Senate intelligence chair steps down amid new questions about congressional insider trading

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter

WASHINGTON – Sen. Richard Burr stepped down Thursday morning from his leadership role on the Intelligence Committee while the FBI investigates stock trades he made before the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States with full force, bringing the economy to a standstill and eliminating millions of jobs.

News of his decision, announced by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, follows FBI agents seizing Burr’s cellphone on Wednesday evening, a move first reported by the L.A. Times.

The decision to serve the high-ranking Republican lawmaker from North Carolina with a warrant has renewed questions about how much privileged information Congress had access to about the pandemic prior to public release. Burr is one of several lawmakers who made stock trades just prior to the shutdown, raising questions about whether some members of Congress acted on nonpublic information.

ProPublica first reported that Burr sold off up to $1.7 million in stocks on Feb. 13, shortly after publicly proclaiming the government’s preparedness to battle the coronavirus and just a week prior to the stock market’s nosedive. By late February, according to a recording obtained by NPR, Burr was privately warning attendees of a luncheon at the Capitol Hill Club about the true severity of the outbreak, in direct contradiction to President Trump’s promises that the virus would soon disappear.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) walks to a republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 14, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Sen. Richard Burr on Capitol Hill Thursday. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Multiple sources familiar with the congressional briefings told Yahoo News that the intelligence committees, particularly their leaders, would have been broadly made aware of the intelligence community’s early analysis of the outbreak, beginning in early January. The “Gang of Eight,” a select group of lawmakers who are traditionally the first to be briefed on sensitive, classified matters by the executive branch, consists of Burr, his vice chair, Sen. Mark Warner, the chair and co-chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and leadership in the House and Senate from both parties.

Burr’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, while a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) referred Yahoo News to the committees for information on when members were briefed.

One source familiar with the matter told Yahoo News that while the intelligence committees received daily updates late in February about the disease’s spread, they had just one classified briefing on the virus in early February, the content of which was “in general” the same as what the public had access to.

A second source told Yahoo News there was a State Department briefing on the coronavirus shortly prior to the full lockdown in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak started. Another source outside the committees said the Gang of Eight received more information than rank-and-file members and more than the general public early on.

However, given that intelligence officials are broadly focused on tracking what’s happening outside the United States and not on U.S. preparedness for disaster, it’s difficult to determine just how much of an inside edge Burr and his committee may have enjoyed by early February. By then, Chinese public health officials had already released at least some information about the pandemic to the public.

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced a “pneumonia epidemic” on Dec. 31. The Wuhan seafood market closed the next day, and China reported the first death related to the coronavirus on Jan. 11. However, Chinese officials drew criticism for failure to be transparent about the details of the disease and the number of positive cases and deaths, as well as a failure to quickly allow international public health delegations to visit Wuhan to gather information.

The U.S. intelligence agencies, though not typically the lead agencies in charge of investigating and responding to health crises, were tasked with determining how other countries were responding to the disease and whether China was downplaying the death toll inside its own borders.

A police officer wearing a mask stands in front of the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 10, 2020. The seafood market is linked to the outbreak of the pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus. (Reuters)
A police officer in front of the closed seafood market in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 10. (Reuters)

While Chinese state media downplayed the dangers of the disease, there wasn’t a total information lockdown prior to the U.S. stock market’s plunge. Chinese citizens shared accounts of panic and concern on social media, and several prominent Chinese doctors publicly blew the whistle on the outbreak.

The World Health Organization, which sent a delegation to Wuhan, reported on Jan. 22 that it had determined the disease is transferred from human to human, a dangerous feature that forewarned a potential pandemic if proper precautions were not taken to limit its spread.

Even so, officials around the world were still scrambling to determine just how serious the situation might become. Current and former national security officials told Yahoo News that while Beijing has a reputation for constant surveillance and tight control, Chinese officials were still trying to figure out what went wrong and just how bad the disease was.

“It’s hard to say how much was covered up ... [versus] not knowing what’s happening,” said one current official.

Several officials told Yahoo News it was difficult to anticipate just how much the pandemic would affect the United States.

However, by the last two weeks of February, congressional sources recalled a definite change in attitude on Capitol Hill. By that time, the U.S. intelligence community was tracking Chinese officials’ discussions about whether or not top leaders should leave or isolate themselves to protect against contracting the disease, revealing how seriously they were taking the virus.

While Trump was still downplaying the disaster, a group of public health and intelligence officials from ODNI and the CIA were briefing larger groups of lawmakers, conveying information that convinced members that things were bound to continue to get worse, one source recalled.

Part of the reason for congressional concerns, recalled the source, was that the briefers from the administration did not have detailed answers to questions on how the U.S. was planning to respond to the pandemic.

“They have not and continue to not provide Congress with sufficient information and answers to questions,” said the source.

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