Monday, October 17

Chinese Puzzle



I used to have a name. Now they just call me Pundita. My beat is the Beltway, or it was before some guy started in with a story about a mysterious illness outbreak China, but I'd better start at the start.


It all began one steamy summer night. John Loftus, a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor and former Army intelligence officer, and who once held a list of security clearances as long as your arm, made a shocking announcement on a radio show heard around the U.S. and the world.

Loftus, who had retained high-level contacts in the Department of Defense and various intelligence agencies, related that he had received unconfirmed reports of an epidemic and mass death in China's Sichuan province arising from a terrifying new virus.

"Think half Ebola, half AIDS," Loftus told the substitute host for the John Batchelor Show while Batchelor was on vacation.

The outbreak in Sichuan had followed on the heels of mass deaths of wildfowl at China's Qinghai Lake -- deaths reportedly caused by the lethal H5N1 "bird flu" virus.

Heck, even a birdbrain could put those two stories together. So I took notes.

Loftus could only reveal open source intelligence. What is open source intelligence? In a world of shadows and rain it can mean anything. For Loftus it meant he could reveal recently declassified intelligence that was already in the public domain. The public domain is a big place, so Loftus's contacts would sometimes steer him where to look for a needle in a haystack.

Trouble was, Loftus's contacts had been wrong before. For months he had publicly stood by his sources at CENTCOM, who stood by an informant in Saddam's regime, who swore that Saddam Hussein had been killed during the first air strike on Iraq. The informant, CENTCOM eventually learned, was a double agent.

That's the nature of intelligence work. Sometimes the data add up to something. Sometimes they don't.

On the other hand, there had never been a correction to a Loftus report that SARS had originally broken out at a military hospital in China, which would be practically a giveaway that the very odd SARS virus had started as a biowar experiment.

Since then militaries around the world, not to mention the CDC and WHO, had been jumpy about signs of weird disease outbreaks in China.

Then there was the march of H5N1. It doesn't take a biowar lab to convert H5N1 into a doomsday virus; every back yard that houses fowl and pigs together is a potential breeding ground for lethal, highly infectious virus mutations.

I shut off the radio. In the silence all that could be heard was the rasp of the air conditioner fighting the humidity outside. I went to the kitchen to pile ice into a glass of whiskey lemonade.

The way I figured it, the story was so crazy it must have come from the CIA. They never were very good at reading satellite photos. Half the time they're looking at them upside down.

So maybe they wanted help from the public in figuring out what was going on some province in China that uses a lot of chili in the cooking. They probably do this kind of thing a lot. Cheaper than hiring thousands more analysts and spending millions on software programs.

I looked at the packed suitcase near the door. I was getting ready to blow this town for a couple weeks. It was dead in Washington at this time of year, and hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement.

I lit another opened a pack of gum. Then I switched on the computer, went to a search engine and started reading. After a few hours I emailed John Loftus.

He could only confirm that according to his sources something very strange was going on in Sichuan province and that "large" numbers of deaths had occurred there. He couldn't confirm the nature of the illness or even whether it resulted from a virus.

I poured another lemonade. Then I thought back. It was not only the Qinghai Lake situation that might be connected with the mystery illness outbreak in China. It just so happened the earliest anonymously published reports in China about an outbreak of Ebola coincided with an explosion of Cold War-style rhetoric between the US and China. And with a sharp escalation of angry rhetoric between Japan and China.

So was it possible the mystery illness represented a game of Chicken launched by the People's Liberation Army? "Haha we have a vaccine against the doomsday virus. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, running dog of imperialism Rumsfeld and Tokyo toadie."

Was General Cao's cadre, which had ousted Jiang Zemin's camp from the top positions in China's military during 2004, slicker than a greased pig? Or was Jiang's loyalist camp in the PLA set on ruffling Cao's feathers by putting on a big show to embarrass him?  With the entrance of the rabidly anti-CCP Epoch Times into the Mystery Illness story, both possibilities had to be considered. If either or both explanations showed promise, Loftus' sources might be caught in the crossfire of a nasty food fight at the highest levels of government in China.

There was another possibility. China's central authority was caught in the crossfire of a firefight between local power brokers and corporate giants trying to hog control of China's lucrative pork industry.

Another possibility: Beijing was locked in an Armageddon-like showdown with the bosses in Sichuan province.

Or was the PLA running around like chickens with their heads cut off simply because they were blindsided by a killer epidemic?

A problem was that there was no medical evidence to review. As usual, China's central government was practicing Denial and Deception. They had locked down Sichuan province and quashed news reports inside China that contradicted the official diagnosis of the illness, which was a Streptococcus suis bacteria transmitted to humans by infected pigs.

Strep suis. "Pig feathers," I snorted and poured more lemonade.

I reviewed the options. Whatever hard evidence existed was classified. Only anecdotal reports, many of them anonymous, were available to the public. The best I could do was to keep going over the ground, hoping to spot something that had been missed. For that, as many pairs of eyes as possible were needed to help with the search, and so I would need to ask Pundita readers for help with the project.

I heaved a sigh and unpacked the suitcase.

China Mystery Illness File

August 3
China Alert: mystery disease reportedly Ebola; disease spreading fast

Ebola Outbreak in China: CCP Cover-up

August 4
About Boxun

When pigs fly

A cautionary note

August 5
Correction and more cautions

August 6
HN51, Virus X and a frightening flash from the past: Spanish Flu

August 8
Pundita plays Devil's Advocate about latest viral outbreak in China

August 9
On the difference between intelligence gathering and scientific method: lesson for serious news consumers

August 10
More on pandemic: Liz does math, Pundita does cryptic, and is there a Chinese biomedical expert in the house?

August 15
A new translation of the Boxun interview about the Sichuan disease outbreak

August 16
About Boxun

Once upon a midnight dreary quoth the Raven "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten."

August 17
The Pig from Outer Space

Dr. Wong's fan club, rejoice!

August 18
China: Tale of Blind Men and Dragon

August 19
The power of suggestion and bao jia

August 20
China: Arsenic and Old Race

August 21
Ignorance, Knowledge and the Three Strikes Rule

August 22
Places in the Heart

August 25
The Third Man

August 28
Sleight of hand

September 30
China Ebola virus reports: finally, a break in the case

October 1
Mystery disease outbreak in Shenzhen: Casablanca Factor and bolts of lightning out of the blue

The Epoch Times vs Xinhua News Agency

That doesn't close the file on China's mystery illness. And Hurricane Katrina intervened before I could share a look at China's pork industry with Pundita readers.

However, the China Mystery Illness investigation is more proof that when information exchange is democratized, when knowledge and talent are pooled and freely exchanged, the fog gets lighter. If China's government doesn't like that -- in a pig's eye will they hold up human progress.


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