The fake vaccination scheme absent from the bin Laden hunt debates

If "ZDT" justifies torture, a new GQ exploration of the CIA vaccine ploy prompts troubling questions

By Natasha Lennard
January 12, 2013 2:35AM (UTC)
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The fraught debate around "Zero Dark Thirty" has largely focused on whether the film justifies torture in suggesting that the CIA gleaned information relevant to the hunt for Osama bin Laden through torturing detainees. The fact that torture did not provide significant leads in the hunt is one important thing. The fact that the CIA profligately tortured under the assumption that it might is quite another.

A central point the movie raises is that the hunt for bin Laden was considered an unquestionable political good. (It still is: were it not, the depiction in a film of bin Laden's death arising from the fruits of horrific torture could not be seen as justifying the torture). There's a telling, underdiscussed scene in the middle of the sprawling epic in which the protagonist Maya threatens her CIA boss when he refuses to dedicate more resources to her bin Laden hunt efforts. She says she will go public and tell Congress that he had derailed the search for the world's most-wanted terrorist. She essentially asks "Do you want to be that guy?" He gives in to Maya's request, knowing that anything but full dedication to catching bin Laden in the public eye would be political suicide.


The scene honestly illustrates a political climate in which the end (or end goal) fully justified any means. The logic of many of the film's critics is that "ZDT" justifies torture because it falsely suggests torture led to bin Laden. Which, of course, relies on the troubling premise that means are justified by their service to a desired end. But what about the episode, also depicted in the film, in which CIA agents recruited a local doctor to manufacture and carry out a fake hepatitis B vaccination scheme to get more information on whether the terror leader was hidden in the suspected compound?

Torture, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence stresses, did not help in the bin Laden hunt. But, as Matthieu Aikins points out in a new and excellent GQ investigation into the doctor behind the vaccination scheme, Dr. Shakil Afridi, U.S. officials have widely praised the vaccination scheme as helpful: "[Leon] Panetta had said that [Afridi] provided 'very helpful' intelligence, and this summer Hillary Clinton said that 'his help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers.'"

Aikins notes that it's unclear just how much information on the bin Laden compound Afridi's scheme actually gleaned: "No one has been able to determine what exactly he accomplished. U.S. officials, as well as Afridi himself, have consistently claimed that he was never actually able to get inside the Big House to vaccinate a member of the bin Laden clan. But this is to be expected. Since the raid, U.S. officials have repeatedly tried to control the public narrative and cover the tracks of their assets in Pakistan."


Afridi himself, as Aikin's piece details, was "disappeared" by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who saw the doctor as a traitor to Pakistan. ISI documents say of Afridi, "In May 2011, in the incident of Osama bin Laden, he played a fundamental role as a result of which Pakistan was humiliated in front of the whole world" — highlighting the strained nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations following the raid.

Aikins explores Afridi's recruitment by the CIA in 2008 after the doctor had been kidnapped, ransomed and released by a local militant warlord. Just how much the doctor was in it for the money is unclear — "the CIA paid him about $55,000 to conduct the vaccination campaign. That's more than five times his ransom and about nine times his official annual salary," Aikins notes.

In "Zero Dark Thirty," the vaccination scheme is not depicted as having produced information that confirmed bin Laden was in the compound. Aikin's report stresses that there's no real way to know how much information Afridi actually gleaned or provided to the CIA. What is known is that the doctor did not fare well, as Aikins details. He was disappeared by the ISI, allegedly tortured, then handed back to the civilian authorities to stand trial. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison. "To his legal team's surprise, they found that Afridi had been charged not with treason for his work with the CIA but rather, under a draconian colonial-era tribal code, with supplying Lashkar-e-Islam — the same militant group that had kidnapped and ransomed him — with money and medical treatment for its fighters ... Pakistani officials — who were frank in private that Afridi was being punished for his association with the CIA — were adamant that Afridi was a traitor and his actions criminal," Aikins wrote.


Reflecting on his discoveries about Afridi and his mission, Aikins notes that the doctor "didn't seem to understand the serious business he had found himself in — his grinning photos on the vaccination brochures betray not a hint of worry. But now, caught up by his own imprudence and avarice, the doctor would surely rot in prison, yet another life ground in the gears of the vast machine of the war on terror, a pawn in the impenetrable spy games between the United States and Pakistan."

But Afridi's story and discussions about the vaccination scheme have been largely absent from the current furor over how to build a narrative around the hunt for bin Laden. Despite the fact that, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out last May:


When this fake CIA vaccination program was revealed last year, Doctors Without Borders harshly denounced the CIA and Dr. Afridi for their “grave manipulation of the medical act” that will cause “vulnerable communities – anywhere – needing access to essential health services [to] understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid.”

The children in the Abbottobad suburb who Afridi visited were given a genuine hepatitis B shot -- but only a single dose, which is ineffective. "That means that numerous Pakistani children who thought they were being vaccinated against hepatitis B were in fact left exposed to the virus," Greenwald noted.

Officials say there are no grey areas as to whether torture provided useful leads in finding bin Laden; it did not, they say. Aikins points out that the usefulness of the vaccine scheme in the hunt is in fact unknown. "ZDT" has been decried for its suggestion that torture was useful. But the film did not depict as useful administering ineffective vaccines to Pakistani children -- U.S. officials have deemed this justified. It highlights the very troubling political space we still inhabit, when "it worked in getting us to bin Laden" functions as an accepted ethical justification.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Gq Hepatitis Osama Bin Laden Pakistan Social Security Vaccines Zero Dark Thirty