It’s Time to Ban Intelligence Operations from Interfering in Public Health

Reuters reports today that the US Defense Department spread anti-vaccine messaging across Southeast Asia during COVID as part of an effort to discredit Chinese-manufactured vaccines. General Dynamics was contracted to author social media posts in the Philippines decrying the quality of Chinese face masks, test kits, and the Sinovac inoculation. The propaganda campaign was later expanded to audiences across Central Asia and the Middle East.

China was far more generous than the US in sharing vaccines early in the pandemic so that, in countries like the Philippines, the COVID vaccine choice in 2021 was Sinovac or nothing. The Defense Department operation encouraged people across Asia and the Middle East to choose nothing, lying that vaccines contained pork gelatin, didn't work, and had terrible side effects. This will have cost lives at the time, and it will have added to growing global distrust of vaccines, costing more lives into the future.

Global infectious disease has long been recognized as a national security risk to the US. Presciently, in 2000, the US National Intelligence Estimate warned “New and reemerging infectious diseases will pose a rising global health threat and will complicate US and global security over the next 20 years.” That means that reducing demand for our most effective tools against infectious threats increases US national security risks. What the Defense Department did is simply and obviously against the best interests of the American people.

Sadly, this is not the first time the US national security apparatus has ignored that fact: The CIA used the cover of a vaccination drive to try to gain intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. When this leaked, anti-vaccine sentiment in South Asia spiked. In December 2012, ten polio vaccination workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan were shot, and the vaccination drive was suspended. At the time, I proposed an amendment to Presidential Executive Order 12333, which covers restrictions to US intelligence operations including against assassination, to cover child health programs. The CIA did subsequently ban the use of vaccination drives as cover in their operations. But clearly this was inadequate.

At the least, the Administration should amend EO 12333 to mandate that no US intelligence or psychological warfare operation will involve or interfere with public health efforts, including vaccination programs.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.