By Aram Roston and Marisa Taylor
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House has ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, an unusual step that has restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion, according to four Trump administration officials.
The officials said that dozens of classified discussions about such topics as 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 (HHS), a key player in the fight against the coronavirus.
Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said.
“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.”
The sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security issues, ordered the classification.“This came directly from the White House,” one official said.
The White House insistence on secrecy at the nation’s premier public health organization, which has not been previously disclosed, has put a lid on certain information - and potentially delayed the response to the crisis. COVID19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed about 30 people in the United States and infected more than 1,000 people.
HHS oversees a broad range of health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which among other things is responsible for tracking cases and providing guidance nationally on the outbreaks.
The administration officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said they could not describe the interactions in the meeting room because they were classified.
An NSC spokesman did not respond to questions about the meetings at HHS. But he defended the administration’s transparency across federal agencies and noted that meetings of the administration's task force on the coronavirus all are unclassified. It was not immediately clear which meetings he was referring to.
“From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency,” said the spokesman, John Ullyot. He added that the administration “has cut red tape and set the global standard in protecting the American people under President Trump’s leadership.”
A spokeswoman for the HHS, Katherine McKeogh, issued a statement that did not address questions about classified meetings. Using language that echoed the NSC’s, the department said it that it agreed task-force meetings should be unclassified.
Critics have hammered the Trump administration for what they see as a delayed response to coronavirus outbreaks and a lack of transparency, including sidelining experts and providing misleading or incomplete information to the public. State and local officials also have complained of being kept in the dark about essential federal response information.
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, the administration's point person on coronavirus, vowed on March 3 to offer “real-time information in a steady pace and be fully transparent.” The vice president, appointed by President Donald Trump in late February, is holding regular news briefings and also has pledged to rely on expert guidance. Katie Miller, Pence's press secretary, said Wednesday that since being appointed the vice president has never requested that HHS hold meetings in the SCIF or treat information as classified.
The meetings at HHS were held in a secure area called a "Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility," or SCIF, according to the administration officials.
SCIFs are usually reserved for intelligence and military operations. Ordinary cell phones and computers can't be brought into the chambers. HHS has SCIFs because theoretically it would play a major role in biowarfare or chemical attacks.
A high-level former official who helped address public health outbreaks in the George W. Bush administration said “it’s not normal to classify discussions about a response to a public health crisis.”
Attendees at the meetings included HHS Secretary Alex Azar and his chief of staff Brian Harrison, the officials said. Azar and Harrison resisted the classification of the meetings, the sources said.
HHS did not make Azar or Harrison available for comment.
One of the administration officials told Reuters that when complex issues about a quarantine came up, a high-ranking HHS lawyer with expertise on the issue was not admitted because he did not have the proper security clearance. His input was delayed and offered at an unclassified meeting, the official said.
A fifth source familiar with the meetings said HHS staffers often weren’t informed about coronavirus developments because they didn’t have adequate clearance. He said he was told that the matters were classified "because it had to do with China."
The coronavirus epidemic originated in China and the administration’s main focus to prevent spread early on was to restrict travel by non-U.S. citizens coming from China and to authorize the quarantine of people entering the United States who may have been exposed to the virus.
One of the administration officials suggested the security clearances for meetings at HHS were imposed not to protect national security but to keep the information within a tight circle, to prevent leaks.
“It seemed to be a tool for the White House - for the NSC - to keep participation in these meetings low,” the official said.
(Roston and Taylor reported from Washington, D.C.; Editing by Julie Marquis)