The 'Lab-leak' inquiry at the State Department: An Open Letter by former Assistant Secretary of Stat


The'Lab-leak' inquiry at the State Department: An Open Letter by formerAssistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford

Christopher Ford , Tuesday 31 Aug 2021

In both journalism and policymaking — if not always in politics, or inthe sordid world of score-settling by unemployed, second-rateapparatchiks — facts matter, and intellectual integrity matters. Inlight of the remarkable quantity of errant nonsense that has beenwritten in the last couple of weeks about squabbles inside the U.S.State Department about how to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 inthe closing weeks of the Trump Administration, I hope this openletter will help set the record straight for those who still careabout things such as facts.

I write this because, to put it bluntly, I’m tired of being the buttof stupid and paranoid conspiracy theories being promulgated by thosewho know better. I recognize that some of these conspiracy narrativesare, for any thoughtful person, self-refuting even on their face. (Assomeone who has been warning the policy community since at least 2007about threats to the United States and the democratic world from theChinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions — including intwo scholarly books and scores of articles and speeches, including inofficial capacity at the State Department — have I been“protecting” the Chinese Communist Party from accountability?Good grief.)

Nevertheless,I’ve been around politics long enough to know that an imbecilitythat slots into a convenient narrative beats an awkward fact any day,and manic performative outrage is much more fun than sober analysis.So perhaps offering clarity here won’t change a thing. Yet I’mstill going to try.

I’m also going to try to do something unorthodox here. Rather than usingthis letter as an opportunity to invent and loudly dispense my ownpost hoc version of what happened — a dishonestrevisionism-of-convenience that is in abundant supply, but that Iwill leave to others — I will try to offer you only specific claimsthat are supported by contemporaneous documents that enterprisingjournalists at Fox News and Vanity Fair have recently put into thepublic record.

PartOne:   A Clear Documentary Record

In particular, since the question at hand is my own particular role andposition in connection with investigating the origins of the COVID-19virus, I will refer to three unclassified documents that I myselfwrote and sent to others at the State Department in early January2021. (For the record, I did not retain these documents when I leftthe Department. Thankfully, however — at least for me — some ofthe lies being told on these topics have apparently caused offenseamong those who know what really happened and clearly did retain thedocuments.) I’m happy to see them in the public record, becausethey make very clear exactly what I was doing at the time, and why.

The documents are as follows:

1.An e-mail I sent to Tom DiNanno and David Asher on January 4, 2021,which can be found here thanks to Fox News;
2. An e-mail exchangebetween me and DiNanno on January 5–6, which can be found herethanks to Fox News; and
3. A message I sent to a number of seniorState Department officials on January 8, which can be found herethanks to Vanity Fair.

PartTwo: Pushing for an Honest and Defensible Lab-Leak Inquiry

So let me begin with a critical point. As detailed in these documents,the squabbling at the State Department was about trying to ensurethat we got our facts straight before going public with dramaticsteps such as having Secretary Pompeo announce that it was“statistically” impossible for SARS-CoV-2 to be anything otherthan the product of Chinese government manipulation, sending“demarches” to foreign governments with this theory, or writingup China for having violated the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)in connection with COVID-19.

The dispute had nothing whatsoever to do with trying to quashinvestigation into the origins of the virus, and everything to dowith trying to ensure the honesty and intellectual integrity of thatinvestigation precisely because it was vital for us to get the bottomof the question of COVID “origins,” including the possibilitythat it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). I stronglysupported looking into the “lab-leak” hypothesis, which clearlyis a real possibility.
But I’m not just saying this now. I saidit at the time, too. A lot.

Let’s look at the documents, starting with my January 4 e-mail to DiNannoand Asher. In that message, I highlight that the Arms Control,Verification and Compliance (AVC) Bureau’s scientific “allegationsabout WIV and Chinese BW work allegedly being the source” ofSARS-CoV-2 were “important” and “worrying,” and that thesesignificant claims needed to be evaluated by real scientific experts.

