Did the CIA Really Use Fake Vaccinations to Get bin Laden?

I had no intention of getting into this, with so many other meat-and-potatoes topics backed up -- the rise of debt, the fall of Murdoch, technology, airplanes, Chinese troubles, the historical role of McConnell and Cantor, you name it. However: if it really is true, as originally reported by the Guardian, that the CIA ran a fake vaccination program in Pakistan to lure in members of the bin Laden family, as a way of getting samples of their DNA, that has tremendously damaging implications that must be addressed. As the Guardian said:

>>The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader's family, a Guardian investigation has found.

As part of extensive preparations for the raid that killed Bin Laden in May, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, even starting the "project" in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic, according to Pakistani and US officials and local residents.<<

Of course, of course: It is all to the good that bin Laden is gone; enormous credit goes to those at all levels who figured out how to get him; his absence gives the United States the best chance it is likely to have to end the distortions of a "global war on terror" and put the real, ongoing risks of terrorism in perspective with the other real risks we face. Almost any step toward the end of eliminating him was worthwhile.

But this phony vaccination campaign, if true, really pushes the boundaries of "almost." Around the world this will touch the very deepest sources of mistrust, fear, and hatred of the big, technological United States. We will (in this narrative) lie to people about basic questions of family health; we will prey on parents' concern for their children to lure them into situations where we can take samples of their tissues and fluids; we will say one thing and do another -- under white medical-technician jackets and a humanitarian guise. We will suggest that no aspect of our international presence is immune to penetration by spies.

On the objective merits, this campaign (if true) was obviously different from the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, not to mention the atrocities committed under the name of medical experimentation during World War II (eg in Machuria). In this case, families apparently got real hepatitis vaccinations -- and just weren't told that DNA was being collected too. But it takes no leap of imagination to see the damage this can do public health efforts anywhere, for a very long time. As Mark David Goldberg and Harold Pollack have explained. Goldberg says:

>>Yes, I am glad that Bin Laden is no longer of this earth, but I wonder how many parents in Pakistan will now refuse to get their children vaccinated-particularly against polio?... this CIA ruse seems confirmed all the darkest fears that vaccination campaigns-particularly against polio-are part of some insidious American plot.<<

If this had to be done, let's hear the case for that, honestly and transparently, from the people responsible for making the choice. (As other damaging-but-necessary decisions have been explained -- like Churchill's much much-debated decision not to evacuate Coventry before a German raid, so as not to reveal England's success in cracking German codes). If the U.S. government was party to this damaging misuse of public-health efforts among people most in need of them, it needs to be clear about that -- and start working fast to repair the damage.

Update: More from Maryn McKenna at Wired.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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