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Trump's DNI nominee demurs on questions about origins of coronavirus in China

Rep. John Ratcliffe said he had not had an intelligence briefing in weeks.

Asked during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee whether he had seen any intelligence to support an unproven theory that the coronavirus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, Ratcliffe said, “I have not,” before qualifying his answer by saying he had not received a classified briefing in several weeks.

In a subsequent line of questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Ratcliffe said he had not seen intelligence to suggest the disease began in a food market in Wuhan, either.

Ratcliffe also said he believes President Donald Trump has accurately conveyed the severity of the virus, in response to a line of questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

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The ODNI itself released a rare statement last week concurring “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified" and announcing that the intelligence community would investigate whether the outbreak was the result of a lab accident.

But others in the administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have expressed skepticism, pointing out that for a lab accident to be the cause, scientists would have had to find the virus occurring naturally in the field, brought it to a lab where samples are inactivated, and then accidentally infected someone.

Some of the country’s closest intelligence allies, known as the “Five Eyes,” have also dismissed the lab theory. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday, "There's nothing that we have that would indicate that was the likely source.”

Last week, The New York Times reported that allies of President Trump had pressed the intelligence community to find evidence supporting the Wuhan lab theory. The newspaper quoted a former intelligence official as accusing the administration of “conclusion shopping” and politicizing intelligence.

If confirmed, Ratcliffe said, “the intelligence community will be laser focused” on tracking down the origin of the disease, and dismissed suggestions that his close relationship with the president would taint his ability to advise the administration objectively.

“Anyone’s views on what they want the intelligence to be will never impact the intelligence that I deliver. Never,” Ratcliffe said. “I will deliver the unvarnished truth. It won’t be shaded for anyone.”

One of the president’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, Ratcliffe has been nominated to the top intelligence post twice since the previous director, Dan Coats, left government in 2019. Ratcliffe’s first go fizzled out last summer amid bipartisan concern that he lacked the requisite experience.

That concern was exacerbated when ABC News and others reported on inconsistencies and exaggerations in the Republican congressman’s record -- specifically his role in prosecuting a terrorism case he repeatedly cited among his credentials related to national security issues.

In measured tones, Ratcliffe on Tuesday successfully evaded pointed questions from Democrats and appeased Republicans in assuring he would fulfill the responsibilities of the job without partisan motives.

Asked whether he believes the intelligence community has “run amok,” as the president has said, Ratcliffe said he has “never said that.” Ratcliffe also dodged a question about whether a “deep state” exists within the intelligence community: “I don’t know what that means.”

Democrats remained skeptical of Ratcliffe’s ability to lead the 17 intelligence agencies.

“I don’t see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship, and past statements that seemed to embellish your record,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s co-chair, said during his opening statement.

If confirmed, Ratcliffe will take over from Amb. Richard Grenell, who has served as acting director since February. Grenell is the current U.S. ambassador to Germany and another of the president’s loyal allies.

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map
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