(Yes,I admit that I called the virus the “WuFlu.” At a time before theWorld Health Organization had come up with “non-stigmatizing”designators such as “Alpha,” and people talked freely aboutthings like the “UK variant” or “South African variant,” itdidn’t seem unfair to tag the original virus as having indeed comefrom Wuhan. I’m afraid at another point I called it the “KungFlu,”too. None of this sounds as clever to me in retrospect as I fear itdid at the time. But please remember that these were internale-mails, not intended to see the light of day. Had I written thesemessages with an eye to public release, I would not have been soglib. Mea culpa.)

Anyway,in my e-mail, I reminded DiNanno and Asher that I had directed them,a month or so earlier, to establish an “expert vetting group orprocess” that would involve real scientists and intelligenceexperts in assessing the strength of AVC’s claims. But why, I askedthem, had there been no progress in subjecting their assertions topeer review? And why were they running around the interagencyspreading these allegations before we knew whether these claims couldpass muster with objective, third-party scientists?

As I stated in that January 4 message, I wanted to “demand[] moretransparency from the PRC here, especially in light of theirappalling early cover-up of COVID-19 during the early weeks whenhonesty and resolute action could have made such a colossaldifference in heading off millions of deaths and untold suffering,and in light of their grotesque history of such cover-ups.”

An investigation of [COVID] origins is very important,” I reiterated,“and I’m delighted to press their feet to the fire for thehonesty and clarity they’ve so far refused to provide.”
In theJanuary 4 message, however, I also stressed how important it was thatwe get our facts straight before going public, as the U.S.Government, with the accusation that the Chinese government createdthe virus:

[W]e need to make sure what we say is solid and passes muster from realexperts before we risk embarrassing and discrediting ourselves inpublic. … As I have repeatedly said, if it turns out that yourconclusions are right, I’ll happily be first in line to scream fromthe rooftops about them, for it would be a colossal outrage. And youmay well be right. But I want to be confident about where the factsreally lie …. These issues are surpassingly important and we needto get to the bottom of them — but rigorously, defensibly, and truly.”

Hencemy annoyance, expressed in that message, that DiNanno had beendragging his feet over my direction to “arrang[e] expert-levelbioscience and intelligence vetting of David [Asher’s] work.” Iwarned DiNanno that such dithering looked bad: “Please don’tcontinue to feed the impression that AVC is afraid of peer review.”And I insisted that he tell me when they actually planned to getthose allegations vetted by real scientists. It’s all there in the e-mail.

The next day, January 5, when I still hadn’t heard back from DiNannoabout how they would ensure that their scientific assertions gotevaluated by actual scientists, I e-mailed him again. (This was themessage at the bottom of the January 5–6 e-mail string Fox Newspublished.) I’ll admit I was grumpy, but I think I was also prettyclear about my focus on ensuring that we got our facts straight onthis critical issue of COVID origins:

Itis … becoming embarrassing — and, if I may say so, more than alittle worrisome — that AVC seems still to be ducking anexpert-level engagement to evaluate its own WIV allegations, evenwhile it has continued, over the last month or so, to brief itsclaims to non-experts across the interagency.”

DiNanno responded to my January 5 message with platitudes about how all theywere doing was “investigating potential arms control violations.”(This is the middle message in the January 5–6 string.) “That Is[sic] exactly what we have done,” he declared, “and will continueto do.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. If you’re paying attention, you’ll havenoticed that with this comment about “investigating potential armscontrol violations,” DiNanno signaled that AVC regarded itself asfocusing not so much upon the origins of SARS-CoV-2, per se, as morespecifically upon China allegedly having violated the BiologicalWeapons Convention by creating the virus. They seemed to believe thatCOVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone awry — orperhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world afterBeijing had secretly vaccinated its population, as Asher has ratherremarkably suggested in public now that the State Department hasterminated his consultancy contract. (You can see him in all hissober, cautious, and methodical glory on YouTube.) In this context, Isuppose it was hardly surprising — as I memorialized in my January4 e-mail to DiNanno — that in the December briefing when AVC firstpitched me on their WIV-origins theory, Asher at one point suggestedthat SARS-CoV-2 might be a “genetically selective agent” (GSA)that China was using to target us, as evidenced, he said, by the factthat Sub-Saharan Africa wasn’t reporting many COVID cases while theUnited States was. (Surely you don’t need me to spell out how thatnotion was both analytically unsupportable on its face and containeddeeply offensive implications, do you? I’ll leave you to work thisout on your own, but, uh, wow.)

