News / USA

    Spies Track Physical Illnesses of Foreign Leaders

    Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with Cuban and foreign intellectuals visiting Havana's international book fair February 15, 2011.
    Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with Cuban and foreign intellectuals visiting Havana's international book fair February 15, 2011.

    In democracy or dictatorship, there may be no secret more closely guarded than the health of the country’s leader.  So when world leaders gather for an event like the U.N. General Assembly, intelligence agencies closely watch presidents and prime ministers for any clues as to their true medical conditions.

    An ill-timed cough or sudden fever of a president, prime minister, dictator, or monarch can send financial markets into a tailspin, spark a nation to revolution, ignite a succession crisis, or swing an election.  Rose McDermott of Brown University, who has extensively researched and written about medical intelligence, says a foreign government can enjoy great political and diplomatic advantage if it can find out the true condition of an ailing world leader.

    “It can be decisively important because it can really change the stability of governments, particularly in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, where there’s really a limited number of people who have powerful decision-making authority. Knowing how sick someone is, what their prognosis is, what their diagnosis is, can give you some information about which horse to back in a particular kind of succession race,” McDermott said.

    Deep inside the Central Intelligence Agency is a unit dedicated to uncovering the true physical and mental states of world leaders.  The Medical and Psychological Assessment Cell, or MPAC, employs or consults physicians, sociologists, political scientists, and cultural anthropologists to examine the conditions of top officials.

    Getting accurate medical intelligence is a daunting task.  Dr. Jerrold Post, who in the 1970s founded the CIA unit to conduct psychological analysis of foreign leaders, says leaders feel it necessary to hide their medical conditions to avoid any appearance of weakness.

    “One of the things that is important to note is this capacity to conceal.  We all want a leader who is all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and the public image of a leader who is quite ailing can lead to as serious diminution in his attractiveness as a leader. And leaders understand this intuitively. So we’ve had some major concealments historically. And that continues to be the case,” Post said.

    U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not only polio but, during the beginning of his fourth term in 1944, a bad heart that killed him a year later.  President Grover Cleveland had secret jaw cancer surgery performed aboard a yacht in 1893.  Woodrow Wilson was kept in seclusion after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1919.  The failing health of world leaders like the shah of Iran and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos are more recent examples of official medical secrecy.

    Dr. Jonathan Clemente, a physician who is writing a book on medical spying, says in today’s world much can be learned just by close examination of video or photographs, especially high-resolution images.

    “Do we see any outward signs of physical disability or disease?  Then they will look at video.  They will look at how the person holds themselves.  How do they walk?  Do they have any signs of weakness or limping, their gait?  Do they have any difficulty walking?  Are they favoring one arm over the other? Or they’ll look at the symmetry of the face. Is there any sign of prior stroke?,” Clemente said.

    But if a leader is kept out of sight, intelligence agencies must especially rely on human sources.  Fred Burton, vice-president of intelligence for the private strategic risk firm Stratfor, says developing sources to provide intelligence on an official’s medical state is no different than having an agent give the whereabouts of an al-Qaida terrorist or the state of Iran’s nuclear program.  

    “That could be anything from hospital administrators to nurses to physicians’ assistants to couriers that transmit blood or body fluid for testing. It could be outsourced laboratories. It could be anybody who has capability to access medical records inside of a hospital kind of environment,” Burton said.

    Burton says agents will collect medical waste items, which can yield important information about someone’s medical condition.  

    “No discarded bandage or something like a syringe should be discounted because you can draw DNA and blood types and you can do some examination on the contents of even a discarded band-aid to try to determine perhaps what’s wrong with that person. So, as unseemly as that may sound, this is what intelligence services do,” he said.

    Analysts say a leader is especially vulnerable to such remote examination if they go abroad for medical treatment, as many officials do.  Dr. Clemente says there have been instances of intelligence agencies trying to secretly obtain bodily fluids for medical examination.

    “Then there are sort of apocryphal stories, which I think probably have some truth to it, that they have been able to surreptitiously obtain bodily fluids. And there are sort of several well-known examples of diverting plumbing in [the presidential guest residence] Blair House, or other places abroad where they are able to obtain stool and urine samples. I’ve not been able to find any sort of firm declassified information, but I have from a number of well-placed knowledgeable sources that at least there was some effort to do that,” Clemente said.

    Dr. Clemente notes that in making a terminal diagnosis, doctors are taught never to tell someone that they have, say, six months to live.  He says the CIA’s analysts in medical intelligence also never make a firm prognosis of life expectancy.

    “Similarly, the analysts at MPAC try to avoid making those prognostic statements - ‘Castro’s going to be dead in six months.’  What they try to do is collect facts. And they say, ‘someone with this condition will likely have this course over the time,’” Clemente said.

    But even so, such remote examinations can be wildly off. In 2006, then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the Washington Post newspaper that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was at death’s door and had months, not years, to live.  Five years after that pronouncement, Castro is still alive.

    Part two of our story:

    You May Like

    Syrian Torture Victim Recounts Horrors

    'You make them think you have surrendered' says Jalal Nofal, a doctor who was jailed and survived repeated interrogations in Syria

    Mandela’s Millions Paid to Heirs, But Who Gets His Country Home?

    Saga around $3 million estate of country's first democratic president is far from over as Winnie Mandela’s fight for home overshadows payouts

    Guess Which Beach is 'Best in the US'?

    Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay tops an annual "top 10" list compiled by a coastal scientist, also known as Doctor Beach

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora