How Obama's rank political opportunism helped fuel a polio crisis
Loose lips at the White House can have deadly consequences
There is a tragic story unfolding in Pakistan, which is the only country in the world where polio infections increased last year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 416 reported cases in the world last year. Ninety-three of them were in Pakistan. As of early August of this year, there had been 128 recorded cases in 2014. Ninety-nine were in Pakistan. Pakistan saw a 60 percent increase from the prior year despite the availability of a licensed polio vaccine since 1962. The problem is that the Taliban is shooting the doctors administering the vaccine and has banned the vaccine outright.
The reason the Taliban is suddenly against the polio vaccine isn't because of Jenny McCarthy-led anti-vaccine lunacy. Rather, it's because the Taliban and tribal leaders fear that it is a CIA plot. They have drawn this conclusion because the CIA famously used a hepatitis vaccine program to confirm the location of Osama bin Laden.
The operative word in that sentence isn't "CIA" but "famously." In other words, the problem isn't that the CIA used that tactic — it's that President Obama bragged about it for political gain. After the May 2011 raid of Osama bin Laden's compound, the Democrats leveraged positive PR to help win re-election — a welcome distraction from a lethargic economy and a weak foreign policy. Administration and CIA officials were spread to the four corners of Hollywood to spread the Good News about the Pakistan raid.
The easy response to this is that such a momentous event as the killing of Osama bin Laden was bound to become public. Of course it was. He was the most wanted man in the world and someone who had instigated both the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and the longest war in U.S. history. Even exposure of the crash of a top-secret MH-60 during the raid was inevitable. The Pakistanis have cameras, after all. However, the degree to which this administration disclosed details and shamelessly fogged the story was unprecedented. The administration leaked so much that Democratic Senate ally Dianne Feinstein even called for a criminal investigation. The raid leaks followed many others, among them leaks about drones, Yemen, and Iran, meant to show some semblance of foreign-policy success.
It was even rumored that Leon Panetta, the then-director of the CIA, was behind many of the leaks for the movie Zero Dark Thirty.
With the deluge of leaks it was not difficult for the Pakistanis to discern the role of Shakil Afridi, a senior Pakistani doctor who was recruited by the CIA to run a door-to-door hepatitis B immunization drive in an effort to collect bin Laden DNA. The administration leaked how they had tracked bin Laden's courier to the compound, how many times SEAL Team 6 had violated Pakistani airspace in the past (presumably to show President Bush had made similar decisions to lesser effect), and even gave a lengthy New Yorker interview with then-Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes giving a blow-by-blow of the details of the operation.
The rank political opportunism was pretty obvious, and even understandable to a certain extent. However, the divulgence of "sources and methods" used by the intelligence community was troubling. Because it involved such a momentous event as the killing of Osama bin Laden, any complaints were taken as partisan bickering and even labeled "Swift Boating."
There is no doubt the revelation is having an impact. According to Pakistani officials there are 250,000 children without their vaccines — all to avoid a CIA plot. Pakistan was well on its way to eradicating polio until the Taliban learned how the CIA operated. As Elias Durry, head of the World Health Organization's eradication efforts in Pakistan, told NPR, "The whole thing just then got reversed when vaccinators started to be targeted and killed."
U.S. officials opportunistically spilled classified operational details for the sake of spinning a political yarn. Because the Obama administration chose to take a national security issue and use the classified operational details to tell a political story there are now kids in Pakistan missing their polio vaccines. It is a direct relationship.
Had the administration kept classified information, well, classified, the Taliban would never think to ban the polio vaccine. Yes, the Taliban does horrible things like banning little girls from going to school to learn to read, for example. But the Taliban didn't make this decision by twisting Islam into knots. They made it because they learned CIA operational details from the Obama administration's self-congratulatory fanfare.
The administration's shameless leaking literally created a public health crisis. The fight against polio has gone on for decades and cost billions of dollars. It is a worthy goal and attainable. Yet it's a fight that would have been met with a little more success had there been a little more discretion and less political opportunism from President Obama.