Fortunately,however, DiNanno also informed me in his January 5 response that AVChad now indeed set up a panel of experts to discuss the scientificclaims, which would occur on Thursday evening, January 7. (Finally!As noted in my January 4 e-mail, I’d been demanding expert vettingof AVC’s “statistical” argument since they first came to mewith this issue in my office in December.)

As this panel approached, however, I wrote DiNanno again — on January6 — to emphasize how important it was that we get real scientiststo vet AVC’s allegations before we surfaced such dramatic claims inpublic:
“As I indicated before, having something that soundsscientific to say when making assertions to laymen is not the samething as being correct. I do not have the scientific expertise tocritique David’s claims. Nor do you. Nor, in fact, does he haveactual technical training in the first place. That doesn’tnecessarily mean he’s wrong, of course, but it does haveimplications for how to deal with the complex and controversialclaims you guys are making about weedy bioscience. … If you’reright, you should be willing to prove it, and to confront experts who— unlike all of the people involved in building and making thisargument for you — actually have training in the scientific fieldabout which you make assertions. I really don’t know how I couldpossibly have been more clear about this over the course of the lastmonth. Your allegations are dramatic, and potentially verysignificant indeed, but it’s for precisely that reason that theyneed to be tested and evaluated carefully. …Your claims need to beassessed by real experts — not just waved around as bullet pointson slide decks in front of non-scientists who are then dared to proveyou wrong.”

It was particularly important to get real expert-level assessment of thescientific assertions AVC was making about laboratory origin becausethe AVC investigation appeared to have carefully bypassed StateDepartment experts — both in my own bureau and in AVC itself, eachof which has a whole office devoted to such questions — and theU.S. Intelligence Community. As I recounted in my January 8 message,“AVC ha[s] apparently been briefing this argument inside theDepartment and [to] some interagency partners for some weeks,apparently on instructions from a staffer at S/P [the Department’sOffice of Policy Planning] who told them they should not inform me orothers of this work, nor involve the Intelligence Community.”

(A footnote, but perhaps a significant one: That last bit about cuttingreal experts out of the loop came to me directly from Tom DiNanno.When I asked him why AVC had been doing all this without telling thesenior official to whom they reported — that is, me — he told mesheepishly that he had been instructed to do things this way by MilesYu, an S/P staffer at the time. According to DiNanno, Yu hadrepresented that these specific instructions came from the Secretary.DiNanno, then in charge of the verification bureau, gave no sign ofever actually having verified that this was true, however. Heappeared to have accepted Yu’s representations at face value — ineffect, a de facto Assistant Secretary of State taking marchingorders from a lower-ranking staffer in another bureau, sight unseen.It would be interesting, now, to find out whether: (1) SecretaryPompeo really directed that AVC’s lab-leak inquiry avoid engagingDepartmental BW experts and U.S. intelligence officials, and that itdo its work essentially in secret, without telling the officialperforming the duties of the Under Secretary for Arms Control andInternational Security; (2) Yu was, at least in this respect,dishonestly freelancing; or (3) DiNanno was just lying to me abouthis conversation with Yu. Perhaps a good journalist can go figurethis out.)

PartThree: The Scientific Panel

Anyway,at least a first chance for scientific vetting came on January 7,when the panel of experts picked by the AVC Bureau had a chance todiscuss the “statistical” proof that AVC had been relying upon inits assertions to me and others that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had to havebeen the product of Chinese government manipulation.

Unfortunately,as I memorialized the next day (January 8), despite my urging — inthe last three paragraphs of my January 6 e-mail — that the othermembers of the panel “have … the benefit of actually being ableto read the paper beforehand,” AVC had not shared the documentahead of time. As I observed on January 8, “AVC did not provide uswith the actual paper before yesterday’s discussion, so most otherparticipants had not had the chance to study it in detail.”

