May 22 2014

CIA Ends Vaccine Cover

The White House has announced that in August of 2013 CIA policy banned the use of vaccination programs as cover for CIA ops. Thus, hopefully, ends a blatantly unethical policy.

Back in 2011, the CIA suspected that they had located Osama Bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They needed to confirm his presence, however. So they created a fake vaccine drive. They enlisted the help of a local physician and health official, Shakil Afridi, who set up a program to give free hepatitis B vaccines (all funded by the CIA). The goal of the vaccine program was to procure DNA from children in the compound to see if they were related to Bin Laden, thus confirming his presence.

The ploy worked, and as you probably know, Bin Laden’s compound was raided and he was summarily executed.

Afridi was arrested and remains in custody. He was charged with treason and sentenced, but that was overturned. Now he is on trial for an alleged murder of a patient from 8 years ago (sounds suspiciously like a trumped up charge, but who knows).

The real story here, however, is that following the fake vaccine operation, 60 vaccine workers have been killed in Pakinstan. The operation has fueled claims that vaccine programs in general are a CIA plot. Life has become very dangerous for vaccine workers in that part of the world.

At the same time, polio is making a comeback in Pakistan and spreading to other countries. Already this year there have been 77 cases reported of polio, 61 in Pakistan.

About a decade ago we were on the verge of world-wide polio eradication. However, rumors were spread in Nigeria that the polio vaccine was a Western plot to spread AIDS. This lead to a drop in compliance, and, much like Sauron, polio was allowed to endure. The World Health Organization has been struggling ever since to contain polio, and the outbreak in Pakistan has been the biggest setback.

I’m glad the CIA has banned using vaccine programs for cover, but it’s a bit late. It’s also curious that they waited months to announce the ban. One primary point of the ban is to increase public confidence in the sanctity of vaccine programs, and so people need to know about the CIA policy in order to have this effect.

But of course, the damage is already done. Why would anyone believe the CIA about their own policies when the organization is in the business of lying and deception. This could easily be perceived as just more cover and damage control for their exposed vaccine operations. (I’m not saying this is true – I am just saying that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t easily be put back in.)

It should be an international norm, and a hard and fast rule, that medical programs are untouchable in terms of military and intelligence operations. The public needs to have utter confidence that when someone flies the red cross, they can be trusted. Health care workers should never be targeted, on the battle field or elsewhere, and in exchange they should always maintain their neutrality.

I believe Afridi violated his professional ethics in collaborating with the CIA. He should have not only refused, he should have been outraged. He should have lectured his CIA contacts on the dubious ethics of such a program, and even pursued it further up the chain if possible.

The CIA arguably is responsible for making it more difficult to control and eradicate polio. It may take a generation for the damage they have done to fade.

It’s also a little irritating that they are still being coy about this. I know it is their policy and their culture to not discuss policy and to keep their cards close to the vest. But in this case they need to apologize (they have never done so for this incident) and the president and the CIA need to make it as clear as possible that vaccine and other humanitarian and medical programs will never be used as cover for military or intelligence operations.

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