Pentagon’s secret anti-vax campaign


WASHINGTON: At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the US 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.

Reuters identified at least 300 accounts on X, that matched descriptions shared by former US military officials familiar with the Philippines operation. Almost all were created in the summer of 2020 and centred on the slogan #Chinaangvirus – Tagalog for China is the virus.

After Reuters asked X about the accounts, the social media company removed the profiles, determining they were part of a coordinated bot campaign based on activity patterns and internal data.

The US military’s anti-vax effort began in the spring of 2020 and expanded beyond South-East Asia before it was terminated in mid-2021, Reuters determined.

Tailoring the propaganda campaign to local audiences across Central Asia and the Middle East, the Pentagon also used a combination of fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to spread fear of China’s vaccines among Muslims at a time when the virus was killing tens of thousands of people each day.

A key part of the strategy: amplify the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China’s shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law.

The military programme started under former President Donald Trump and continued months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Reuters found – even after alarmed social media executives warned the new administration that the Pentagon had been trafficking in Covid-19 misinformation.

The Biden White House issued an edict in spring 2021 banning the anti-vax effort, which also disparaged vaccines produced by other rivals, and the Pentagon initiated an internal review, Reuters found.

Spokespeople for Trump and Biden did not respond to requests for comment about the clandestine programme.

A senior Defence Department official acknowledged the US military engaged in secret propaganda to disparage China’s vaccine in the developing world, but the official declined to provide details.

In an email, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it has long maintained the US government manipulates social media and spreads misinformation.

Manila’s embassy in Washington did not respond to Reuters inquiries, including whether it had been aware of the Pentagon operation.

A spokesperson for the Philippines Department of Health, however, said the “findings by Reuters deserve to be investigated and heard by the appropriate authorities of the involved countries.”

Mover and shaker: Esper with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana during a news conference in the Philippines in November 2019. That same year, Esper signed a secret order that later paved the way for the launch of the US military’s clandestine anti-vax propaganda campaign. — ReutersMover and shaker: Esper with his Philippine counterpart Delfin Lorenzana during a news conference in the Philippines in November 2019. That same year, Esper signed a secret order that later paved the way for the launch of the US military’s clandestine anti-vax propaganda campaign. — Reuters

Some aide workers in the Philippines, when told of the US military propaganda effort by Reuters, expressed outrage.

Some American public health experts also condemned the programme. An operation meant to win hearts and minds endangered lives, they said.

“I don’t think it’s defensible,” said Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

“I’m extremely dismayed, disappointed and disillusioned to hear that the US government would do that,” said Lucey, a former military physician who assisted in the response to the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The Chinese vaccines as well as American-led shots by Pfizer and Moderna, all were approved by the World Health Organisation. Sinovac did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Academic research published recently has shown that, when individuals develop scepticism toward a single vaccine, those doubts often lead to uncertainty about other inoculations.

Lucey and other health experts say they saw such a scenario play out in Pakistan, where the Central Intelligence Agency used a fake hepatitis vaccination programme in Abbottabad as cover to hunt for Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind behind the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

Discovery of the ruse led to a backlash against an unrelated polio vaccination campaign, including attacks on healthcare workers, contributing to the reemergence of the deadly disease in the country.

“It should have been in our interest to get as much vaccine in people’s arms as possible,” said Greg Treverton, former chairman of the US National Intelligence Council. What the Pentagon did, Treverton said, “crosses a line”.

In the wake of the US propaganda efforts, however, then-Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte had grown so dismayed by how few Filipinos were willing to be inoculated that he threatened to arrest people who refused vaccinations.

“You choose, vaccine or I will have you jailed,” a masked Duterte said in a televised address in June 2021. “There is a crisis in this country.”

When he addressed the vaccination issue, the Philippines had among the worst inoculation rates in South-East Asia.

Battle raging in the shadows: Health workers and the government struggled to get Filipinos vaccinated against Covid-19, despite mobile sites like this one, operating in Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines. At that time, the Philippines had one of the worst inoculation rates in South-East Asia. (Left) The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington. — ReutersBattle raging in the shadows: Health workers and the government struggled to get Filipinos vaccinated against Covid-19, despite mobile sites like this one, operating in Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines. At that time, the Philippines had one of the worst inoculation rates in South-East Asia. (Left) The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington. — Reuters

Only 2.1 million of its 114 million citizens were fully vaccinated – far short of the government’s target of 70 million.

By the time Duterte spoke, Covid-19 cases exceeded 1.3 million, and almost 24,000 Filipinos had died from the virus. The difficulty in vaccinating the population contributed to the worst death rate in the region.

