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US Pledge of No More Fake Vaccine Schemes Is a Tragic Farce

The CIA has promised to never again use fake children's health programs to spy. We shouldn't have to hear this and can't trust it.
Photo via Gates Foundation

If, as Karl Marx wrote, history repeats itself "first as tragedy, then as farce," the Obama administration and the CIA fit neatly into history today with their announcement about vaccination schemes for surveillance purposes.

The US officially pledged to never again use phony vaccination programs as a cover for spying.

The existence of such schemes came into bright focus when details emerged about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.


The CIA set up a fake hepatitis vaccination scheme through a Pakistani doctor in a failed and elaborate attempt to check for bin Laden DNA at his Abbottabad compound. The vaccinations were real and were first administered by health workers in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Abbottabad.

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Any arguments that the deceptive intention behind the vaccinations didn't matter — because, hey, poor kids were receiving life-saving vaccines — were abruptly undercut.

Instead of delivering the two doses necessary, the health workers gave only one dose to the unwitting patients, before moving on to the target area, wherein lay the bin Laden compound. There was nothing redeemable about the scheme that used medical care as a front in the politically-weighted locomotive, focused on hunting down al Qaeda.

Torture, lies and ethical abrogations beyond in our wake, bin Laden in a body bag was the quintessential counter terrorism triumph post-9/11.

"We got him," the president beamed. "USA! USA!" chanted revelers outside the White House in May 2011.

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But jingoism has a shelf-life shorter than the serious and material consequences of carrying out a scheme as despicable as phony vaccinations.

The CIA has received global censure for the death of dozens of Pakistani health workers, killed at the hands of militants who believed (with empirical grounds) that vaccination schemes could be CIA scams.


Which brings us to the announcement today, in an effort to contain such violent fallout and avoid accountability, that the CIA will never again use the cover of vaccinating against disease as an excuse for surveillance.

The pledge was a direct response to a letter, expressing rightful outrage, written a whole year ago by public health educators.

"While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as a society set boundaries on these damages, and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those damages,” the educators’ letter to President Obama said.

That it took the administration a whole year to even agree is shameful enough.

The Obama administration deserves precisely no praise here.

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Firstly, the sort of government operation that would conjure phony vaccination programs (and not even deliver proper vaccination doses) deserves no trust at all to uphold an ethical pledge. The CIA's promise is only good until the moment they deem its breaking necessary for a national security (read "political") end.

After all, the frenzied hunt for one man was enough the first time around. Secondly, it's the sort of pledge that should never have to be made at all — a grim reminder of the nadirs plunged in the name of counter terrorism.

It seems the stuff of the blackest political satire that the US government must promise not to use the basic health of children in poverty as a cover in a manhunt.


But this is not the first instance of "public health" as pretext for achieving political ends. Volatile Cold War-era markets propelled the West to bring "good" technologies, like building dams for power and clean water, to less economically developed nations. "Public health" has long been a vector for the spread of liberal-minded capitalism.

The bin Laden vaccination scam was perhaps the darkest instance of health-for-the-poor as not just pretext, but full smoke-and-mirror excuse.

The US's pledge reads as cruel satire — the sort that can only be a follow on from horror and tragedy. In other words, it is the stuff of history we can bleakly trust to be repeated.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr