CIA used a fake vaccination campaign in hunt for Bin Laden

In the course of trying to prove that it was actually Osama Bin Laden living in that compound outside Abbottabad, the CIA apparently set up a fake Hepatitis B vaccination campaign, which was actually aimed at collecting DNA samples from Bin Laden's children. Working with a Pakistani doctor, they started giving out the first dose of the three-dose vaccine in poor neighborhoods, as a cover, and then, instead of going back to administer the necessary follow-up doses (without which, children are still susceptible to the disease) they moved on to the area where Bin Laden lived and tried to get the doctor inside his compound.

This is bad. Very bad, from a public health perspective. The New York Times story linked above doesn't really get into the implications the CIA's (failed) venture will have for real vaccination campaigns, but Maryn McKenna does a great job of explaining the issues at her Wired blog:

It plays, so precisely that it might have been scripted, into the most paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines: that they are pointless, poisonous, covert shields for nefarious government agendas meant to do children harm.

That is not speculation. The polio campaign has already seen this happen, based on just those kind of suspicions -- not in a single poor slum in New Delhi, but across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the fall of 2003, a group of imams in the northern Nigerian state of Kano -- the area that happened to have the highest rate of ongoing polio transmission -- began preaching against polio vaccination, contending that what purported to be a protective act was actually a covert campaign by Western powers to sterilize and kill Muslim children. The president of Nigeria's Supreme Council for Sharia Law said to the BBC: "There were strong reasons to believe that the polio immunisation vaccine was contaminated with anti-fertility drugs, contaminated with certain virus that cause HIV/AIDS, contaminated with Simian virus that are likely to cause cancers."

The rumors caught like wildfire, and they were spread further by political operatives who saw an opportunity to disrupt a recent post-election power-sharing agreement between the Muslim north and the Christian south. Three majority Muslim states -- Kano, Kaduna and Zamfara -- suspended polio vaccination entirely. Vaccination acceptance in the rest of the country fell off so sharply that the national government was forced to act. It ordered tests of the vaccine by Nigeria's health ministry and empaneled a special commission to visit the Indonesian labs where the vaccine administered in Nigeria was made. The WHO convened emergency meetings.

And polio began to spread. At the end of 2003, when the boycott began, there had been only 784 known polio cases in the entire world. By the end of 2004, there had been 793 new cases just in Nigeria. Polio leaking across Nigeria's borders reinfected Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Sudan and Togo. Nigerian strains appeared in Yemen, site of the largest port on the Red Sea, and in Saudi Arabia, imperiling the millions of pilgrims coming to the country on hajj.

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  1. Between Jenny Macarthy and Imams, it looks like there are going to be some serious disease outbreaks in our near future.
    I feel bad for the kids in Nigeria, Africa, and the Middle East, but I dont really care if they decide to commit some sort of national disease suicide. What does bother me is that this kind of BS thinking will reach the red states here and will eventually spread to the backwoods areas of blue states putting all of us at risk.

    CSB

  2. Uh, yeah, the most important thing about this story is how it affects you directly.

  3. I don’t really see how an incomplete vaccine program is worse than no vaccine program at all. Off the top of my head, I can think of a half dozen vaccine programs that ran out of funding before completion, and yet I don’t see an article about those…

  4. Taking DNA samples doesn’t directly do harm at least, and it’s the kind of shady quasi-legal thing we collectively “hire” the CIA for. Most people probably wouldn’t approve, but I don’t see a big movement to revoke/rewrite the CIA’s charter.

    It’s bad that this will fuel the zanier vaccination theories. Arguably the CIA shouldn’t do this kind of crap if they can’t at least keep it a secret.

    Oh, and not arranging the followup vaccinations is terrible. Hopefully it wasn’t on purpose, but it probably was a cynical and/or scientifically misinformed decision.

    1. Firstly, I suspect CSBD (first post) is a psyops agent for the Romney campaign. I don’t remember the last time I read posts from a stone-hearted self-centered Democrat as opposed to the “bleeding-heart liberal” variety. ;) Secondly, Nadreck is right. What the Kano vaccine story proves to me is that such campaigns will succeed whether there is ever any actual evidence or not. The point is moot. Also this effort in Pakistan was made in a country that officially is cooperating, but whose people, and an unknown fraction of the military, is against us and actively sabotaging our efforts. It would seem to me that desperate measures were called for in this situation. It is unfortunate, but I’d guess the CIA made a thoughtful effort to weigh pros and cons here. Maybe they were wrong, but I’m going to be slow and careful to criticize, especially based on the nytimes’ brief report.

  5. If they had just gone back and given the final doses they would have avoided suspicion and done a good deed. With all of the money we give them they should have been able to afford it. Didn’t they think that an incomplete vaccination campaign might arouse the suspicion of the locals or the target? Of course if they were that good they wouldn’t have needed ten years to find Osama, and if they were that considerate of people’s welfare half of the world wouldn’t hate us.

    1. Agreed. At least *do* the good deed you’re using as cover.

      Why do people on internet forums know more about plausible deniability than the CIA?

  6. The problem is that the vaccinations were invalid, not that DNA samples were surreptitiously obtained.

    If people can accurately say, “yeah, you shouldn’t get vaccinated if the United States has a million-dollar bounty on your head” that’s very different from being able to say “vaccination campaigns don’t actually protect your from disease, they are merely a front for US anti-terrorist manhunts”.

    See? It’s a given that spy agencies will spy. You can’t stop that (nor should you – spying is cheaper and more effective than waging war). It’s not, however, a good idea for spy agencies to set up fake vax campaigns, they should simply use real ones… so that they won’t fuck up the whole goddamn world just to assassinate Reagan’s terrorist pals.

  7. If there’s a single overarching problem with the CIA it’s the agency’s willingness — eagerness even — to ignore the long term consequences of its actions for a chance to achieve some small short-term gain of questionable value.

    Subverting democracy? If that’s what it takes to get a foreign leader who plays ball! Supporting militants of questionable morality? Hey, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to win a war! Tens of thousands die due to mistrust of vaccines? Hey, if that’s what it takes to get intel on our own former asset.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head: they are willing to abide by “the ends justify the means” policy.

  8. A bad thing to do but let’s not exaggerate the impact. The people pushing the anti-vaccination scares, and the people swallowing them don’t need to have any facts at all on their side. If you shout loudly and wave your hands around a lot you’ll be believed: especially if it lets you put all of the problems of the world, without exception, at the feet of some people outside of your tribe. Saves you the bother of having to lift a little finger to do something about your own problems.

    Some 99.99 (and many more “9”s after that) percent of vaccine injections have no bad effect on their recipients and are free from spy agency influence. But so what? If the conspiracy theory is dramatic and politically useful it’ll be successful. For example, on the basis of thin air, there’s a widespread refusal of the Gaza Palestinians to take advantage of the free medical facilities made available to them by Israel.

  9. This is a big mistake and one more goof up by the incompetent CIA. The vaccine myths are a big problem in rural areas and already such programs are maligned as western plots to sterilize Muslims, at least in India this is a huge obstacle.

    The agency now using this cover, may have confirmed the fears and placed more hurdles in eliminating these diseases.

  10. The people pushing the anti-vaccination scares, and the people swallowing them don’t need to have any facts at all on their side.

    What an excellent reason to avoid giving them any such facts.

  11. For example, on the basis of thin air, there’s a widespread refusal of the Gaza Palestinians to take advantage of the free medical facilities made available to them by Israel.

    Hot lead, not thin air. Hamas rules Gaza, and if Hamas says you don’t cross into Israel to visit a doctor, then you don’t cross into Israel to visit a doctor.

    As for the CIA, I have this to say: if we had any foreign policy leverage, President Bush could have called the Pakistani ambassador 5 years ago, and said “we know you have Bin Laden. Hand him over now.” And they would have. We have no leverage. That’s what we have to fix.

    1. “U.S. drones have killed at least 45 people in multiple strikes in northwest Pakistan over the past 24 hours”

      That’s from todays Democracynow.org headlines. We don’t have leverage you say? We don’t need leverage, the US does whatever the hell it please, legal or not. This was just another example of stupidity, because whether Osama is dead or alive dosn’t mean jack shit anyway. That’s very clear from our escalating hostilities in other countries, the completely false “troop withdraw” from Afghanistan, and the approaching end-of-2011 Iraq withdraw that looks to be not happening.

  12. Is there no limit to the kind of evil disinformation that those anti-vaxxers will resort to? Hell with that- If it’s a vaccine, then it’s good for me, I don’t care if it’s the CIA or not!

    Vaccines are good. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is bad. Coginitive dissonance resolved.

  13. “U.S. drones have killed at least 45 people in multiple strikes in northwest Pakistan over the past 24 hours”

    That’s from todays Democracynow.org headlines. We don’t have leverage you say?

    Yes. That is what I say. Bin Laden was safe for years because the Pakistani government valued his safety over that of regular Pakistani civilians.

    We don’t need leverage, the US does whatever the hell it please, legal or not.

    An campaign of drone attacks costing much in blood and treasure, because we couldn’t get this resolved with a simple phone call.

    1. Yeah, I guess it’s just like that if you believe everything they tell us, it’s not like they don’t lie and spin things all the time. It could never be that there was a lot more going on that we don’t know about, no sir.

      In case you didn’t know, wikileaks has shown Pakistan and the US have made major do-one-thing, say-another-thing deals, so if they said the sky was blue I’d be skeptical at this point.

      1. Yeah, I guess it’s just like that if you believe everything they tell us, it’s not like they don’t lie and spin things all the time.

        The paranoid style of discourse is not as scary when it’s used by leftists as when it’s used by right wingers. It’s just silly.

        If the US had enough leverage, the Pakistani officials who let Bin Laden settle down in Abbotabad would have handed him over to the US instead. They let him stay in his little compound. Ergo, the US did not have enough leverage to make that demand and see it complied with. Simple logic, and entirely independent of what the US and Pakistani governments have been saying (and veracity of same.)

        So instead, the US conducted the drone war and espionage campaign. That’s the price of not having diplomatic leverage: a price paid in blood and treasure.

  14. Um… This strategy compared to the Iraq war? And the Afghanistan war? And the drone attacks in Pakistan? No, it’s not a good thing, but compared to previous unsuccessful strategies to attack Bin Laden, and ongoing strategies against insurgents, I think it’s orders of magnitude less malevolent. If I had a choice, I’d much rather have people impersonate a health clinic that was actually filled with placebos, rather then having planes drop bombs on my country, or having armed soldiers enter my house and threaten my family.

  15. Nadreck:
    “For example, on the basis of thin air, there’s a widespread refusal of the Gaza Palestinians to take advantage of the free medical facilities made available to them by Israel.”

    ocschwar:
    “Hot lead, not thin air. Hamas rules Gaza, and if Hamas says you don’t cross into Israel to visit a doctor, then you don’t cross into Israel to visit a doctor.”

    Both of these statements are false and sickening. You know that Israel controls the borders completely and will rarely let anyone out for health care. Gaza is a ghetto of Israel’s creation. Some of the causalities of Israeli denial of health care:

    http://old.btselem.org/statistics/english/Casualties_data.asp?Category=21&region=TER

  16. they were spread further by political operatives who saw an opportunity to disrupt a recent post-election power-sharing agreement

    Fucking soulless assholes. I might consider myself something of a pacifist, but I would terminate these fuckers without a second thought. It’s not as if they’re human beings, after all.

  17. The CIAs job was to catch Bin Laden, not to vaccinate the children of India. This was a stupid strategy and frankly creepy (I pretty sure I would want a foreign secret service agency offering to vaccinate my kids) but was not outside their remit. I would argue that targeting children is wrong not because of the vaccine fear it may hypothetically create but because of the tiny but not entirely negligible risk of anaphylaxis or allergy to the vaccine itself. Normally this risk is more than offset by the potential benefits to the child and to society more broadly but in this instance since they did not receive the full dosage and it was not part of a coordinated nationwide vaccination campaign there is no justification for even this very small risk.

    On you other point the CIA is not responsible for the stupidity of the Imams in Kano or the gullibility of the people of Kano. It is the responsibility of the adults of Kano to look after their own health and the health of their children. To say otherwise denigrates the adults of Kano as less than adult.

  18. I meant to say “I’m pretty sure I would NOT want a foreign secret service agency offering to vaccinate my kids” in that last post…whoopsie.

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