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White House ordered coronavirus meetings classified, hampering response: report

The White House ordered meetings where officials discussed the coronavirus to be classified, which barred information and delayed the government’s response, four Trump administration officials told Reuters.

Federal health officials were directed to keep dozens of meetings that started in mid-January, including discussions on the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions confidential, Reuters reported Wednesday. 

According to the sources, those without security clearances were not permitted in the high-security room, typically used for military and intelligence operations, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where the meetings took place.

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“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official told Reuters. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”

The officials told the news outlet that the National Security Council (NSC) ordered the meetings be classified, with one official saying it “came directly from the White House.”

The classified meetings, the Trump officials claim, could have delayed the U.S. response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus that has killed at least 29 people and infected more than 1,000 in the country, according to the news outlet. HHS Secretary Alex Azar and chief of staff Brian Harrison reportedly attended the meetings.

The Trump administration has been accused of shutting experts out of coronavirus discussions. These officials said experts without security clearance could not enter the meetings, causing some advice to be delayed until an unclassified meeting.

Another source told Reuters that HHS staffers also were not in the loop because of their lack of security clearance. He said he heard the meetings were classified “because it had to do with China,” where the outbreak originated. 

An NSC spokesman told Reuters that the administration has been transparent about the coronavirus and efforts to combat it. 

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“From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency,” spokesman John Ullyot said.

HHS spokeswoman Katherine McKeogh said in a statement obtained by The Hill that, “In order to achieve radical transparency and efficient collaboration, HHS and NSC senior leadership jointly agreed that coronavirus task force meetings should be held at the unclassified level.”

A former George W. Bush official who dealt with public health outbreaks called the classification of “public health crisis” meetings “not normal,” according to Reuters. 

Vice President Pence, whom the president put in charge of the coronavirus response, promised last week to provide “real-time information in a steady pace and be fully transparent.”