Fallout from Using DNA to Identify Osama bin Laden

Posted by Pete Shanks July 13, 2011
Biopolitical Times
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When Osama bin Laden was killed, much was made about the fact that DNA had established his identity. The President stressed that, on 60 Minutes, and a Defense Department spokesman assured us that the possibility of a mistake was "approximately one in 11.8 quadrillion." This got a laugh from the assembled press, quite rightly, but it certainly seemed the the administration was relying on public faith in DNA — the CSI factor — to reassure people that they got their man.

Now it seems that the administration itself was even more deeply committed to identification via genetic data than we knew, to the extent that people's lives have been put in jeopardy. The Guardian broke the story, which the New York Times and UPI have confirmed:

The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader's family.

The CIA had learned that health workers had gained access to what was suspected to be the Bin Laden compound to give polio drops to the kids. So they recruited a doctor to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B, presumably with the idea of drawing a little blood surreptitiously. He hired workers, put up posters, and started the project in a poorer part of town "to make it look more authentic." A nurse (or the doctor himself, reports vary) did get into the compound, but failed to get any DNA samples.

This bizarre operation seems like something out of a Graham Greene novel, or the big book of Castro assassination attempts. They were not trying to identify a criminal who left evidence at the scene of the crime; they didn't even have a sample of Bin Laden's DNA, and not much hope of getting it. They seem to have wanted to compare his children's DNA with his half-sister's (Osama was his mother's only child) — which would have been indicative, but rather roundabout.

The final DNA identification — which has been used by some advocates to push for increased forensic DNA databases — was hardly needed, anyway. The President said they were 95% sure without it, and that number is of course as metaphorical as the 1/(11.8 x 10^15) level of certainty that was later claimed. The corpse was identified by a widow (and later by al-Qaida); the troops recognized him (so did the President, from a photograph); and they carried hand-held biometric recorders that sent facial scans and possibly more data to a database in West Virginia that, at a minimum, applied facial-recognition software.

The Pakistani government is furious. The doctor was arrested (though the new publicity may help to get him released). And the poor children who got their first shot of a scheduled three never got their follow-ups, according to the Guardian, and so are presumably still at risk of infection.

There are also broader questions about the effect on vaccination campaigns, as  The New Yorker and the Panic Virus blog at PLoS pointed out, followed smartly by James Fallows, Maryn McKenna at Wired, and several others. Vaccines have recently been controversial even in the west and sometimes, as in Nigeria and Pakistan, called a western conspiracy to sterilize Muslims. The CIA's use of a fake vaccination ruse will do nothing to dispel such concerns.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: