Former DOJ attorney sounds the alarm on Trump’s classified COVID-19 meetings

Former DOJ attorney sounds the alarm on Trump’s classified COVID-19 meetings
President Donald J. Trump joined by senior White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar attends a White House Listening Session on Youth Vaping and Electronic Cigarette Epidemic Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

For 30 years, Matthew Collette served on the appellate staff of the civil division at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Collette, during his years at DOJ, supervised countless cases involving the federal government’s decision to classify information. And Collette, in a March 17 article for Just Security, explains why he finds it puzzling that the Trump Administration “reportedly ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct meetings concerning the COVID-19 virus in a classified setting.”

Collette, who was with the DOJ from 1988-2018, explains, “There was no obvious connection to national security about the information that we learned last week the Trump Administration has ordered classified…. Given that disseminating timely and accurate information to the public is a key component in any response to a pandemic, classifying discussions about a pandemic unfolding in the United States appears to be unprecedented.”

A former HHS official, according to Collette, observed that “it’s not normal to classify discussions about a response to a public health crisis.”

“That is not to say that HHS, or its component the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), may never classify information,” Collette notes. “One can imagine information — say, the location of virulent pathogens that could be used in a terrorist attack — that HHS and CDC must classify to protect national security. But from what we know of the COVID-19 meetings, they involve nothing of the sort.”

Collette adds that although “public information” about the coronavirus-related meetings is “thin,” it is clear that they “involved the government’s response to the emerging COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.”

“It appears that the meetings involved the discussion of possible quarantines, since one of the officials barred from a meeting was a legal expert on the validity of quarantines — who then had to be consulted after the meeting,” Collette notes. “And the government has not articulated publicly any reason for classification, although one HHS employee said he was told it was because ‘it had to do with China’ — hardly the type of specific justification I could have defended in court.”

Collette points out that in the U.S., Executive Order 13256 “contains detailed procedural and substantive requirements for classification.”

“Briefly, a ‘classification authority’ must determine that disclosure of the information could be expected to cause damage to national security,” Collette explains. “The information must fall within a specified list of categories, and the government cannot classify information to hide wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment.”

Collette wraps up his article by expressing strong doubts that the classification of recent coronavirus-related HHS meetings meets the requirements of 13256.

“If the classification of the COVID-19 meetings ever goes to court,” Collette asserts, “it will take a great deal of explanation — perhaps even imagination — to convince a court that the decision to classify all of the matters discussed is supported by the law.”


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