It was described as a “bombshell dossier” that detailed China’s “assault on international transparency” and gave some weight to Donald Trump’s disputed claims that the coronavirus may have leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan.
But the document that formed the basis of tabloid reports in Australia – and triggered a flurry of follow-up stories in the US and elsewhere – may not be released to the public for three years or more.
After Guardian Australia submitted an application under freedom of information laws for a file thought to be titled “Timeline of coronavirus outbreak and PRC coverup”, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed it had found one document matching the request.
But Dfat decided the document was exempt from being disclosed “as its release would divulge material that was communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government or organisation” to the Australian government.
It is believed the 15-page document was authored by the US Department of State this year and distributed to officials in like-minded countries – including Australia – to spark debate about how the People’s Republic of China had handled the initial outbreak.
The Guardian submitted a similar FoI request to the US state department but was told “this request is in process and has a 24 April 2023 estimated date of completion”.
It explained that the application for the document had been placed “in the complex processing track” but would be dealt with “as quickly as possible”.
A media storm began in early May when Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, devoted six pages of reporting in its Saturday edition to “a dossier prepared by concerned western governments” – which were not named.
The initial report said the “research document” revealed how China deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence of the coronavirus outbreak in an “assault on international transparency’’ that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The Telegraph also reported on concerns about practices at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with one of the stories headlined “Government dossier claims incurable virus invented at lab with links to Australia”.
The story was then amplified by Donald Trump’s media backers in the US who in some cases presented it – incorrectly – as a dossier compiled by the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
The Guardian has been told the dossier was a fairly straightforward timeline and summary of publicly available material, and did not contain classified information, with one source likening it to a “reading list” or “reference paper”.
An official who has read the 15-page document told the Guardian the material relevant to the Wuhan lab leakage theory made up only a small portion of the file, and it did not include any conclusive findings.
This backed up an earlier story by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which also reported that the original paper was a background research report compiled and widely distributed by the state department.
Around the time of the reports the Australian government quietly pushed back at Trump administration claims the coronavirus may have originated in a Wuhan lab and determined that the “dossier” giving weight to the theory was not a Five Eyes intelligence document.
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In a letter to Guardian Australia, Dfat said it had made the decision to exempt the document from public release “after careful consideration”. It cited a section of the FoI Act which relates to information held by the Australian government that had been communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government.
Allan Behm, the head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute and a former senior Defence official, said Dfat had taken “a very formal position” regarding the ownership of the document.
“The idea that the state department would say it’s going to take them three years to look at a few pages is completely extraordinary,” Behm said.
He said it defied the purpose of FoI laws, which was to inform the public and ensure governments were transparent.