As the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis comes to dominate headlines, little media attention has been given to the federal government’s decision to classify top-level meetings on domestic coronavirus response and lean heavily “behind the scenes” on U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon in planning for an allegedly imminent explosion of cases.
The classification of coronavirus planning meetings was first covered by Reuters, which noted that the decision to classify was “an unusual step that has restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion.” Reuters further noted that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, and his chief of staff had “resisted” the classification order, which was made in mid-January by the National Security Council (NSC), led by Robert O’Brien — a longtime friend and colleague of his predecessor John Bolton.
Following this order, HHS officials with the appropriate security clearances held meetings on coronavirus response at the department’s Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF), which are facilities “usually reserved for intelligence and military operations” and — in HHS’ case — for responses to “biowarfare or chemical attacks.” Several officials who spoke to Reuters noted that the classification decision prevented key experts from participating in meetings and slowed down the ability of HHS and the agencies it oversees, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to respond to the crisis by limiting participation and information sharing.
It has since been speculated that the decision was made to prevent potential leaks of information by stifling participation and that aspects of the planned response would cause controversy if made public, especially given that the decision to classify government meetings on coronavirus response negatively impacted HHS’ ability to respond to the crisis.
After the classification decision was made public, a subsequent report in Politico revealed that not only is the National Security Council managing the federal government’s overall response but that they are doing so in close coordination with the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military. It states specifically that “NSC officials have been coordinating behind the scenes with the intelligence and defense communities to gauge the threat and prepare for the possibility that the U.S. government will have to respond to much bigger numbers—and soon.”