The National Security Agency concocted a plan to find Osama bin Laden by hiding tracking devices in medical supplies, in an attempt to cross what officials called the “non-electronic moat” surrounding the reportedly ailing terrorist leader.
The scheme is laid out in a top-secret NSA presentation dated June 2010 and titled “Medical Pattern of Life: Targeting High Value Individual #1,” which was among the files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The presentation cites CIA reports on bin Laden’s poor health, including renal disease, urinary tract infections, kidney stones and intestinal problems.
Analysts could “Determine Likely Meds/Equipment” and target the “Supply Chain to HVI [high value individual],” including International Committee of the Red Cross hospitals, the presentation suggests.
The slides describe “Project Planning,” and it is unclear if the scheme ever got beyond the idea stage. The U.S. reportedly located bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in the months after the presentation was dated, and he was killed in a raid on May 2, 2011.
A spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, declined to comment on the documents specifically, but she said that “the ICRC is absolutely against the use of humanitarian aid for other purposes.”
She also noted that at the time of the presentation, the ICRC hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, “admitted weapon-wounded patients but did not disperse medical supplies to the population.”
The NSA declined to comment or answer questions.
The scheme appears to highlight concerns that U.S. spies lacked SIGINT, or signals intelligence, on bin Laden. As another internal NSA newsletter published this week by The Intercept makes clear, the NSA had not picked up electronic communications from bin Laden since he stopped using a satellite phone in the late 1990s.
“Tagging and tracking medications/supplies,” the presentation reads, “enables us to leap over the non-electronic moat with which HVIs [high value individuals] surround themselves, enabling their geolocation.” It describes embedding electronic chips capable of being tracked at long range with medications and devices like dialysis solution bags or injection bottles. The project would need the help of a variety of “stakeholders,” including the NSA, CIA, British intelligence agency GCHQ and a number of U.S. government laboratories, the presentation states.
The plot to go from “Pharma to Target,” as one slide puts it, fits into a history of U.S. spies tracking bin Laden’s health. In 2002, the FBI and CIA detained a Pakistani surgeon for a month, interrogating him about the times he had treated bin Laden. The medications reportedly found inside the Abbottabad compound after bin Laden’s death fueled more speculation about his health. (One unnamed intelligence official told to the British tabloid Daily Star that an herbal aphrodisiac was significant because “his sexual performance is an indicator of his state of health and how active he may have been in other areas.”)
Once the compound was located, the U.S. government also wanted DNA evidence that bin Laden was inside. Not long after the raid, it was reported that the CIA had set up a hepatitis vaccine drive in Abbottabad as a front to obtain DNA samples. The doctor working for the CIA, Shakil Afridi, was arrested by Pakistani intelligence and eventually sentenced to decades in prison — not for allegedly working for the CIA, but on charges of aiding a militant group.
The ruse caused huge backlash against vaccine drives, with international aid groups painted as spies and vaccinators targeted.
James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said that spy agencies should consider the consequences of using health care institutions for their own ends. “It is always important to disassociate public health missions from wartime or spy missions that could disrupt the bonds of community trust,” he said.
Curran was one of many prominent public health scholars who signed on to a letter to the Obama administration protesting the sham vaccine drive.
“We felt it was not legitimate to risk the trust in people in public health campaigns,” Curran said. “I’m not blaming the CIA for the vaccination campaign workers that were killed, but you have to consider those things in the same thread.”
The Obama administration later pledged that the CIA would stop using vaccines as cover for operations.
The vaccine story was thrown into the spotlight again last week by a new report by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, which disputes many aspects of the White House narrative of how the U.S. tracked and killed bin Laden.
Hersh writes that while Afridi was indeed a CIA asset, collecting information on militants, the fake vaccination campaign was invented as a cover story for a Pakistani military doctor who had been treating bin Laden for years, and who actually obtained DNA for the Americans.
The White House and Hersh accounts converge on one point: The critical turning point in the hunt came around August 2010, when the White House says it followed an Al Qaeda courier to Abbottabad, and when Hersh says a Pakistani informant went to the CIA with bin Laden’s location.
The medical intelligence presentation is dated two months before that, and its focus on geolocation would suggest that the analysts still did not know much about where bin Laden was hiding.
Andrew Fishman and Margot Williams contributed research to this report.