This was one story from our open-ended war: Last year, in a remote area of Afghanistan, 10 medical aid workers were ambushed and killed by militants. The New York Times Magazine and Slate published moving remembrances of some of the victims: Karen Woo, a British doctor who wanted to make a documentary about the lives of people in remote areas of Afghanistan; Tom Little and Dan Terry, who had spent decades bringing health care and other aid to the country. President Obama awarded Little the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a posthumous ceremony earlier this year. After the killings, the Taliban reportedly added a final insult. The victims, they claimed, were not really medical personnel. They were spies "on a clandestine mission against mujahideen in the area."
Only: How do we know this was a vicious insult? The question should be obscene and unthinkable. Yet this month, the Obama administration admitted that the Central Intelligence Agency had staged a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan as American intelligence closed in on Osama Bin Laden. Health care workers were used on a clandestine mission—not in the paranoid imagination of America-hating fanatics but as part of the deliberate policy of the United States government.
As atrocities go, delivering inadequate vaccines under false pretenses isn't obviously worse than, say, systematically kidnapping people and torturing them. But like the decision by Rupert Murdoch's reporters, in the course of illegally eavesdropping on everyone, to hack into one particular vanished child's voice mail, the single act is a metonym for the total moral collapse of the people and the system responsible for it. The CIA has now signed off on the murder of Tom Little and Dan Terry and on any future killings of doctors in overt or covert war zones. Now, there is no such thing as a noncombatant.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of war is one of the last places in the world where polio is still endemic. The Washington Post reported that the Pakistani government considered canceling a polio immunization drive last week because of the CIA campaign, before deciding to proceed. "One health official in the border belt said the main concern is that militants in that region might harm members of vaccination teams, suspecting them of being CIA agents," the Post wrote.
Even if health workers go unharmed, they risk being turned away by people who were already mistrustful of foreign interventions and especially of vaccination efforts. The CIA's logic—that health care teams could penetrate places other outsiders could not—is precisely the reason not to use the tactic.
Why were we willing to risk destroying the global campaign against polio? After the CIA vaccination story broke, the Post carried a response from a "senior U.S. official":
"People need to put this into some perspective," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world's top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn't shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn't used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden."
Perspective, the official said. Well, in that case, why should the creativity have stopped with the fake vaccinations? We could have gone door-to-door in Abbottabad and shot everyone. Eventually, if we kept it up, we would have shot Bin Laden.
But the senior U.S. official was not, in fact, describing the ethical reasoning behind the effort to "find bin Laden." Bin Laden had already been found. The vaccination campaign was a matter of bureaucratic self-protection—to get DNA samples from people inside the compound, to confirm that the target that the CIA had identified in Abbottabad was correct, so that the agency wouldn't embarrass itself. The most that the vaccinations could have done, if the DNA tests had come back negative, would have been to allow the CIA to quietly add this particular house to the list of places in which, over the course of a decade, it had failed to find Bin Laden.
And that assumes the vaccination trick even worked. According to the Guardian, it was "not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed." Yet we got Bin Laden anyway. The necessity that the senior official was pleading was fake necessity.
Here, for once, we have the chance to make a distinction about the secret use of American power. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the country was offered a failure-proof moral test: Is it worth doing an awful thing to catch Osama Bin Laden? Would we give our covert forces the power to do what was necessary, to be ruthless and effective against our enemies?