Now that the coronavirus crisis has subsumed all other issues in American life and threatens to spiral out of control, Americans are rightfully left to wonder why their government didn’t do more to stop it and prepare for the outbreak.
George Conway, an adviser of an anti-Trump super PAC and husband to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, wrote an op-ed Wednesday with lawyer Carrie Cordero calling for the release of information that was provided to the president and Congress before the pandemic spread across the country. With this information, we could gain better insight into how political leaders have handled the crisis and whether they should have done more.
“What did the president know about the coronavirus, and when did he know it?” they asked. “What did members of Congress know, and when did they know it?”
They pointed to reports in the Washington Post that found that Trump and members of Congress downplayed the threat to the American people even while receiving “ominous, classified warnings” about the contagion from the intelligence agencies.
“Americans should know precisely what their government knew about an impending crisis that would jeopardize their livelihoods and lives,” they argued.
For transparency on this matter, they argued that the reports these officials received should be declassified and made public. Any still-sensitive information could be redacted, but most of it should be revealed.
One particularly interesting aspect of the reports may pertain to the president’s relationship with and treatment of China. In a particularly galling paragraph, Conway and Cordero wrote:
The Post also reported that U.S. intelligence agencies “warned that Chinese officials appeared to be minimizing the severity of the outbreak,” with Trump being “told … that Beijing was not providing accurate numbers of people who were infected or who had died.” Yet Trump repeatedly praised China, and he even tweeted praise for its “transparency” on Jan. 24: “China has been working very hard … In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Declassification of the coronavirus reports and briefings could occur quickly, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t. Congressional intelligence committees can make immediate requests for the assessments and reports, and they can seek declassification for public release directly from the agencies that produced the information. While decisions regarding classification can, when difficult, percolate up to the director of national intelligence, or even the president, they don’t have to; agency heads have sufficient discretion of their own.
While some may argue that there will be time later to figure out what went wrong as we deal with the present crisis, there’s good reason to demand accountability now. We are, after all, heading into an election season, so evaluating politicians on their conduct in office is more relevant than ever. And if we can send the message that there’s going to be strict oversight and scrutiny of officials’ actions during the crisis, we may incentivize them to act more conscientiously and in line with the public’s interest as we move forward.
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