A spokesperson for Duterte did not make the former president available for an interview.

Some Filipino healthcare professionals and former officials contacted by Reuters were shocked by the US anti-vax effort, which they say exploited an already vulnerable citizenry.

“Why did you do it when people were dying? We were desperate,” said Dr Nina Castillo-Carandang, a former adviser to WHO and the Philippines government during the pandemic.

“We don’t have our own vaccine capacity,” she noted, and the US propaganda effort “contributed even more salt into the wound”.

The campaign also reinforced what one former health secretary called a long-standing suspicion of China, most recently over Beijing’s stand in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Filipinos were unwilling to trust China’s Sinovac, which first became available in the country in March 2021, said Esperanza Cabral, who served as health secretary under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Cabral said she had been unaware of the US military’s secret operation.

“I’m sure that there are lots of people who died from Covid-19 who did not need to die from Covid-19,” she said.

To implement the anti-vax campaign, the Defence Department overrode strong objections from top US diplomats in South-East Asia at the time, Reuters found.

Sources involved in its planning and execution say the Pentagon, which ran the programme through the military’s psychological operations centre in Tampa, Florida, disregarded the collateral impact that such propaganda may have on innocent Filipinos.

“We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective,” said a senior military officer involved in the programme. “We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud.”

In uncovering the secret US military operation, Reuters interviewed more than two dozen current and former US officials, military contractors, social media analysts and academic researchers.

Reporters also reviewed Facebook, X and Instagram posts, technical data and documents about a set of fake social media accounts used by the US military. Some were active for more than five years.

Clandestine psychological operations are among the government’s most highly sensitive programmes. Knowledge of their existence is limited to a small group of people within US intelligence and military agencies. Such programmes are treated with special caution because their exposure could damage foreign alliances or escalate conflict with rivals.

Over the last decade, some US national security officials have pushed for a return to the kind of aggressive clandestine propaganda operations against rivals that the United States’ wielded during the Cold War.

In 2019, Trump authorised the CIA to launch a clandestine campaign on Chinese social media aimed at turning public opinion in China against its government, Reuters reported in March.

As part of that effort, a small group of operatives used bogus online identities to spread disparaging narratives about Xi Jinping’s government.

Covid-19 galvanised the drive to wage psychological operations against China. One former senior Pentagon leader described the pandemic as a “bolt of energy” that finally ignited the long delayed counter-offensive against China’s influence war.

The Pentagon’s anti-vax propaganda came in response to China’s own efforts to spread false information about the origins of Covid-19.

Trump subsequently coined the term “China virus” as a response to Beijing’s accusation that the US military exported Covid-19 to Wuhan.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in an email that it opposed “actions to politicise the origins, question and stigmatise China.”

Beijing didn’t limit its global influence efforts to propaganda. It announced an ambitious Covid-19 assistance programme, which included sending masks, ventilators and its own vaccines – still being tested at the time – to struggling countries.

In May 2020, Xi announced that the vaccine China was developing would be made available as a “global public good,” and would ensure “vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.”

Sinovac was the primary vaccine available in the Philippines for about a year until US-made vaccines became more widely available there in early 2022.

Washington’s plan, called Operation Warp Speed, was different.

It favoured inoculating Americans first, and it placed no restrictions on what pharmaceutical companies could charge developing countries for the remaining vaccines not used by the United States.

The deal allowed the companies to “play hardball” with developing countries, forcing them to accept high prices, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University who has worked with the World Health Organization.

The deal “sucked most of the supply out of the global market,” Gostin said. “The United States took a very determined America First approach.”

To Washington’s alarm, China’s offers of assistance were tilting the geopolitical playing field across the developing world, including in the Philippines, where the government faced upwards of 100,000 infections in the early months of the pandemic.

Duterte said in a July 2020 speech he had made “a plea” to Xi that the Philippines be at the front of the line as China rolled out vaccines. He vowed in the same speech that the Philippines would no longer challenge Beijing in the South China Sea, upending a key security understanding Manila had long held with Washington.

Days later, China’s foreign minister announced Beijing would grant Duterte’s plea for priority access to the vaccine, as part of a “new highlight in bilateral relations.”

China’s growing influence fuelled efforts by US military leaders to launch the secret propaganda operation Reuters uncovered.

“We didn’t do a good job sharing vaccines with partners,” a senior US military officer directly involved in the campaign in South-East Asia said.

“So what was left to us was to throw shade on China’s.”

US military leaders feared that China’s Covid-19 diplomacy and propaganda could draw other South-East Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Malaysia, closer to Beijing.

