The effort will bring National Laboratories, a collection of 17 elite research facilities under the Department of Energy, “because of their ability to analyze massive amounts of data,” a White House official told CNN.
What these “massive amounts of data” contain remains unclear, although several sources tell CNN that this is almost certainly not a new slice of intelligence information.
“There really is no new collection that the intelligence community can do [on the origin question] of which I am aware, ”said an American official.
But officials may not need to collect anything new to achieve a breakthrough. They may just need the right tools to further analyze the mountains of intercepted communications and other electromagnetic intelligence they already have. The intelligence community regularly collects far more raw intelligence than its analysts can analyze – “it’s an ongoing challenge that we collect more than we have analysts to deal with,” said a person familiar with the intelligence. – suggesting that national laboratories’ supercomputers can be used to help sift through this data.
Rely on science
Now, as the lab leak theory began to gain more acceptance in the academic community and pressure increased on Capitol Hill to explore this possibility, the Biden administration has indicated it wants to rely more on the traditional science to help find an answer.
“We want science to play a big role in all of this,” the White House official said. “We are going to use all the resources of our intelligence and our scientific community to try to get to the bottom of things. ”
It may simply mean leveraging sophisticated data science tools to sift through tons of intercepted information. But it can also mean empowering traditional lab scientists within the intelligence community.
Several sources tell CNN that senior scientists working on the issue in government, some of whom supported the theory of laboratory leaks, have felt overwhelmed by the predisposition of the broader intelligence community to believe the virus was d ‘natural origin.
“I think it’s fair to say that there was a tendency to watch – just as there was in the public sphere – to look at the lab leak as an offshoot,” a former administration official said. . “Yeah, we’ll think about it but most of these things are from zoonotic or natural origin.” ”
For nearly a year, a fierce debate raged over whether the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab or originated in the wild. Initially, prominent scientists publicly derided the so-called laboratory leak theory – adopted by then-President Donald Trump and his allies – as a conspiracy theory, and the intelligence community published a rare public statement at the end of April 2020 stating that she “also agrees with the broad scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not created by humans or genetically modified. ”
But as early as March 27, 2020, the Defense Intelligence Agency – home to one of the most robust scientific cells in the intelligence community – in a classified assessment reported by Newsweek discovered that the virus may have emerged. “Accidentally” as a result of “unsafe laboratory practices”.
Supported by a recent series of influential academic papers, the theory of laboratory leaks has since become more mainstream. In his statement on Wednesday, Biden said two elements of the intelligence community lean more toward the theory that the virus “arose from human contact with an infected animal,” while one leaned more toward the theory. that he was born from a laboratory accident.
Trying to find an answer
So far, said a source familiar with the matter, the intelligence community has relied heavily on interceptions in an attempt to understand the origins of the pandemic that has so far killed more than 3.5 million people in the country. world.
One of the first ways officials sought answers was to tap into vast volumes of signal intelligence gathered from government officials, including people associated with Chinese labs and agencies working on it. effort to fight the virus, US officials said. The idea was that if lax lab security practices or other mistakes allowed the virus to escape, Chinese officials would be detected scrambling to fix the problem.
But communications between senior Chinese officials that the Americans have gathered and analyzed, along with information from other intelligence sources, have so far failed to support this theory, US officials said.
“You would think that if top Chinese officials knew it was a leak, they would talk about it – trying to cover it up, etc. One of these officials said. ” [There are] no indication on this subject. ”
The absence of all steamy communication is not critical, the person said – Chinese officials are operationally savvy and may take extreme precautions in their conversations about the virus.
The country is generally “a very difficult target,” former director of national intelligence James Clapper said. “The Chinese are very secure and have a very aggressive counterintelligence capability. ”
The Chinese government’s lack of transparency and restricted data sharing have also hampered the intelligence community’s ability to thoroughly investigate the laboratory leak theory. The United States and Britain called on China earlier this week to participate in a second phase of a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the pandemic, but China has responded that its role in the investigation “was finished”.
This claim by Beijing was “an accelerator” in the White House push to make public the ongoing US intelligence review on the matter, and officials were keen to stress that the United States would not rely on it. not just on the WHO investigation to determine the origins of the virus, the White House official said.
Still, some former officials were skeptical that the redoubled effort would lead to new revelations about the origins of the virus.
“The same allegations were raised under the Trump administration but were rejected by his opponents. It sometimes feels like the Biden administration is saying that since we couldn’t trust anything under Donald Trump, they are undertaking an internal review that reissues the same decisions just to put a seal of authority on them, ”said a former intelligence officer. “In the absence of a new fundraising feed on this issue, I think this may well be what we will see in the coming weeks. “
CNN’s Evan Perez and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.