Even so, it did not take the other panelists long to point out some keyflaws in the “statistical” argument, which had been presentedorally to the panel by the scientist upon whom AVC had apparentlymost relied in developing that line of argument. (His name is widelyknown, but I opted not to single him out in my message toDepartmental colleagues. I felt that scientists should have somefreedom to figure out the science amongst themselves; my concern waswith what the U.S. Government would assert after they did. Ratherthan drag him personally into the fray, therefore, my memo reflectedthe fact that this man’s claims had effectively become AVC’sargument as the bureau promoted them in the interagency.)

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow of criticisms made by other panelistsabout the “statistical” case AVC had been making at least sincethe first briefing they gave me in my office in December, though youcan read the salient details in the January 8 message I sent to anumber of my senior State Department colleagues the next day. (Mymessage focused on the statistical argument, given the prominence ithad enjoyed in AVC’s briefings; I did not purport to summarize thepanel’s discussion of all matters raised.) As you’ll see if youcare to read my several-page account on January 8, the assertions AVChad been making seemed to have major problems. At the least, thoseassertions were clearly not yet ready to be the official position ofthe U.S. Department of State — which is why I sent that January 8message warning my colleagues to be careful about running with thatparticular “statistical” claim.

I also now know, thanks to Vanity Fair, that DiNanno responded to myJanuary 8 memo with one of his own a day or two later, after I hadleft the Department. The reader can find it online, so I won’t walkthrough it here. In light of what you now know from documentaryevidence about my actual positions at the time, however, you’lleasily be able to see what a pack of distortions and falsehoodsDiNanno’s memo actually was. You might want to lay our twodocuments side by side and read them carefully in light of theinformation you now have. I suspect it will be pretty clear that hismemo was a dishonest mess of baseless attacks on me — an angryscreed addressed to readers whom DiNanno knew did not have thebenefit of knowing what I’d actually been saying to him for thelast month, and which he sent to his readers at a time when he knew Ihad resigned from the Department and would have no chance to defendmyself and correct the record. (Thankfully, however, our bosses wereintelligent folks. One can probably infer how seriously our superiorstook DiNanno’s memo by the fact that they apparently acted on mynote of caution about AVC’s scientific claims rather than onDiNanno’s shrill and convoluted attempt to defend those assertionsand paint me as the villain. More on that below.)

For purposes of this open letter, I’ll leave the issues of science toany of you who are scientists. As I told DiNanno in my January 4message, “I do not have the scientific expertise to critiqueDavid’s claims. Nor do you. Nor, in fact, does he have actualtechnical training in the first place.” That is precisely why Iinsisted that AVC set up a panel of experts, and why — after theyfinally got around to arranging this peer review on January 7 — itwas my duty to convey to my colleagues some of the concerns raised bythe experts AVC had put on the panel. It may in the end turn out thatscience does prove that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of humanintervention at WIV. But it would have been grievously irresponsiblefor us to adopt that theory publicly until it was much more able tostand on its own two feet that the January 7 panel discussion showedit to be at the time.

PartFour: Putting Absurd Accusations to Rest

Some of my former colleagues are now — perhaps, one imagines, out ofembarrassment over all of the events described above — assertingthat I tried to prevent inquiry into the lab-leak hypothesis and toshut down any investigation of the question. (Thanks to TuckerCarlson making this claim at least twice on the air, by the way, I’venow gotten vicious and deranged hate mail. Here’s, for instance,what I received on June 3 after Carlson first mentioned me on hisshow: “Fuck you dickbag globalist shill. Why the fuck did you shutdown the lab leak theory? Go lick some China communist boots.” Thisperson helpfully signed thismissive Thanks for introducingme to new friends, Tucker.)