A senior US military commander responsible for South-East Asia, Special Operations Command Pacific General Jonathan Braga, pressed his bosses in Washington to fight back in the so-called information space, according to three former Pentagon officials.

The commander initially wanted to punch back at Beijing in South-East Asia. The goal: to ensure the region understood the origin of Covid-19 while promoting scepticism toward what were then still-untested vaccines offered by a country that they said had lied continually since the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Special Operations Command declined to comment.

At least six senior State Department officials responsible for the region objected to this approach.

A health crisis was the wrong time to instil fear or anger through a psychological operation, or psyop, they argued during Zoom calls with the Pentagon.

While the Pentagon saw Washington’s rapidly diminishing influence in the Philippines as a call to action, the withering partnership led American diplomats to plead for caution.

“The relationship is hanging from a thread,” another former senior US diplomat recounted.

“Is this the moment you want to do a psyop in the Philippines? Is it worth the risk?”

In the past, such opposition from the State Department might have proved fatal to the programme.

Previously in peacetime, the Pentagon needed approval of embassy officials before conducting psychological operations in a country, often hamstringing commanders seeking to quickly respond to Beijing’s messaging, three former Pentagon officials said.

But in 2019, before Covid-19 surfaced in full force, then-Secretary of Defence Mark Esper signed a secret order that later paved the way for the launch of the US military propaganda campaign.

The order elevated the Pentagon’s competition with China and Russia to the priority of active combat, enabling commanders to sidestep the State Department when conducting psyops against those adversaries.

The Pentagon spending Bill passed by Congress that year also explicitly authorised the military to conduct clandestine influence operations against other countries, even “outside of areas of active hostilities.”

Esper, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. A State Department spokesperson referred questions to the Pentagon.

In spring 2020, special-ops commander Braga turned to a cadre of psychological-warfare soldiers and contractors in Tampa to counter Beijing’s Covid-19 efforts.

Colleagues say Braga was a longtime advocate of increasing the use of propaganda operations in global competition.

In trailers and squat buildings at a facility on Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, US military personnel and contractors would use anonymous accounts on X, Facebook and other social media to spread what became an anti-vax message. The facility remains the Pentagon’s clandestine propaganda factory.

Facebook executives had first approached the Pentagon in the summer of 2020, warning the military that their workers had easily identified the military’s phony accounts, according to three former US officials and another person familiar with the matter.

The government, Facebook argued, was violating Facebook’s policies by operating the bogus accounts and by spreading Covid-19 misinformation.

The military argued that many of its fake accounts were being used for counter-terrorism and asked Facebook not to take down the content, according to two people familiar with the exchange.

The Pentagon pledged to stop spreading Covid-19-related propaganda, and some of the accounts continued to remain active on Facebook. Nonetheless, the anti-vax campaign continued into 2021 as Biden took office.

Angered that military officials had ignored their warning, Facebook officials arranged a Zoom meeting with Biden’s new National Security Council shortly after the inauguration, Reuters learned. The discussion quickly became tense.

“I was shocked. The administration was pro-vaccine and our concern was this could affect vaccine hesitancy, especially in developing countries.”

By spring 2021, the National Security Council ordered the military to stop all anti-vaccine messaging.

“We were told we needed to be pro-vaccine, pro all vaccines,” said a former senior military officer who helped oversee the programme. Even so, Reuters found some anti-vax posts that continued through April and other deceptive Covid-19-related messaging that extended into that summer.

Reuters could not determine why the campaign didn’t end immediately with the NSC’s order. In response to questions from Reuters, the NSC declined to comment.

The senior Defence Department official said that those complaints led to an internal review in late 2021, which uncovered the anti-vaccine operation.

The probe also turned up other social and political messaging that was “many, many leagues away” from any acceptable military objective. The official would not elaborate.

The review intensified the following year, the official said, after a group of academic researchers at Stanford University flagged some of the same accounts as pro-Western bots in a public report.

The high-level Pentagon review was first reported by the Washington Post, which also reported that the military used fake social media accounts to counter China’s message that Covid-19 came from the United States. But the Post report did not reveal that the programme evolved into the anti-vax propaganda campaign uncovered by Reuters.

The senior defence official said the Pentagon has rescinded parts of Esper’s 2019 order that allowed military commanders to bypass the approval of US ambassadors when waging psychological operations.

The rules now mandate that military commanders work closely with US diplomats in the country where they seek to have an impact. The policy also restricts psychological operations aimed at “broad population messaging,” such as those used to promote vaccine hesitancy during Covid-19. — Reuters

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