A shocking report suggesting that the coronavirus was “release[d from] the Wuhan Institute of Virology” in China is now circulating in U.S. military and intelligence circles and on Capitol Hill. But there’s a critical flaw in the report, a Daily Beast analysis reveals: Some of its most seemingly persuasive evidence is false—provably false.
Multiple congressional committees have obtained and are scrutinizing the 30-page report, produced by the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE), a part of Sierra Nevada, a major Department of Defense contractor. The report claims to rely on social media postings, commercial satellite imagery, and cellphone location data to draw the conclusion that some sort of “hazardous event” occurred at the Wuhan virology lab in October 2019—an event that allowed COVID-19 to escape. It’s a theory that has gained currency on the political right and in the upper tiers of the Trump administration.
But the report’s claim centers around missing location data for up to seven phones — and in many cases, less than that. It’s too small a sample size to prove much of anything, especially when the same devices showed similar absences in the spring of 2019. The MACE document claims a November 2019 conference was canceled because of some calamity; in fact, there are selfies from the event.
What’s more, imagery collected by DigitalGlobe’s Maxar Technologies satellites and provided to The Daily Beast reveals a simpler, less exotic reason for why analysts believed “roadblocks” went into place around the lab after the supposed accident: road construction. The Maxar images also show typical workdays, with normal traffic patterns around the lab, after the supposedly cataclysmic event.
“This is an illustrated guide on how not to do open source analysis,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who analyzed the MACE report for The Daily Beast. “It is filled with apples-to-oranges comparisons, motivated reasoning, and a complete refusal to consider mundane explanations or place the data in any sort of context.”
A Department of Defense spokesperson told The Daily Beast that MACE did not produce the report “in coordination with the DoD.” Sierra Nevada did not respond to a request for comment.
The document, which NBC News first published and reported on May 8, made its way to Capitol Hill just days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in an interview that there was “enormous evidence” to suggest that the virus came from the lab in Wuhan.
He appeared to back away from that claim this weekend telling Breitbart: “We know it began in Wuhan, but we don’t know from where or from whom.”
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were briefed on the report by MACE earlier this month following Pompeo’s remarks, according to two congressional aides familiar with the matter. The report then made its way to the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Multiple congressional committees have asked MACE to meet and discuss its product. Members have also asked senior officials in the Trump administration to answer questions about whether they trust the report and agree with its claims.
According to Senate aides who have reviewed the document, there appear to be issues with the analysis. One of those sources said the report “doesn’t quite pass the smell test.” Another congressional source told The Daily Beast that the report was “not based on actual intelligence.”
The emergence of the MACE document comes amid a concerted effort to place blame for the coronavirus pandemic squarely on Beijing. And its existence is confirmation that government resources are now being devoted to exploring that proposition, even as the actual intelligence remains far less conclusive. While there’s broad agreement that COVID-19 emerged in China, The New York Times reported that top members of the Trump administration have pushed U.S. intelligence agencies to look for some sort of Chinese government culpability, and to investigate the Wuhan lab theory.
President Trump told reporters earlier this month that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan lab because “somebody was stupid.” Since then, the administration has yet to release any evidence to support that theory. Foreign officials as well as members of Trump’s own coronavirus task force have pushed back. Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, has said the virus originated “in the wild.”
“Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told National Geographic.
The MACE document suggests that Chinese authorities blocked off traffic surrounding the Wuhan lab in mid-October. The authors leave readers with the impression that a purported drop in local traffic shows that Chinese officials recognized a leak had taken place and tried to prevent passers-by from being infected. “It is believed that roadblocks were put in place to prevent traffic from coming near the facility,” the document says.
In particular, the authors pointed to a decrease in cellphone location data from a highway that passes the lab shortly after the alleged incident. “There was absolutely no traffic” near the facility from Oct. 14-19, the document claims.
But that’s simply not so. That conclusion is disproved by satellite imagery provided to The Daily Beast by DigitalGlobe’s Maxar satellites. Imagery taken on Oct. 17, shows vehicles on the road by the facility, in the lab’s parking lot near the BSL-4 lab where a leak supposedly originated, and at nearby buildings. “The traffic pattern visible on October 17, 2019 is identical to traffic patterns on other days. People are still coming to work,” Lewis said.
The Maxar imagery also shows why MACE analysts may have believed roadblocks were in place around the facility. It shows construction of a highway near the Wuhan lab close to completion in October.
“Those closures and roadblocks are far more likely to relate to construction we know is happening. For what it is worth, there are cars and buses at neighboring businesses on October 17—so I imagine some of the lack of data may relate to collection problems since it appears people were at work,” Lewis observed.