Yet no serious person who is actually aware of my interactions with AVCcould possibly think I wanted to prevent inquiry into the laboratoryhypothesis, as you will already have seen from my e-mails of January4 and January 5–6, from which I’ve quoted extensively here. (Youcan even read them online yourself, in their entirety.) You can alsosee that I was always crystal clear about the importance of gettingto the truth by fully investigating the laboratory-leak question,making clear that “if it turns out that [AVC’s] conclusions areright,” I would myself “happily be first in line to scream fromthe rooftops about them.”

Additional proof of my commitment to looking into WIV — and indeed my focusupon protecting efforts to investigate the laboratory-leak questionfrom the discredit and ridicule that might have smothered it in itscrib if we had foolishly hitched Secretary Pompeo, the Department ofState, and the Administration to easily-debunkable junk science —can be found in my January 8 message itself. There, I made the pointyet again:

If well-founded, AVC’s findings would be extremely significant ….All participants [in the January 7 panel] seemed … to agree thatChina should be pressed for answers about such things as the natureof any work done at WIV on novel coronaviruses, whether any safetyincidents occurred, what data is in WIV’s sequencing database(which was mysteriously taken offline early in the pandemic), andwhen exactly the PRC realized (despite its early representations)that SARS-CoV-2 was only in its ‘wet market’ environmentalsamples — and not in its live animal samples — leading them toconclude that the market was not the source of the outbreak. Thesesorts of questions should indeed provide us with lots of grist forpressing China for answers and highlighting its non-transparency andhistory of failing to report (or even covering up) criticalinformation.”

You’ll also see from my January 8 message that I specifically directed “AVCand ISN [the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau] tocollaborate on drawing up a list of questions and points that couldbe useful in this regard” in pressing Beijing for answers. So werethese the actions of a “dickbag globalist shill” who “lick[s] …China communist boots”? Or of a serious steward of the honesty andintellectual integrity of U.S. State Department policymakingdedicated to ensuring we got our facts straight and pushing backagainst recklessness that would make it harder to have the lab-leakissue taken seriously? The reader can make up his or her own mind.

PartFive: A Net Assessment

So where does that leave us now?

Well,if you want to understand what I was trying to do during in thisperiod of bickering inside the State Department, you now have my ownwords from internal contemporaneous records. Simply put, I felt itwould be essentially insane to go public with AVC’s scientificassertions — such as, as DiNanno and Asher had urged, making publicstatements, demarching foreign governments (including China), andfinding China in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention overthis coronavirus — before getting those scientific assertionsvetted by objective, third-party scientists.

Let me be completely clear: From where I was sitting at the time, in thechair of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control andInternational Security, I never saw any evidence of any effort at theState Department to prevent inquiry into the lab-leak idea. To thecontrary — as you can now see proven by documents in the publicrecord — I supported looking into the lab-leak hypothesis. I caredso much about getting to the truth about WIV, in fact, that Iinsisted that we do the work in a way that could stand up toscrutiny. (If you’re serious about something being done, you havean obligation to ensure it’s done right. Wanting less than thatjust makes you a hack.) And I am aware of no one anywhere in theDepartment who thought that the laboratory hypothesis should beignored or ruled out.

So there was no conspiracy to quash inquiry into the lab-leak question,at least not at the State Department. But there was a demand forintellectual rigor and analytically defensible conclusions in doingthat important inquiry. For making that demand, however, I make noapologies. I was doing my duty.

What happened after that? Well, one might infer that my State Departmentsuperiors in fact agreed with the account in my January 8 message ofthe weaknesses that AVC’s expert panel had pointed out in thesupposed “statistical” proof that SARS-CoV-2 had to be the resultof human intervention. Neither Secretary Pompeo nor any other servingU.S. official, after all, adopted and voiced the scientificassertions about WIV origin that AVC had previously been briefing tointeragency stakeholders. Instead, Secretary Pompeo issued a “FactSheet” on January 15 that accurately recounted downgradedintelligence reporting we had received that seemed relevant to thequestion of whether COVID-19 had originated at the laboratory.

