This Is Really Lame (CIA Fake Vaccination Dept.)

A few days ago I mentioned the CIA's effective but (in my view) long-range foolish tactic of setting up a fake-vaccination program as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. According to reports in the Guardian, the CIA worked with a Pakistani doctor to lure families in for hepatitis B vaccinations. In addition to giving the shots, the medical team would collect DNA from the people who showed up, presumably via small amounts of blood. As the Guardian report said:

>>The vaccination plan was conceived after American intelligence officers tracked an al-Qaida courier... to what turned out to be Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound last summer.

The agency  ... wanted confirmation that Bin Laden was there before mounting a risky operation inside another country. DNA from any of the Bin Laden children in the compound could be compared with a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present.<<

When I first mentioned the story, I included several "if this turns out to be true..." caveats. No offense to the Guardian, but maybe it was yet another conspiracy fantasy about the ever-scheming, all-powerful United States. And now according to the Washington Post, the CIA not only is failing to refute the story but is actively bragging about its trick prowess. The Post quotes an unnamed "senior US official" thus:

>>"People need to put this into some perspective," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world's top terrorist, and nothing else.  If the United States hadn't shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn't used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden."<<

OK, let's put it in perspective. A decent nation has many reasons not to use "all tools at its disposal" even when looking for bin Laden. We didn't drop an atomic bomb on Abbottabad to get bin Laden -- or on Tora Bora when he was there, even though that option was "at our disposal." We didn't use poison gas or anthrax. We didn't take members of bin Laden's family hostage and torture or kill them until he gave up. SEAL Team Six wasn't instructed to wantonly gun down everyone they saw on the ground in Abbottabad. We didn't do those things not because we "couldn't" do them but because the damaging side effects would have been worse and longer-lasting than the benefits.

The damage in this case is to the idea that the medical and public-health projects the US sponsors worldwide are separate from its military and spying imperatives. And -- crucially -- that villagers and parents can trust the nurses and doctors to be telling the whole truth about their motives when they say: We're here strictly for your own good, the needles we're putting in your children's bodies are just to make them healthier. If you think mistrust of doctors and needles, especially under foreign auspices, is a minor factor -- really, you should get out more. And so should the "senior government official." After all, anti-vaccine sentiment is rife even in the U.S.

More on the harm and stupidity of this reckless move from Claire Berlinski:

>>Of all dumb ways to fight a war, taking one of the West's greatest and most compelling arguments for itself--its proven ability to combat epidemic disease--and associating it with espionage ranks right up there. And of all dumb ways to combat epidemic disease, this ranks right up there, too.

If you're tempted to justify this on the grounds that anything goes when it comes to catching bin Laden, remember your first instinct when you read that story: What a crazy anti-American smear. Your first instinct about it was the right one, even if, unfortunately, the story proved true. Intellectual consistency demands that.  And in this case, we seem to have smeared ourselves.<<
Presented by

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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In