A gloved hand holds a vaccine syringe, in front of a large red sign that says

Prosecute the U.S. Officials Who Spread Lies About China's Vaccine

A new investigative report has exposed the U.S. military's secret anti-vax campaign. The people responsible need to be held accountable.

These days, it’s hard to be shocked by anything the U.S. government does. But on June 14, investigative journalists Chris Bing and Joel Schectman broke a story for Reuters that was genuinely shocking. It’s a long in-depth report, and it deserves to be read in full, but the gist is this: 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. military launched a secret campaign to counter what it perceived as China’s growing influence in the Philippines, a nation hit especially hard by the deadly virus.

 

The clandestine operation has not been previously reported. It aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid that was being supplied by China, a Reuters investigation found. Through phony internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos, the military’s propaganda efforts morphed into an anti-vax campaign. Social media posts decried the quality of face masks, test kits and the first vaccine that would become available in the Philippines – China’s Sinovac inoculation.

Yes, you read that right: the U.S. military deliberately spread anti-vax propaganda around the world, because they thought China was doing too good a job vaccinating people against COVID-19 and winning too much goodwill. The Reuters report is a massive revelation of government wrongdoing, on par with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing about warrantless NSA surveillance more than a decade ago. Actually, it may be bigger. 

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, U.S. leaders have claimed to be extremely worried by the threat of “fake news” online, and to be taking steps to defend against it. That’s been the stated rationale for the ongoing push to ban TikTok, and for the Biden administration’s short-lived “Disinformation Governance Board.” (Remember that?) But now, it’s come out that the U.S. government has been doing the very thing it accuses countries like Russia and China of: intentionally spreading disinformation. And they’ve been doing it on the subject of public health, where lies can cost people their lives. A serious crime has been committed against the people of the Philippines, against China, and against others around the world. The military and political officials responsible need to be held accountable, and they need to face real consequences. 

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The driving force behind the disinformation campaign, it seems, was one Major General Jonathan Braga. As the leader of the Department of Defense’s Special Operations Command Pacific, Braga reportedly “pressed his bosses in Washington to fight back in the so-called information space” against “China’s COVID diplomacy,” meaning China’s efforts to give vaccines, masks, and other forms of medical aid to countries like the Philippines that needed them. This was just another facet of the ongoing bipartisan effort in Washington, which people like Senator Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky have been warning against for years, to pursue a new Cold War against China. The idea was that successful “COVID diplomacy” could lead to closer ties between China and countries like the Philippines, an outcome the Pentagon wanted to prevent.

Rather than practice their own “COVID diplomacy,” and try to vaccinate people in the Philippines better and faster than the Chinese government could, Braga and his allies wanted to instead sabotage the Chinese effort. They chose a destructive, rather than a constructive path. This was controversial even in the Pentagon, and several State Department officials reportedly objected, saying they would be “stooping lower than the Chinese”—a phrase with more than a little racism baked into it—if the plan went forward. But in 2019, the Trump-appointed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper signed a classified order that changed the status of “the Pentagon’s competition with China and Russia to the priority of active combat,” allowing “psyops” like the ones Braga had in mind to be conducted.

As it turns out, “fighting back in the information space” is just Pentagon-speak for “lying.” Starting early in 2020 and ending in mid-2021, Bing and Schectman report thatthe Pentagon used a combination of fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to spread fear of China’s vaccines,” including by claiming that Sinovac injections might contain rat poison. There were at least 300 of these accounts on Twitter alone, with more on Facebook and Instagram. The propaganda was not subtle:

 

“COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don’t trust China!” one typical tweet from July 2020 read in Tagalog. The words were next to a photo of a syringe beside a Chinese flag and a soaring chart of infections. Another post read: “From China – PPE, Face Mask, Vaccine: FAKE. But the Coronavirus is real.”

Many of the posts used the hashtag “#ChinaAngVirus,” Tagalog for “China is the virus,” and Bing and Schectman write that “the phony accounts used by the military had tens of thousands of followers.” This makes it likely, although impossible to conclusively prove, that they had a significant impact on Filipinos’ health decisions. In June 2021, while the propaganda operation was ongoing, Al Jazeera reported that only a third of Filipinos in one survey were willing to receive a COVID-19 shot, and only 4 percent of the country’s population had actually done so, despite being hit especially hard by the global pandemic. Notably, a 2022 study in the medical journal PLOS Global Public Health lists online misinformation as a key factor in “vaccine hesitancy” in the Philippines, even quoting one patient who said “My least preferred vaccine brand is Sinovac because of its country of origin. I do not believe in China.” This was the exact kind of fear and uncertainty the U.S. military wanted to instill in people. 

It wasn’t just the Philippines, either. Reuters reports that the program expanded “across Central Asia and the Middle East,” targeting Muslim communities with claims that the Chinese vaccines might contain pork gelatin—which would typically be considered haram, forbidden, under Islamic law. At minimum, these posts were directed toward Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, appearing in both Russian and Arabic. As in the Philippines, “vaccine hesitancy” was a serious issue for these nations throughout the pandemic; as recently as February 2023, the World Health Organization interviewed a Kyrgystani community leader from the village of Ak-Jar who said that “rumors and disinformation” about “the pandemic being a foreign conspiracy” were “a real challenge.” It’s impossible to know how much of the problem was caused directly by the U.S. military’s propaganda efforts—but it’s safe to say the amount was not zero. 

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It really can’t be overstated how heinous this program was, even by the standards of the U.S. government. For the record, the Sinovac vaccine has been declared “safe and effective for all individuals aged 18 and above” by the World Health Organization. It has no more side effects than any other COVID vaccine, including U.S. brands. Nor did the military care whether it was safe or not. As one anonymous source told Reuters, “We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective. We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud.” The Pentagon certainly did that. And in the process, they almost certainly got people killed. 

To make matters worse, it’s not the first time the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have meddled with people’s health in another country for strategic reasons. As the editorial board of the Guardian points out, this new operation is highly reminiscent of one the CIA conducted in Pakistan in the early 2010s, when they were trying to track down Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Back then, CIA agents organized a fake vaccination service in and around Abbottabad, which really collected DNA from local people and tried to match it to Bin Laden and his family. It caused a backlash across Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, which Scientific American said “threatens to set back global public health efforts by decades.” From that debacle, U.S. officials should have learned the obvious: you do not mess with people’s vaccines, no matter how strategically beneficial you think it could be. Doing so is both morally indefensible in itself, and will lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences you can't foresee. But apparently, they learned nothing of the kind. 

 


 

When military and political leaders like Jonathan Braga and Mark Esper look with dismay on the declining reputation of the United States around the world, they shouldn’t blame China. They should realize that a growing number of people dislike and distrust the United States precisely because of actions like theirs. The anti-vax campaign was, in effect, an act of biological warfare—no less deadly because it operated by sabotaging medical aid, rather than directly causing infection. It was waged deliberately and premeditatedly against innocent people, and its sole purpose was to unfairly smear China on the world stage. If the roles were reversed, and it was revealed that China had spread these rumors and lies about American vaccines, we would rightfully be outraged. We should be no less outraged when our own government is the malefactor. In a press conference on June 17, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lin Jian said of the propaganda campaign that “Such practices by no means show the US’s ‘power’ and only reveal its obsession with supremacy and hypocrisy.” He has a point. 

Now, there has to be accountability. So far, the perpetrators of this monstrous act have only been rewarded for their roles in it. In August 2021, after the Biden administration quietly ordered an end to the anti-vax campaign, Jonathan Braga was promoted from Major General to Lieutenant General. He was also appointed to lead the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, which oversees a variety of “psyops” and other covert actions around the world. Likewise, Reuters reports that General Dynamics IT—a private contractor that worked on the anti-vax program—has received a $493 million contract to conduct further “clandestine influence services” on behalf of the U.S. military. And for his part, Mark Esper—who signed off on the whole program as Trump’s Secretary of Defense—has joined the Board of Directors of the influential Atlantic Council and become the Distinguished Chair of the Modern War Institute at West Point. The people of the Philippines know only too well what his idea of “modern war” involves.

All of these figures need to pay for what they’ve done. At the absolute minimum, there should be a Congressional probe into Esper, Braga, and General Dynamics IT, to lay bare to the world every detail of this abhorrent operation. Braga himself should be drummed out of the U.S. military, and never permitted to hold a position of power over another human being again. Letting him continue in his current role would just be irresponsible. New legislation needs to be passed, rescinding any order Esper made to allow “psyops” against public health in other countries, and expressly forbidding such programs going forward. What’s more, nations like the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan have every moral right to put these officials on trial in their own courts, and to sue the United States for extensive damages. (Alberto Domingo, a spokesperson for the Philippines' Department of Health, has already said that “The findings by Reuters deserve to be investigated and heard by the appropriate authorities of the involved countries.”) Because the United States routinely disregards international law, and imposes its will on the rest of the world by force regardless of right and wrong, it’s unclear whether any of this will come to pass. But the demands of justice are perfectly clear. A propaganda operation of this kind must never be run again, by anyone, and that can only be ensured by imposing harsh penalties on the people responsible.

 

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