NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has banned the Navy from taking part in activities of the semi-official Naval Attache Association over concerns that China is manipulating the group.
The secretary issued a memo to all Navy personnel Dec. 21 expressing concerns that China is using coercion and censorship for unspecified purposes within the non-governmental organization that caters to foreign navy attaches.
Mr. Del Toro stated in the memo that the Navy regards the group as important to promoting engagement with foreign naval attaches, work he described as “of paramount importance to our international engagement and cooperation,” and to advancing both strategic and operational Pentagon and Navy interests.
“However, recent actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have complicated the department’s ability to utilize the Naval Attache Association (NAA) as a forum to facilitate partners’ access to senior [Department of Navy] leadership,” he said. “The department does not support PRC coercive tactics and censorship and will always oppose such efforts to manipulate independent organizations and actors.”
The ban makes all NAA-sponsored or -hosted activities off limits.
A Navy official said the ban followed a Chinese attempt to influence the organization.
“The department became aware of a campaign by the PRC to influence a board vote affecting the inclusivity of the NAA organization,” the official said without elaborating.
Navy military and civilian employees will continue to meet and engage with the corps of foreign naval attaches outside of the forum, Mr. Del Toro said. Foreign military attaches, typically a high-ranking officer in the country’s armed services, serve with diplomatic privileges in a host country while retaining their military commission.
Navy spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comments or for details on the Chinese activities that inspired the ban.
A spokeswoman for the NAA referred questions about the ban to the group’s chairman, Spanish Navy Capt. Pablo Murga Gomez. Mr. Gomez did not respond to an email request for comment. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy also did not respond to an email request for comment.
The NAA website showed several events involving Navy officials as speakers had been canceled.
The NAA website says the goal of the Arlington-based group is to advance mutual understanding of maritime security affairs and to boost relationships.
“The NAA will foster strong relationships among its membership and their families, and with U.S. Department of Defense’s sea services, and other relevant U.S. government and non-government agencies through an active program of engagements,” the mission statement says.
As with other nations, including the United States, China uses its embassy-based military attaches for intelligence-gathering.
In December 2019, two Chinese Embassy officials were expelled from the United States for attempting to enter a sensitive U.S. military base near Norfolk that is used by Navy special operations forces. The incident took place in September 2019 and involved a group of Chinese diplomats and their wives who ran past the gate at the base and evaded military police until they were stopped with fire trucks that blocked their way.
Officials at the time said the intrusion was a classic case of Chinese military intelligence-gathering.
Pentagon to report on athletes at Wuhan military games
The Pentagon must report to Congress in the next several months on the health of hundreds of U.S. military troops who took part in the World Military Games in Wuhan, China — held just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in the city in late 2019.
A section of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act gives the Pentagon six months to report to the Senate and House whether there were any illnesses among the U.S. military personnel who participated as athletes in Wuhan.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the Defense Department has no evidence of cases of COVID-19 among the returning military athletes.
“The department has made clear in the past that we have no knowledge of COVID infections among U.S. troops participating in the 2019 World Military Games,” Mr. Kirby said in a statement. “Indeed, there is no evidence that any U.S. military personnel were infected prior to the U.S. government implementing travel restrictions following China’s acknowledgment of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
But Mr. Kirby added that “we fully support ongoing investigative efforts into the origins of COVID-19 — efforts that would, of course, benefit from full transparency by Chinese authorities.”
A defense official told “Inside the Ring” that the Pentagon will comply with the new law requiring the Wuhan report. According to the law signed by President Biden last month, the report must include the number of U.S. athletes and staff who took part in the games and became ill with COVID-19 like symptoms during or shortly after returning to the United States.
Congress also wants to know if any blood tests were carried out on the traveling military athletes and if any samples showed signs of COVID infection. Also included in the report will be the number of home station Pentagon facilities of the athletes who attended and whether the bases experienced subsequent outbreaks of the deadly virus.
The report, which must also be produced in an unclassified format, will also include whether tests for COVID antibodies were conducted on the returning athletes and disclose whether defense or military inspector generals have investigated any links between the World Games athletes in Wuhan and the disease outbreak.
Several military athletes from other countries who took part in the World Military Games claimed to have come down with flu-like symptoms suspected of being COVID-19 during and after the gathering.
Chinese officials have cited the illnesses linked to the Wuhan World Military Games to promote what U.S. officials say is a false narrative that the COVID-19 virus and subsequent pandemic was brought to China by U.S. military personnel.
“It might be U.S. Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan” during the games, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, one of China’s so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats, said on Twitter in 2020.
The claim that the United States brought the virus to Wuhan has been denied repeatedly by Washington.
The origin of the virus remains unconfirmed. However, the first reported case of what Chinese authorities called at the time the “Wuhan pneumonia” appeared in December 2019. A January State Department fact sheet said U.S. intelligence indicated that workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one suspected source for the initial disease outbreak, became ill with COVID-like symptoms the month before.
U.S. intelligence agencies, in an unclassified assessment made public last year, said the virus began “no later than November 2019” with first known cases in Wuhan in December.
The spy agency assessment said Chinese officials did not have advanced knowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak.
A security study by a private intelligence firm stated that in October 2019 the Wuhan Institute of Virology appeared to lose all cell phone connectivity, perhaps indicating some type of incident at the laboratory that was conducting research involving making bat coronaviruses more infectious to humans.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, sought answers to questions about the military games in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June. Mr. Gallagher said an estimated 280 U.S. military personnel took part in the event in Wuhan from Oct. 18 to 28 in Wuhan.
Military athletes from France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Luxembourg may have become sick with COVID-like symptoms at the games, he said. French pentathlete Elodie Clouvel reportedly got sick during the games and was later told by a military doctor she may have had contracted the new virus, he stated.
“One athlete from Luxembourg reported ‘nearly empty’ streets in Wuhan during the Games, recalling, ‘It was a ghost town’ and ‘There were rumors that the government warned the inhabitants not to go out,’” Mr. Gallagher stated.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Gallagher said the congressman so far has not received a response to the letter.
Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, also requested that the HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra investigate the military athletic meet as a possible origin point for the pandemic.
“The World Military Games’ proximity to the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and the new details of the athletes potentially being exposed to COVID-19 while participating in the event present an alarming coincidence our government must investigate to establish an accurate timeline of the outbreak,” Mr. Marshall stated in a letter.
The senator asked HHS officials to look into whether U.S. participants in the games showed signs of COVID-19 or whether participants may have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.