Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, delivered remarks about security challenges, collaboration and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region during the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo courtesy of Halifax International Security Forum
The Wuhan lab theory: Activist military brass, their media allies, and manufacturing public opinion

Admiral Philip Davidson has had a distinguished military career. In May 2018, he was appointed commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command. One of six unified combat commands (UCCs) that together cover the entire globe, Admiral Davidson is responsible for preparing for a potential conflict with China, the country that has come to be seen by many as the main geopolitical rival of the United States. Created by statutory authority, UCCs are there to plan and carry out military operations as directed by the president and secretary of defense — at least in theory.

Few characteristics of democracy are as important as civilian control of the military. Yet commanders of the various UCCs have taken on the role of public advocates for certain policies, putting pressure on and in effect lobbying the civilian leaders that are supposed to be making political decisions. Admiral Davidson’s actions since taking control of the Indo-Pacific Command is a clear example of this, and raises troubling questions about the extent to which the heads of UCCs and others in the national security bureaucracy have come to erode the concept of civilian control of the military and drive public discussion and the policy making process. Media reporting over the last two years also indicates that those who have a bureaucratic or ideological interest in a more belligerent American policy towards China have been leaking information to sympathetic journalists in order to manipulate public opinion.

Admiral Davidson’s actions clearly demonstrate this process. In his confirmation hearing in April of 2018, he stressed the necessity of “expanding the competitive space” to meet a rising China. In June of last year, Admiral Davidson did an interview with hawkish Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin that was published under the headline, “To avoid conflict, the United States must deter Chinese aggression.”

Without any evidence, Admiral Davidson warned about Chinese global ambitions, and a new world order “with Chinese characteristics” that should “send a chill down everybody’s spine across the globe.” Davidson also complained that the United States still was not funding capabilities he had called for two months prior. Six months after the Post article,,he similarly advocated for spending on new technologies to counter China in an interview with Defense One.

Admiral Davidson’s media campaign has had its intended effect. Usually, requests for funding come through the secretary of defense. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act,  however, called for Admiral Davidson himself to submit a report for what the Indo-Pacific Command needed, in which he asked for $20 billion in additional funds.

With the novel coronavirus hitting the United States, members of Congress took up Admiral Davidson’s cause for a confrontational posture toward China and they found support in a series of anonymous leaks that in one case went to Rogin, who had advanced Admiral Davidson’s campaign for more funding before the coronavirus hit.

On April 14, Rogin reported that the State Department had previously warned about security issues at the Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses. The next day, Fox News, which has often been fed information from the most hawkish members of the national security establishment, reported that sources had come to believe that the Wuhan lab was indeed the source of the novel coronavirus. That same day, in a seemingly unrelated story, The Wall Street Journal told of an upcoming State Department report that China may be violating treaty obligations by testing small-scale nuclear weapons.

There is no evidence that Admiral Davidson knew about or was involved in any of these leaks. Nonetheless, certain members of the national security establishment were clearly working towards the same goals, and collaborating with reporters like Rogin in order to shape public opinion, just as Admiral Davidson has been doing more openly since taking over the Indo-Pacific Command. Almost on cue, less than one week after a series of leaks meant to stir up animosity towards China, Senator Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal promoting the theory that the virus escaped from a lab and introduced the FORCE Act, which would give $43 billion to the Indo-Pacific Command, more than double what Admiral Davidson had asked for.

These leaks easily manipulate public opinion. Government officials never leak all the information needed to help the public make an informed decision about the supposed threat coming from a foreign state. Rather, pieces of data and intelligence judgments are provided on a selective basis, clearly for the express purpose of achieving budgetary or ideological goals. Once Congress decides to spend the money, whether the original reporting was factual or not, or whether it looks different in another context, is rarely checked. Scientists almost immediately began expressing skepticism about the Wuhan lab theory, and The New York Times recently reported that intelligence agencies have felt pressure to arrive at that conclusion. According to Australian intelligence officials, American evidence of the Wuhan lab theory consists largely of publicly available news reports. Given that, as we have seen, American national security officials are usually the sources for such reporting, what we see is a self-referential cycle that in effect has created a narrative out of thin air.

While de jure civilian control of the military remains a bedrock principle of the American system of government, the reality is quite different. Hawks within the national security bureaucracy often seem to focus just as much time on manipulating public opinion as they do preparing for war.

The late James McCartney pointed out that, as of 2010, there were only 10 reporters covering the Pentagon full time, compared to thousands of military and civilian personnel in the DOD that worked on managing public opinion. The few journalists that pay attention to military issues rely on good relationships with those in power to provide information to them, some of which they are not legally entitled to. The only thing more concerning than a government that withholds important information from the public is one that provides it selectively. Activist generals and members of the national security apparatus are like all bureaucrats in desiring larger budgets; when collaborating with a media willing and eager to do their bidding, and politicians looking to find scapegoats for problems, it is all too easy for this class to engage in threat inflation and ultimately put us on a path that, at best will lead to more debt and strained relations with another great power, and at worst war.