CIA should not impersonate public health folk

Mark Goldberg has an excellent column in UN Dispatch “Eradicating a Disease vs. Eradicating a Terrorist.”

I have no problem with the CIA mounting devious black ops to find Bin Laden. Yet anyone who knows the difficult history of global immunization knows that such public health activities pose a special challenge, and mark special points of sensitivity, in many Muslim areas that most require help.

These challenges aren’t lessened by the news that CIA operatives mounted a fake vaccination campaign to gather intelligence. This plays into many damaging conspiracy theories that have hindered efforts to eradicate polio and other deadly diseases. Had the CIA impersonated journalists, there would have been much greater outcry over something that would cause much less harm in the world.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

5 thoughts on “CIA should not impersonate public health folk”

  1. It reminds me of December 1998, when Saddam Hussein refused to allow the UNSCOM weapons inspectors in to his munitions factories because, he claimed, they were traduced by the CIA. The US bombed Iraq in response. He was telling the truth.

  2. I was wondering what a “fake vaccination campaign” might mean – real vaccinations by people who were also snooping? Snooping while making arrangements for a campaign that would never happen? Injecting placebos? So I clicked the link – and what they did is criminal.

    Turns out, it was Hepatitis B vaccinations. Now, I can understand their reasoning: Hep B vaccinations are given to adults as well as children, which may offer some advantages to the intelligence agents; and I don’t know about Pakistan, but in the US most people aren’t already vaccinated against Hep B. But there are reasons why people aren’t vaccinated against Hep B: at least in the US (and this may be very different in Pakistan) outside of certain professions it’s not usually a huge infection risk, vaccination takes three injections months apart, and as a result of vaccination you have antibodies against Hep B that can interfere with some diagnostics for Hep B. These people did the first round of injections, and then took a hike.

    If you receive only part of the normal cycle, you’ve got the worst of all worlds: you aren’t protected, you probably think you are, and some common diagnostics now will say you’re infected whether you are or you aren’t. I can understand, though not applaud the notion of using a health campaign to infiltrate the area – but they had an obligation to complete the course of treatment they started.

  3. If we’re having nurses do work on the sly for the CIA, why not have priests on the payroll too?
    Want to track down the latest abuse scandals from your church of choice? The new Father is wired.

    Psychotherapists should also get the CIA knock – it’s OK if it’s for tracking down terrrororororists!

    Then we can put some EPA moles into the binding arbitration, sealed verdict cases involving toxic waste.
    SEC should be amassing a set of corporate accountants on the sly to get info on the next Enron before it blows up.

  4. Sadly, while it’s bad, it’s hard to imagine any mass outrage about this.
    See the torture debates. Torture is even farther beyond the pale, yet passes as legit in many circles.

Comments are closed.