But with the vaccination campaign, we get a look behind the curtain—and there's the old "creative" spook world, the one of poisoned cigars and potted insurrections. The power we've given our covert forces includes the power to be evil and feckless, and to be unaccountable for either.
The anonymous official was not merely describing the thought processes behind one immoral, ineffective, and destructive stunt. The same people, thinking the same way, have been making decisions about life and death—mostly death—all over the world.
A decade ago, the American intelligence machinery failed to correctly assess the risk that a terrorist group that had already bombed multiple American targets and killed hundreds of people might attack America. In response, we turned that machinery loose to make countless more assessments of risk, pretending the resulting judgments would be clear, correct, and defensible.
That clarity is a sham. Maybe some of the people American intelligence forces have captured and tortured did give up some sort of information. Maybe some of the information was true. Maybe some of the true information was useful in the campaign against al-Qaida. Maybe some of that true, useful information could not have been obtained by any other method. The anonymous U.S. official might tell you so, if you could figure out who he or she was and ask.
Torture is old news. We don't do it anymore. Fine. Nor have we prosecuted anyone for it. The people who did it are free to make and defend other decisions. How sure do we have to be about a target before we tell a drone to fire a missile at it? How many villagers is it worth incinerating to blow up someone who might be someone who has some position in some group potentially affiliated with al-Qaida? How many of your phone calls and e-mails should the NSA intercept and read? The people who supported the vaccination campaign are the people who are making these judgments, and other judgments we know nothing about, every day.
So now, we know what they believed was worth doing in one instance, in Abbottabad. In part. Perhaps there were great, secret feats of competence and heroism by our covert forces, too—difficult decisions, bravely made, that made the victorious raid on Osama's compound possible. We trust that there were.
But here is what was acceptable: According to the Guardian, we sent a Pakistani doctor and a medical team into the region, where they announced they were giving out hepatitis B vaccinations. After giving one round of doses—of what should have been a three-dose course—to children in a poor neighborhood, for cover, they skipped the remaining vaccinations and moved on to where Bin Laden was living.
(The anonymous official told the Washington Post that this single-dose fake public-health effort "should not be construed as a 'fake public health effort.' ")
When they got to the Bin Laden compound, according to the Guardian, the team sent a nurse inside to administer the hepatitis shots. The nurse, the newspaper wrote, "was unaware of the real purpose of the vaccination campaign." So if the mission had gone wrong—the nurse was reportedly equipped with a "handbag that was fitted with an electronic device"—the first person in harm's way would have been not a covert-ops cowboy but an actual health-care worker.
Nothing did happen to the nurse, however. Apparently she got in and out without raising suspicions. As the Guardian wrote, "Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children."
Osama bin Laden, in other words, had trusted that people who administered polio vaccine were actually there to administer polio vaccine. So when the hepatitis nurse came around, even in his deepest defensive isolation, he did not suspect that public health workers would be agents of war. On this point, Bin Laden—the man who conceived of crashing airplanes full of passengers into occupied buildings—showed less imagination than the United States did.