The CIA and the Polio Murders
” … In 2011, American intelligence, in a stunning display of arrogance, stupidity, or both, faked a vaccination drive as a cover for its attempt to pin down the location of Osama bin Laden. (The idea was to get DNA samples from the children in the Abbottabad compound while injecting them with a dummy vaccine, and then compare them to those of bin Laden’s relatives.) … “
By Michael Specter
The New Yorker, December 18, 2012
Scientists, with the help of public-health workers, have managed to wipe just two diseases from the face of the earth: smallpox and rinderpest (otherwise known as cattle plague). This year, it had begun to look as if we would soon add another name to that list, a virus that has been a paralytic threat for millennia: polio.The effort took a devastating step backward yesterday, with the news that six public-health workers were killed in Pakistan; all had been administering polio vaccines. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared the eradication of polio to be a world-wide health emergency (a designation which makes it easier to release funds). It did so primarily because the end seemed in sight. Just three countries continue to report infections: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. As soon as the news of the murders spread, however, the health minister for Pakistan’s southern Sindh Province put a halt to the vaccination program, which had employed more than twenty-four thousand aid workers. The risks of this detour, which will leave tens of thousands of people vulnerable to new infections, cannot be overstated. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the coördinated attacks, but the Taliban has opposed polio vaccination vigorously. Taliban leaders have issued several religious edicts saying that the U.S. runs a spy network under the guise of a vaccine program. Now, there is no question that this is a depraved, heartless, and sickening act. But, as I wrote in a post here more than a year ago, the claim about the C.I.A. is not entirely untrue. In 2011, American intelligence, in a stunning display of arrogance, stupidity, or both, faked a vaccination drive as a cover for its attempt to pin down the location of Osama bin Laden. (The idea was to get DNA samples from the children in the Abbottabad compound while injecting them with a dummy vaccine, and then compare them to those of bin Laden’s relatives.) There is a history here, and somebody in the American intelligence community should have known it. The world was close to eradication in 2004 as well. Then several mullahs in northern Nigeria campaigned against polio vaccinations—claiming they were part of a Western plot. The result was that people who were infected went to Mecca on the hajj and spread their disease to people from many countries. Pakistan’s attitude toward those who are associated with the C.I.A. has not exactly been a secret. After the raid on bin Laden’s compound, the doctor who tried to obtain the DNA was arrested and sentenced to thirty-three years in prison. I don’t mean to lay these crimes on anyone other than the murderers. But the sickness and death caused by a renewed polio epidemic in South Asia would make today’s tragedy seem small. Again, we should hold the killers responsible for this terrible reversal. But at least some of blame lies in the swamplands of Langley, Virginia. Photograph by Fareed Khan/AP.