Government officials respond to Reuters report on the secrecy of coronavirus discussions

WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified on Thursday on Capitol Hill that public health officials discussed coronavirus information in classified rooms on occasions “too numerous to count,” though he said the information wasn’t treated as classified.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the White House ordered federal health officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the nation’s premier health agency, to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, citing four Trump administration officials.

The officials said that dozens of such discussions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at HHS, which oversees the CDC, and that staffers without security clearances have been excluded.

After the story was published, the National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot emailed Reuters on Wednesday evening, saying, “The White House has never ordered any agency ‘to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified,’” as the story alleged.

“This story is fake news,” he wrote.

Asked about the Reuters report on Thursday, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee of the meetings, “We’re holding them in a classified room, but the nature and the content of those conversations are not classified.”

The Vice President’s office emailed a joint statement from HHS Secretary Alex Azar and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on Thursday saying they were “perplexed” by the Reuters story, saying that task force meetings convened by Vice President Mike Pence take place in the White House Situation Room and are unclassified.

The Reuters story was not about the Pence task force, which he began to lead at the end of February. It was about meetings at HHS that the sources said were held in a secure room called a SCIF(Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). “We stand by our story,” a Reuters spokeswoman said Thursday.

The sources, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, said they could not describe the interactions in the SCIF because they were classified. But they said topics included the scope of the outbreaks, quarantine issues and travel restrictions.

SCIFs are intended to be used for classified matters and include restrictions on attendees such as prohibiting most cell phones.

“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one of the officials quoted by Reuters said.

A spokesman for Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said Thursday that Grassley’s office had contacted the White House to ask about the Reuters’ report because he was concerned about the potential over-classification of information, an issue he had raised previously.

“Federal health experts need to be able to access all Intelligence Community information that could help combat this pandemic,” said the spokesman, Michael Zona.

Kel McClanahan, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in national security law and classification matters, said that if the practice was to hold these meetings in a SCIF, block certain people who lacked security clearances from attending and prevent attendees from discussing the matters with uncleared people, then “it would be classified.” (Editing by Julie Marquis)