Using health care as a cover for U.S. espionage activities creates significant risks, not only for local populations but globally. Its execution is often clumsy, and it accomplishes little either for health or for intelligence needs.

HIV: The Cuban Caper

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sent a 29 year-old Costa Rican man with no intelligence training to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism under the guise of an HIV prevention workshop (the program was planned by contractor Creative Associates International, the same people responsible for the failed “Cuban Twitter,” another covert program exposed by the Cubans.)

USAID’s contractor claimed the HIV-prevention workshop would be a “perfect excuse” to recruit political activists in Cuba. The goal was to “identify potential social-change actors” and show them “how to organize themselves,” all without getting caught.

Exactly how the Cubans exposed the operation is unclear. However, the USAID pseudo-spies passed through Cuban airport security with encrypted flash drives stamped “IronKey,” with unencrypted mission material on their laptops. They also used encrypted email to communicate with the United States. Funding for the HIV information clinic was carried into Cuba by a Caucasian relative of the Costa Rican. Secret codes were also created for use by the agents.

The potential blowback, the unintended results of this clumsy USAID operation, are obvious. One can easily assume an immediate, negative impact on young Cubans accessing HIV information, fearing that even seeking info might link them to U.S. spying. USAID spends $3 billion a year on HIV work around the world. In an age of global communications and social media, word spreads quickly. The effect of the failed Cuban Caper on broader efforts to combat HIV is easy to guess.

Polio: The Pakistan Caper

A part of U.S. efforts to locate Osama bin Laden was the use of medical personnel in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan to gather DNA samples under the pretext of administering the Hepatitis B vaccine to local children. After a variety of methods strongly suggested bin Laden had taken refuge in the town, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise the vaccine drive, even starting the “project” in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic (Pakistani intelligence slammed the doctor involved into prison following U.S.-leaked revelations of how clever the CIA had been.)

Health workers first administered the vaccine in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The Hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But instead of administering the second dose in the poor part of town, the doctors instead abandoned the kids there to move into the suburb where bin Laden lived.

The vaccine program was in fact a cover for using bin Laden’s children to gather DNA. The premise was that bin Laden would be close to his own relatives, and the DNA was part of the process of pinpointing his location. The CIA had previously harvested DNA from bin Laden’s sister, who passed away in Boston in 2010, where she had been residing (small world!)

The Blowback?

Fearing more spying, Pakistani Taliban killed 60 polio workers since 2012. The group continues to threaten to kill not only vaccinators but also parents who get their children immunized. That threat has had a chilling effect on anti-polio efforts throughout Pakistan, and has stopped all vaccination drives in Taliban-controlled areas. Polio has seen a rebirth as a direct result.

The worldwide campaign to eradicate polio has been ongoing for more than two decades, at a cost of more than $10 billion. Now the success of the campaign hinges on whether Pakistan can control the virus, or whether the polio virus will move out of Pakistan back into other parts of the world.

Oops, it already has. The World Health Organization calls the new spread of polio “an extraordinary event” and believes it constitutes a public health emergency. The global drive to wipe out the virus drove the number of polio cases down from 300,000 in the late 1980′s to just 417 cases last year. But this year polio has been reported in ten countries. If the spread isn’t halted, the virus could easily re-establish itself. Unlike in the past, global information systems carry reports of vaccinations as Western spying operations worldwide, even as international travel offers the polio virus a lift to new destinations. The large swaths of the developing world where unvaccinated children reside are fertile breeding grounds.

The Failure

The obvious is, well, obvious. Using medical programs designed to aid local populations as little more than cover operations for U.S. espionage undermines both efforts in the long run. The ostensible point of administering foreign aid, to build credibility and good will for the United States while helping relieve a humanitarian crisis, is fully compromised in both the immediate instances and broadly. Dumb is dumb, and the U.S.’ actions in this respect are indeed little more than just that, dumb.


Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.