the latest Supreme Court controversy to the conservative underpinnings of popular movies and television shows.
  • On the site: Jacob breaks down an upcoming SCOTUS case on religious liberties, Peter explains the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit against Amazon, and Rebeccah Heinrichs covers the fallout from the Wagner group’s rebellion in Russia.

Let Us Know

Do you agree with Sen. Ernst that the United States should not be using taxpayer dollars to “underwrit[e] risky research or subsidiz[e] communist China’s state-run institutions?” If Chinese scientists are going to continue such risky research regardless, would you prefer that their American counterparts at least have visibility into what they’re doing?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Jacob Wendler is an intern for The Dispatch.