What a difference a year makes. Sir Richard Dearlove, the MI6 chief (‘C’) from 1999 to 2004, was first interviewed on the UK’s excellent Planet Normal podcast almost exactly a year ago. His key message was that he saw plausibility in the theory developed by virologists Professor Birger Sørensen and Dr Angus Dalgleish that Covid-19 was an ‘engineered escapee’ – i.e. an enhanced natural virus deliberately created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which accidentally escaped. Sørensen and Dalgleish’s argument is that the genetic sequence of the virus suggests key elements have been inserted and that the virus has no credible ancestor.
It’s worth recalling how much such arguments flew in the face of the intelligence, scientific and media consensus at the time. Greg Sheridan had reported in The Australian two months before that the ‘conspiracy theory’ that the virus leaked from a lab was ‘wrong’. ‘This possibility has been examined by every relevant scientific and intelligence agency in the West. The Five Eyes, including the relevant Australian agencies, are as sure as you can reasonably be that the virus migrated from bats to humans, perhaps via another animal.’ Peter Jennings, the sensible head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who now leans to the lab leak theory, at the time agreed.
Partly because Trump backed the lab leak theory, the media and international scientific community had swung even more decisively behind China’s narrative. The most prestigious journals, such as Nature and Virology wouldn’t touch the Sørensen-Dalgleish article. Meanwhile, unnamed sources, including in MI5, tried to discredit Dearlove personally, claiming that he had promoted false intelligence over Iraq and that he was now backing crackpot rumours and conspiracy theories.
Dearlove’s latest interview (the full version is available only to Daily Telegraph subscribers) coincides with the imminent release of a further paper by Sørensen and Dalgleish, who maintain ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ their conclusion that the virus was manufactured in a lab and who in addition now argue that the Chinese tried to cover their tracks by ‘reverse engineering’ versions of the virus to make it appear as if it had evolved from bats.
But this time, the China-friendly consensus of a year ago has retreated and Dearlove’s views are almost mainstream, emerging as they have to the backdrop of President Biden ordering a US intelligence review into the virus’s origin, both British intelligence and even the WHO now saying that the lab leak theory is ‘feasible’ – and Facebook having sniffed the wind and graciously lifting its ban on the airing of the lab leak theory.
Dearlove is predictably scathing about the WHO’s report earlier this year on the origins of the virus, noting that its 413 pages touch on the lab leak theory on only three of those pages. Even though WHO chief Tedros said after the report that this possible explanation needed further investigation, Dearlove is clear that the route to an explanation of the virus’s origin won’t be via that organisation.
Media coverage of the latest Dearlove interview has missed his comments on two subjects where the views of Britain’s once most senior spy should command particular interest.
Firstly, he said that his ‘informed’ assumption was that the US had new intelligence material which prompted Biden’s direction of a review. He then speculated several times that it might conclude that the ‘balance of probability’ lay with the lab leak theory. Dearlove notes that the Chinese will have destroyed compromising physical evidence and got rid of individuals who could undermine their version of events. In this context, his separate comments a few days before the interview probably provide an indicator of the likely focus of Western intelligence efforts for the Biden report: Dearlove said the British security services ‘may need to “incentivise” Chinese defectors to get to the truth’.
Secondly, Dearlove, who studied communist systems for much of his professional life, predicted the pandemic leading to ‘very dire’ consequences for Xi Jinping’s regime. While it looks monolithic and strong, he suggested that concerted calls for reparations could trigger an internal crisis which might bring down the current leadership. The regime was always rife with rival leadership factions, he explained and, with China’s reputation and foreign relationships seriously damaged, serious internal tensions would become evident ‘in coming months’. Given the regime’s appalling mismanagement of the crisis, he concluded, this would be the case even if the lab leak explanation didn’t gain international acceptance.
Dearlove stood for the first year of the pandemic as a lonely dissident against the West’s intelligence, scientific and media consensus, which seems now to have been too eager to get China off the hook. With that consensus now in disarray, the former spymaster’s consistent perspective looks more persuasive than the shifting sands of Xi Jinping’s useful idiots.
Mark Higgie, Australia’s representative to the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee 2006-09, is the Spectator Australia’s Europe correspondent. He Tweets at @markhiggie1
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.