WASHINGTON—The House on Friday voted 419 to 0 to pass a bill requiring the Biden administration to declassify intelligence related to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sponsored by Sens. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) and Mike Braun (R., Ind.), the Covid Origins Act of 2023 passed the Senate by unanimous consent last week. It now heads to President Biden’s desk. Asked Friday evening whether he would sign the bill, Mr. Biden said, “I haven’t made that decision yet.”
The bill’s passage through both chambers comes after The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Energy Department had concluded with “low confidence” that the Covid-19 pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak.
The FBI in 2021 came to a similar conclusion, with “moderate confidence,” that the pandemic likely resulted from a lab leak. Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of a natural transmission, and two are undecided.
China has disputed that the virus could have leaked from one of its labs, and Chinese officials have repeatedly suggested that the virus started outside the country.
If the bill that passed the House Friday is signed into law, the Director of National Intelligence would have 90 days to declassify the information about the lab’s research and activities related to the Covid-19 outbreak, including details about any researchers who fell ill in the fall of 2019. The legislation allows the director to make redactions “necessary to protect sources and methods.”
Rep. Michael Turner (R., Ohio), who sponsored the companion bill in the House, said in a speech before the vote that the legislation would give the American people a unique insight about what was happening at the lab in late 2019 and early 2020.
“This might be key to unraveling the truth,” Mr. Turner said. “I can assure you that the intelligence community could release this information while protecting their sources and methods of how it was collected.”
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was pressed by lawmakers earlier this week to disclose more about the intelligence community’s differing views on the origins of the pandemic, saying in response that she would review the matter and consider what additional information could potentially be declassified. She added that China’s refusal to cooperate with international investigations was a critical gap in trying to learn more about how the virus first emerged.
The Covid flashpoint is just one of several between Ms. Haines’s office and Capitol Hill concerning classified information. During a hearing on worldwide security threats on Wednesday, senators in both parties expressed frustration at Ms. Haines and other intelligence chiefs for not addressing their demands to be briefed on the classified files recovered in recent months at various residences and offices belonging to President Biden, former President Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence. The Biden administration has so far declined to share the information because they are relevant to active criminal investigations by the Justice Department.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the lack of cooperation undermined congressional oversight of the executive branch. He added that the stonewalling could erode trust among other lawmakers as intelligence agencies attempt to convince them of the need to renew a controversial foreign surveillance tool due to expire at the end of the year. While Ms. Haines’s office and others have declassified new details in recent weeks about the spying program, some lawmakers have said they need more detailed information to assuage their privacy and abuse concerns.
Rep. Mike Garcia (R., Calif.) said that by declassifying the Covid information, the government would honor those who died of Covid and prevent future pandemics. “This is a chance to hold China accountable for Covid and seek justice and a reckoning…This isn’t political at all. Declassifying this information is simply the right thing to do.”