My superiors at the Department were not shy people, and I have no doubtthat had they felt AVC’s scientific assertions could pass musterwith real scientists, they absolutely would have made this case inpublic, and loudly. They chose not to do so, however. I suspect thatwe should read into this their quiet endorsement of my conclusionthat AVC’s scientific case wasn’t ready for prime time. (Perhapssomeone can ask my former bosses what precisely they thought of themerit of AVC’s “statistical” argument about genomic variation,and why — if it was indeed good science — they seem to havedropped those assertions. I can tell you only one thing about thiswith certainty: not pursuing AVC’s “scientific” argument afterthe January 7 panel meeting wasn’t my decision. By the end of theday on January 8, after sending my message of caution, I had left theDepartment. It would be interesting to know what discussions happened thereafter.)

But I do think that what happened next is important. Instead of focusingon purported “scientific proofs” of laboratory origin, publicdiscussion of the COVID-origins issue thereafter shifted to thequestions and suspicions that had been raised about WIV by ourintelligence information, as outlined in Secretary Pompeo’s “FactSheet.” This was, in my view, much the better way to go. Beforeleaving the Department, in fact, I had myself reviewed and cleared anearly draft of that “Fact Sheet” as the downgraded informationstarted to go around for interagency clearance, and I was glad to seeit later emerge publicly on January 15. Tellingly, the BidenAdministration has not questioned that information, and a robustdebate is now underway about possible laboratory origin.

But let me be frank. Anyone who cares about ensuring that the lab-leakhypothesis is taken seriously should probably be thanking me, ratherthan vilifying me. I suspect that my push for scientific vetting ofAVC’s assertions actually helped save the lab-leak hypothesis frombeing preemptively discredited. The fact that we finally now have acredible public debate on the question owes much to the fact thatpursuing these issues wasn’t tainted by the State Departmentsigning the U.S. Government’s name to scientific assertions that wealready knew hadn’t stood up well to scrutiny.

I’ve been around the arms control and international security business forquite a while now, including spending 2003–06 as Principal DeputyAssistant Secretary in what is now the AVC Bureau. As I told someonethe other day — an old and dear friend and former colleague who hasnow started demonizing me on the basis of the lies being spread aboutthese issues — honesty, accuracy, and intellectual integrity arethe strongest weapons that an arms control verifier has. These thingsneed to be safeguarded carefully, for they are priceless. They arewhat separates the truth-teller from the ideological crank.

I am heartsick at the ugliness of the campaign against me in the presstoday, but I remain proud of my role in insisting upon fidelity tothese values at a time when some officials seemed to be slipping. Idearly hope that we can all now put fratricidal distractions asideand get back to the real task: figuring out what the hell happened in Wuhan.

PartSix: Conclusion

The actual details of all this State Department infighting are, I’lladmit, somewhat boring. They certainly don’t map satisfyingly ontoa moralistic narrative of redoubtable heroes fighting for rightagainst malevolent cabals and institutional corruption. Nor are theywell suited for spinning up rants of performative outrage by theoccasional pundit disinclined to let little things like “truth”get in the way of the good Nielsen ratings that come from spinning asexy narrative of deceit and conspiracy.

Nevertheless, thesedemonstrable facts about the positions I took at the time are clearin the record. If that’s not important to you, you’re reading thewrong letter, and I apologize for wasting your time.
If you’veread this far, however, my guess is that facts are indeed importantto you. So thanks for listening.

*Dr.Ford served until January 8, 2021, as Assistant Secretary of Statefor International Security and Nonproliferation, and for the last 15months of that period also performed the duties of the UnderSecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Priorto that service at the State Department, he ran the Weapons of MassDestruction and Counterproliferation Directorate at the U.S. NationalSecurity Council staff. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford University as aRhodes Scholar, and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford has been a thinktank scholar, U.S. Navy intelligence officer, a staff member on fivedifferent U.S. Senate Committees, and a senior American diplomat. Heis the author of two books on Chinese foreign relations and scores ofarticles on international security topics, and his personal websitemay be found at

*Dr.Ford is a former diplomat, Senate staffer, naval intelligenceofficer, and think tank scholar who works and writes on foreign andnational security policy.