This is based on a news story with hard hitting investigative reporting, so shakers of salt and shots of tequila.
But . . .
You’re part of the team trying to find Osama bin Laden. You would like to get compelling evidence of his location, say something 2.0 and high tech, say something like DNA. Yeah, baby. Get a sample that matches a known sample from a family member and you’ve got a great lead on the guy. But how do you get that DNA?
Persuasion. Here’s the Box.
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, a Guardian investigation has found.
What a fabulous persuasion play. A Peitho Award Nomination to the CIA team that figured this out. Vaccinations have become cultural truisms, apparently now global and universal, that are so widely ingrained that no one thinks a second thought about any program that offers a shot.
To sink the needle even deeper the CIA elaborated the basic scheme. Agents convinced a government Pakistani physician in a neighboring province to offer a free vaccine program in the area where bin Laden might be hiding. It is not clear whether the physician was a willing participant in the plan or was misled. He’s been arrested by Pakistani authorities which suggests they think he knowingly cooperated with the CIA, but Pakistan is in an uproar over this incident and could be simply keeping up appearances with this arrest. Persuasion Is Strategic so it is crucial to hide your Strategy from everyone else. We simply don’t know about the physician’s motivations, just his behavior.
The physician first began putting up posters in the poorest sections of the region and started the program there. He then moved the operation to an office closer to the presumed bin Laden compound in hopes of attracting bin Laden’s children to the clinic. Furthermore, the vaccine itself was advertised as being manufactured by a well known and trusted Pakistani pharmaceutical company.
The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children.
The Guardian report discloses that it cannot prove whether any bin Laden family members participated in this program, but if any did, it would have been possible to obtain DNA from the family member and compare it to a known DNA sample from the sister of Osama bin Laden who died in 2010 in a Boston hospital. Such DNA evidence, of course, would argue strongly for the likely presence of bin Laden himself.
If you’re a serious persuasion scholar you are already smiling at a huge irony in this play. One of the more famous and productive persuasion researchers of the past 50 years, William McGuire at Yale University, developed Inoculation Theory based in part on that deeper understanding of “cultural truisms” or beliefs that no one questions. McGuire found that it was fairly easy to attack those beliefs precisely because no one had thought about them. When challenged, people have great difficulty defending a cultural truism and can be turned quite easily. McGuire developed and tested Inoculation Theory as a means of strengthening these defenseless attitudes and beliefs giving rise to my Headline – the best defense is a weak offense, meaning that people will develop a better defense when they face weak attacks.
The CIA turned the inoculation metaphor a different way and used the thoughtlessness these truisms live in to mount a different kind of persuasion attack. They discovered that while bin Laden was extremely careful in his movements, he apparently gave little or no thought about the risks of vaccines. Hey, it’s a Pakistani government physician running a free clinic for poor kids. Hey, the vaccine is manufactured by a trusted Pakistani pharma. Hey, the clinic is just down the road from my house. Hey, go ahead; send the kids to get vaccinated.
Hey, maybe I’ll get a shot . . .
P.S. If a CIA robot program catches this, please pass it along. I appreciate your service to America.