The White House has insisted on secrecy at the country’s top public health organization, putting a lid on certain information and potentially delaying the response to the COVID-19 outbreak which has killed more than 30 people in the U.S. and infected more than 1,000, Reuters reported.
When responding to a public health crisis, it’s not normal for the U.S. government to keep information secret and classified, but that’s how the White House is handling the coronavirus outbreak, according to four Trump administration officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Trump ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, an unusual step that restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion.
Security clearances for meetings at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) were imposed to prevent “leaks” and information from getting out — not to protect national security, one of the administration officials suggested.
The officials said that dozens of classified discussions on the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services.
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The Department of Health & Human Services is a key player in the fight against the coronavirus, but some experts and “critical” staff were excluded from the intra-agency meetings because they did not have security clearances, according to the officials.
“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official said. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”
Sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises Trump on security issues, ordered the classification, Reuters reported.”This came directly from the White House,” one official said.
National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot defended the Trump administration’s transparency. “From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency,” Ullyot said.
Trump has come under increasing fire for his response to the spread of coronavirus in the U.S., including delayed response, lack of transparency, sidelining experts and misleading the public. State and local officials have complained of being kept in the dark about essential federal information.
Last week Trump joked about the public health panic and blamed the botched U.S. response on an “Obama rule”, congratulating himself for fixing a problem that he said required any lab-developed tests to be approved by the FDA.
“Faced with a public health emergency on a scale potentially not seen in a century, the U.S. has not responded nimbly,” New York Times reported. By comparison, other countries ramped up much earlier and faster.
“It could be that the Trump Administration is simply scrambling to control the messaging,” Shannon Barber wrote for Hill Reporter. “After all, it has already been reported that Trump and his White House are doing all they can to control what the public hears about the coronavirus situation, and they have been worried about everything from the effect on Trump’s luxury hotel business, to the market’s responses to the outbreak, to the effect on Trump’s reelection chances.”
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On Wednesday, White House officials who were testifying on the coronavirus before the House of Representatives were dragged abruptly from the hearing for some kind of mysterious “emergency meeting.”
Health & Human Services oversees a broad range of health agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are responsible for tracking cases and providing guidance nationally on the outbreaks.
The meetings at HHS were held in a secure area called a “Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility” — something usually reserved for intelligence and military operations, administration officials said. Theoretically, these compartments would play a major role in biowarfare or chemical attacks. Cell phones and computers weren’t allowed inside. Neither were experts who didn’t have security clearance.
“It’s not normal to classify discussions about a response to a public health crisis,” said a high-level former official who helped address public health outbreaks in the George W. Bush administration.