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The Road to Abbotobad: The CIA in Your DNA

How Far is Too Far to go to Catch a Killer?

SOURCE: AP/Aqeel Ahmed Residents of Abbottabad gather outside of Osama Bin Laden's compound. Last month it was reported that the CIA had conspired with a local doctor to host a phony immunization campaign in Abbottabad for the purpose of collecting DNA samples to use in looking for Bin Laden relatives.

Public health experts have appropriately warned about the unwisdom of the CIA’s reported phony hepatitis B immunization campaign in Pakistan. The goal was to collect DNA and determine whether any of Osama bin Laden’s children were in the Abbottabad area. As Orin Levine and Laurie Garrett observed in The Washington Post (July 17), however warranted the desire to kill or capture bin Laden, the reckless gambit “imprudently burned bridges that took years for health workers to build.”

But these criticisms of the threat to global public health, with which I wholly agree, overlook a still larger question about the emerging use of genetic data in criminal investigations, both foreign and domestic.

The CIA story took me back six years to a week I spent in Karachi. I was there to lecture in the inaugural bioethics course at an institute founded by one of my former students. I am proud to say I have several friends and colleagues there who were impeccable hosts.  Among the events held that week was a dinner party where I was treated to a stream of remarkable conspiracy theories, many involving the United States and Israel, of course, but various international powers were represented, real and imagined.

How much of the stories I heard were found credible by the other guests I cannot say, but all were members of the intelligentsia that included physicians, lawyers, and various academics. One conclusion I drew from the experience that is hardly original to me: Pakistan, a wobbly nation with an extraordinary inferiority complex, is the world capital of conspiracy theories.

But in fairness, American society is hardly immune to such notions, including recent claims that autism is caused by preservatives used in the vaccine for whooping cough and other largely vanquished serious threats to children, and theories that the anthrax vaccine delivered to soldiers in the first Gulf War was part of a massive secret experiment. When I was growing up, many in my small upstate New York town were sure that fluoridation was part of a Communist conspiracy.

One of the other conversations I had that week was with several representatives of the World Health Organization. They were there to audit Pakistan’s efforts to stamp out polio. Although on the whole they found the effort successful, the fact is that there are still polio clusters in remote areas that are very worrisome. So WHO still considers Pakistan a place to be monitored for effective polio vaccination. It goes without saying that epidemics don’t respect national boundaries, so these public health campaigns are in everyone’s interest. Unfortunately, there is evidence of declining vaccination rates even in affluent areas. That’s a recipe for trouble, 19th century style, that is no longer in living memory.

Perhaps it can be granted that spiking conspiracy theories with actual operations is not the best long-term policy for cover operations, especially in a field that is already rife with anxiety and so important to protecting public health. Whether covert operations involving the collection of DNA should be part of a security strategy is a distinct issue that deserves to be part of a public debate. Last year Wikileaks cables reviewed by The Washington Post reported that “A senior department official said the requests for DNA, iris scans and other biometric data on foreign government and U.N. diplomats came from American ‘intelligence community managers.’” The report added that virtually all U.S. diplomats ignore the requests. Someday they might not.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the Editor-In-Chief of Science Progress.

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