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

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
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.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs