The CIA’s Vaccination Program


Ankit Panda, writing in The Diplomat (May 21), opens with a mild, even slightly flattering assertion on CIA prowess. “While the general image of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, in part thanks to its popular portrayal, is one of extreme competence, events through history have shown that the organization is prone to taking action without fully considering the consequences.”

During the phantom “war on terror”, ushered in by the Bush administration’s insistence that abstractions might, in fact, be the subject of military conflict, the CIA made full use of various undercover programs in Pakistan.  The object of such programs was, broadly speaking, the pursuit of Osama bin Laden; the means of doing so was running vaccination programs as a ruse.  Shakil Afridi, in receipt of CIA moneys, ran a hepatitis vaccine program in the military town of Abottabad, venue of Bin Laden’s killing. The measure was designed to obtain DNA from a member of the Bin Laden family, a concept that seemed positively astral in its conception.

In 2011, The Guardian[1] revealed that Afridi had been arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISIS) for cooperating with US intelligence agents.  Suspicion was cast on the operation when the doctor moved his operations from a poor neighbourhood called Nawa Sher, to the wealthier area of Bilal Town, where Bin Laden resided.  As an unnamed Pakistani official quoted in the report claimed, “The whole thing was totally irregular.  Bilal Town is a well-to-do area.  Why would you choose that place to give free vaccines?  And what is the official surgeon of Khyber doing working in Abbottabad?”  Room, perhaps, to doubt that legendary prowess.

On Monday, Lisa Monaco, a senior counterterrorism advisor in the White House, announced that the CIA would no longer be using such vaccination programs in its conduct of espionage operations.  Monaco’s announcement was outlined in a letter[2] to thirteen schools of public health on May 16, claiming, in addition to halting “operational use” of such programs that the CIA would not seek to “obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.”

The letter itself is disingenuous more than touching, starting with the mandatory assertion of noble policy. “The United States strongly supports the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and efforts to end the spread of the polio virus forever.”  The point is stated as a direct response to concerns outlined by a group letter[3] by the deans from January 2013 expressing concerns to the President on the safety of vaccination workers.  “While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as an open society set boundaries on these damages, and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those boundaries.”  In August 2013, CIA Director John Brennan did commit to a policy of avoiding using vaccination programs in CIA espionage operations, though those in Pakistan were none the wiser.

The entire effect of such operations moves far beyond any implication of good old deceit. Humanitarian considerations mixed with heavy realpolitik provides a heady concoction, and it proves revolting for many, and lethal for others.  Indeed, given the controversies, and the scepticism that can accompany usual vaccination programs, adopting them as covers for covert operations do wonders to blacken the name. Islamic militants, for one, have cited the possibility that such vaccination programs are intended to sterilise Muslim children.  This, in addition to the now standard assumptions that such groups are, in fact, CIA fronts.

The letter by the deans on the subject of workers’ safety was entirely pertinent.  Polio vaccinators have found themselves in the line of the politics and fire.  In June 2012, Taliban commanders in two districts of North and South Waziristan, banned polio vaccination teams.  The condition for their continued operation would be the cessation of US drone strikes.

A spate of killings of vaccine workers, notably those working in the field of eradicating polio, has also ensued.  Salma Farooqi[4], a 30-year-old polio vaccinator, was a notable casualty in polio-ridden Peshawar, having been abducted in front of her family, tortured and shot.  She is one of over 30 killed in the last two years, many associated with crews of the vaccinating “Lady Health Workers”.

Donald G. McNeil Jr. of The New York Times[5], writing in 2012, wondered whether, in their zeal to kill Bin Laden, an unintended victim had been created by CIA enthusiasm: the global drive to eradicate polio.  This could not have come at a worst time, given the resurgence of polio as a “global emergency”.  The statement[6] by the World Health Organization (WHO) this month asserts that, in the first few months of 2014, an acute rise in polio infections have been registered across the globe.  A “coordinated international response” is required.  Making it effective, free of suspicion of infiltration, is going to be a tall order.  Official reassurances from intelligence officials will continue to prove unconvincing.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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