Polio and the CIA

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

It may long be debated just how much the CIA’s use of a vaccination ruse to identify Osama bin Laden’s children contributed, but on May 5, 2014 the World Health Organization declared polio a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The WHO noted that by the end of 2011 only three countries still had endemic polio (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria), but by the end of April 2014 that number had soared to 10 nations. The world had been on the edge of polio eradication: It is now witnessing expansion of the virus’ territory and caseload.

On Friday, May 16, the United States National Security Council sent a letter to thirteen deans of schools of public health in the United States vowing to never again deploy fake “vaccinators” as a component of counterintelligence operations. I obtained a copy of the letter and the e-mail thread verifying its authenticity, both of which are posted below.


For several years Osama bin Laden hid with some of his family members and al-Qaeda operatives in a walled compound located in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The CIA suspected his location and used a number of intelligence ruses to confirm bin Laden’s presence. One ruse involved recruited physician Shakil Afridi, who was hired to obtain DNA samples from the children located inside the compound thru a fake vaccination effort. Afridi pretended to be executing a hepatitis B immunization effort, which involved injecting vaccine into the children, withdrawing the syringes in a normal fashion, and then submitting the needles for DNA analysis. Afridi was not successful: the compound guards denied his spring 2011 entry.

In May 2011 U.S. Special Forces raided the compound, killing Osama bin Laden. The Agency’s use of a vaccine ruse was revealed in July 2011 by The Guardian and days later Dr. Orin Levine (now of the Gates Foundation) and I co-authored an editorial for the Washington Post denouncing the ruse and noting there was a history of opposition to polio vaccination in extreme Islamist circles. Imams in Nigeria had long before declared polio vaccines a U.S. ploy to sterilize Muslim children, and in 2007 a Taliban-connected tribal leader in northern Pakistan issued a fatwa against polio vaccination. Following that decree the leading Pakistani vaccinator in Bajaur Agency in the Pakistani tribal areas was assassinated. Levine and I feared that the CIA hepatitis vaccine ruse might provide the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and other groups validation for their claims, giving them a sort of warped, sick “justification” to execute more brave vaccinators, their security details and volunteers. At the time I was specifically warned by an official in the Obama administration that my view was considered extreme, and I would not be welcome at a White House meeting scheduled at the time on a different topic.

In 2012 a Hollywood movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was released, depicting a version of the CIA search for bin Laden. In a brief moment it shows an Afridi-like character knocking on the compound door with his vaccination kit, and a voiceover recounts that a fake polio effort was used. Bootleg DVDs of the movie hit black markets across the Subcontinent shortly after the movie’s December 2012 release.

As the graphic above shows, the attacks on polio vaccinators have steadily escalated since the movie’s release, now numbering more than 55 healthcare workers, innocent bystanders and security personnel killed. The brutality has featured everything from drive-by shootings, IED bombings to dragging women out of their homes to torture and murder them, leaving their bodies in the streets. The courage of Pakistan’s army of vaccinators cannot be overstated, and merits the highest praise of the global public health community.

In addition to the horrors of murders and bombings, the extremists have traveled, and carried the polio virus to Syria, Iraq, the sewers of Israel and secondarily to a list of locations in the Middle East. Genetic analysis of the strains found around the world match those in circulation in the FATA region of Pakistan, held by the Taliban and their supporters, according to WHO.

Will the NSC’s promissory letter stop the carnage? It is hard to imagine that individuals with views so irrational that they are willing to have their own children crippled by disease for lack of immunization will be mollified. 

I wish the NSC’s letter had been released sooner. Moreover, I wish the CIA had never deployed its heinous vaccine ruse in the first place.

Here is the full text of the letter to the deans of the schools of public health, followed by the e-mail thread verifying the authenticity of the attached Lisa Monaco letter.

Dear USG health teams,

I am happy to communicate that today, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco sent the attached letter to Deans of twelve schools of public health.  The letter outlines a CIA policy that states that the Agency will make no operational use of vaccination programs or vaccination workers.  Full details are below and attached.  Press guidance for your usage is below.

Press Guidance                 
We can confirm that a letter has been sent from Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco to Deans of twelve schools of public health.

The letter outlines a CIA policy, established by CIA Director Brennan in August 2013, that the CIA will make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers.

Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.

This policy applies worldwide, and to US persons and non-US persons alike.

The Administration fully supports this policy, which demonstrates our support for global health and our continued commitment to the global eradication of polio. 
I would refer any questions you have to the CIA.

If needed:  We do not comment on intelligence activities.

Harley Feldbaum, Ph.D.
Director, Global Health, Food Security and Development
National Security Council

From: Nosanchuk, Matt
Sent: Friday, May 16, 2014 3:09 PM
To: FN-WHO-International
Subject: Letter to Deans from Lisa Monaco re vaccination campaigns

Dear Deans of Schools of Public Health,

We wanted to ensure you were aware of the attached letter from Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on vaccination campaigns.  Please share this letter with whomever you deem appropriate.
Best regards,

Matt Nosanchuk
Director for Outreach
National Security Council