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CIA promises not to do any more fake vaccination programs

Pakistani policemen stand guard as a health worker gives a child a polio vaccine in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, March 9, 2014. --AP

The Obama Administration has promised that the Central Intelligence Agency will never again have its spies pretend to be doing vaccinations overseas.

Some will laugh out loud at the idea of an agency that is fundamentally based on deception and misdirection keeping any such public promise.

More importantly, the aid and development community should be asking the CIA and the Administration: Why just ‘vaccinators’ and not all aid workers?

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?

Is it foreign aid or covert aid?

Flickr, johanoomen

Long-time readers of Humanosphere may recall, back in 2011, that we were one of the first news sites to express outrage and warn of the dire consequences to come from the CIA using a fake vaccination scheme in Pakistan in an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden.

Predictably, the CIA ruse turned health workers into targets for anti-Western militants and dozens have been killed trying to do critically needed vaccinations in Pakistan – where polio has, also predictably, exploded and spread to other countries.

The World Health Organization recently said the polio resurgence today constitutes a global health emergency.

The CIA, by running a fake vaccine program aimed at collecting DNA to identify bin Laden family members, ended up confirming a Taliban conspiracy theory – that aid workers are often spies. Anyone with half a brain, especially an agency with ‘intelligence’ its middle name, could have seen how this would end in murder.

So now, women health workers (most are women) are getting murdered by the Taliban or other anti-Western extremists. The movie Zero Dark Thirty, it should be noted, didn’t help by re-emphasizing this ploy in the movie.

Now, many years later – with dozens of aid workers murdered and polio spreading all over the place – Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations received a copy of a letter written May 14 by Lisa O. Monaco at the US Department of Homeland Security, which is responding to a letter written in early 2013 by many top leaders in global health protesting the fiasco.

CIA Letter

My first question is why wait until now to announce this policy change made last August? Ah, who cares. We don’t really have a functioning democracy anyway. So why expect our elected officials to keep us informed in a timely manner, if at all?

More importantly: What about other health and aid workers? What sense does it make for the CIA and Homeland Security officials to promise only to stop having their spies pretend to be vaccinators? Does this mean that it’s okay for our spies to pretend to be an aid worker doing maternal health or nutrition, or to be part of a project digging wells and building schools while collecting intelligence?

In 2013, two experts on aid and development proposed a somewhat broader prohibition on the intelligence community, banning spies from working on any kind of child health services overseas. One of them, Charles Kenny (whom we recently chatted with on a different topic) welcomed the policy change as good news that needs to be made known (to protect vaccinators).

But really, should this be welcomed? There is still no logical reason to limit this ban on ‘covert aid’ just to vaccine workers or child health.

It took many in the global health, aid and development community a disturbingly long time to muster up their public challenge to this ill-advised and harmful practice of using humanitarians as human shields for covert intelligence work.

Humanosphere hopes this tardy and timid response from the CIA and the Obama Administration will prompt not celebration from the humanitarian community, as if this actually means much. What should happen is for the aid and development community to press for truly meaningful policy changes that protect all aid workers – not just those administering vaccines.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.