Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

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:

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

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases