Federal health officials' coronavirus meetings should be treated as classified, according to a White House order first reported by Reuters.
As a result, relevant health experts who lack the necessary security clearances have been kept out of meetings since January. This is a serious, idiotic act of self-sabotage on the part of the Trump administration. It will not only hamper transparency—it will compromise the efficacy of the government's coronavirus prevention strategizing.
Four Trump officials told Reuters that dozens of coronavirus meetings have been held in a high-security room at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and that "staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls."
As a result, "some very critical people who did not have security clearances" were kept out of the meetings.
The HHS coronavirus meetings are held in a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF), a type of secure room where cell phones and cameras are forbidden. SCIFSs are typically used for government officials to discuss sensitive intelligence reports or plan military operations.
The coronavirus pandemic originated in China, and thus it does carry national security implications. But secrecy should not be a higher priority than expediency. The slower the government's response, the more widely the disease will spread throughout the U.S. Lives are quite literally on the line. Quite obviously, the Trump administration should not be putting up obstacles for federal health experts to overcome, and yet the classification order came "directly from the White House," according to Reuters.
A National Security Council spokesperson disputed this characterization of the meetings, and HHS voiced support for greater transparency:
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.
In that case, the administration should clarify immediately that all coronavirus meetings are unclassified, and all relevant personnel should participate in them. Nothing is made better by pointless red tape. The government's knee-jerk impulse to conceal information from the public is a bad habit in the worst of times; at present, it's an actual threat to public safety.
Unfortunately, as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in a recent post, federal agencies have also thwarted an infectious disease researcher's early efforts to detect the coronavirus in Seattle. These missteps by the government are embarrassing, and among the many reasons why The Atlantic's absurd straw-man contention that "There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic" is self-evidently wrong: It is precisely in times of crisis that the incompetence of large and unwieldy federal bureaucracies is most evident. (Read Reason's Eric Boehm for more on this subject.)