The Washington Post filed a lawsuit against the State Department late Friday after the agency denied speedy processing of the newspaper’s request to see diplomatic cables warning of safety issues at a coronavirus research lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the global pandemic originated.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington centers on two cables sent to State Department leaders from diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. scientists made several visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has conducted studies on bat coronaviruses like the one that has caused the current health crisis. It asks the court to declare the State Department’s denial unlawful and direct the agency to give The Post’s request an expedited review.

On April 14, Post columnist Josh Rogin reported on the existence of the cables written in 2018, almost two years before the highly contagious virus erupted, warning of inadequate safety precautions at the lab. They were categorized as sensitive but unclassified. The first cable, a copy of which Rogin obtained, warned that the lab’s study of bat coronaviruses and the potential for human transmission risked a SARS-like pandemic.

President Trump has both praised China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and criticized China for not being forthcoming enough about the virus. (The Washington Post)

The Post initially requested the State Department release the cables in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed April 3. It asked for expedited processing, a routine request often used by news organizations when reporting on issues of the utmost consequence. The request said the information in the cables is “urgently needed to inform the public” of what the federal government knew about the threat emanating from China.

The request for expedited processing was denied April 12 in an emailed letter, in which Nicholas Cormier, the State Department’s chief of requester communications, wrote there was no “compelling need” to rush the information. Instead, The Post’s request was placed in a routine track “where it will be processed as quickly as possible.”

A request for comment sent to several State Department officials was not immediately answered.

China's foreign ministry denied a cover-up April 17, after Wuhan released a revised coronavirus death toll that was 50 percent higher than the original number. (Reuters)

Kris Coratti, The Post’s vice president of communications, said the information being sought would aid the public’s understanding of government activities related to the pandemic.

“The government’s compliance with transparency laws like FOIA shouldn’t be an afterthought in times of crisis — if anything, it’s more important than ever,” she said in an emailed statement.

The State Department has a large and growing backlog of FOIA requests, and routine requests often take many months to go through vetting before a decision is made. More than 13,000 requests were pending at the end of 2019, up 2,000 from the previous year, according to statistics on the State Department’s website.

Only 138 of the 6,545 requests processed last year were granted in full, including a small number from the department’s Office of the Inspector General. Another 2,459 were granted only partially, while the rest were denied outright for a variety of reasons.

The U.S. Embassy cables from 2018 raised alarm about safety and management issues at the Wuhan lab, and proposed more assistance be provided to address shortages of trained technicians and investigators, Rogin wrote. The work was considered important — and dangerous. The first cable, written by two officials with the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with Chinese scientists, warned that the lab’s work represented the risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

Though the cables generated discussions within the Trump administration about whether the lab was the source of the virus escaping into the world, conclusive proof has not been unearthed at this point.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly condemned the Chinese government for not sounding the warning to the World Health Organization — and nations around the world — when the virus first emerged late last year. He has accused the ruling Chinese Communist Party of orchestrating a “coverup” and has raised hackles in Beijing by his frequent references to covid-19 as “the Wuhan virus.”

But he has stopped short of definitively tracing the virus’s origin to lax security and conditions at the Wuhan lab. He has called for a complete investigation once the imminent crisis has passed.

Pompeo declined to comment on the cables during an April 15 interview with Martha MacCallum of Fox News, but suggested he shares concerns about the lab.

“I can say this,” he said. “This is a laboratory that contained highly contagious materials. We knew that. We knew that they were working on this program. Many countries have programs like this. And in countries that are open and transparent, they have the ability to control and keep them safe and they allow outside observers in to make sure all the processes and procedures are right. I only wish that that had happened in this place.”