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As Trump Pushes Theory Of Virus Origins, Some See Parallels In Lead-Up To Iraq War


Over the past week, President Trump and his team have repeatedly claimed to have intelligence showing the new coronavirus accidentally leaked out of a lab in China. An official statement from America's intelligence chief says there is not yet conclusive evidence for that theory. Outside scientists say the chances of a lab accident are very small. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been looking into these claims.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: President Trump was asked about the possibility of a leak from a lab by Fox News last week. And his answer was unequivocal.


JOHN ROBERTS: Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yes, I have. Yes, I have.

BRUMFIEL: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that claim on Sunday. Both men cited classified intelligence, but neither one divulged what evidence they had. Meanwhile, a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated that the intelligence community was still looking into the theory. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell says, from what he's seeing, Trump is way ahead of the intelligence community when he discusses a lab accident.

MICHAEL MORELL: I just don't think the evidence is there yet, either from the intelligence community or from the scientific community, to give the president the credibility to actually say that.

BRUMFIEL: He says the situation reminds him of the run up to the Iraq War, specifically when Vice President Dick Cheney claimed there was a link between al-Qaida and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, even though intelligence agencies had not yet reached a conclusion.

MORELL: And then he continued to say that, even after the intelligence community made the assessment that there was no relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

BRUMFIEL: Morell isn't the only one who sees parallels between the Iraq War and the current crisis. Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He says in the case of Iraq, the administration's interests warped intelligence. And he fears it could be happening again.

JEFFREY LEWIS: They are creating these enormous incentives within the intelligence community to tell them what they want to hear so they can do what they want to do.

BRUMFIEL: And things get even murkier outside the intelligence agencies. In the case of Iraq, U.S. agencies were fed forged documents made to show Iraq was trying to get uranium from Niger. Lewis thinks the forgers were just after money, and it could happen again.

LEWIS: Let me tell you, there are a lot of people around the world who would be only too delighted to fabricate a Chinese document talking about how there was an escape at the laboratory in Wuhan.

BRUMFIEL: Rebeccah Heinrichs of the conservative Hudson Institute says she thinks intelligence analysts know how to keep politics out of their assessments.

REBECCAH HEINRICHS: I don't think that they would come to the conclusion that this may have happened because they're feeling pressure from the top.

BRUMFIEL: And Heinrichs believes Trump doesn't actually have much political motivation for pushing the lab accident theory.

HEINRICHS: This thing does not need to have come from a lab in order for there to be a perfectly legitimate case to be made that a lot of this illness and economic devastation is the fault of the Chinese government.

BRUMFIEL: But former CIA Deputy Michael Morell says he worries this is just part of a broader pattern.

MORELL: President Trump has put a lot of pressure on the intelligence community over the last three years to see the world the way he sees it.

BRUMFIEL: And he says past experience shows that pressure can lead to big mistakes. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.