Protecting (and Collecting) the DNA of World Leaders

There’s a lot of hype and hyperbole in this story, but here’s the interesting bit:

According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched­they are later sanitized or destroyed­in an effort to keep would be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn’t feel the same.

The rest of the article is about individually targeted bioweapons.

Posted on October 29, 2012 at 1:53 PM29 Comments


Ricardo October 29, 2012 2:33 PM

In the case of them collection DNA from others might be for future identification, as we saw in the case of Bin Laden identity confirmation

Captain Obvious October 29, 2012 3:04 PM

Pretty sure a bullet’s cheaper.

/Grassy Knoll Gang

I think the more concerning aspect of this is the ability to discretely inflict eugenics on a non-consenting population.

Peter Gerdes October 29, 2012 3:35 PM

Sure, the threat is presented in a movie plot style way but I’ve long felt that targeted bioweapons shouldn’t be that hard to develop or use, especially given that failed uses would almost certainly go undetected. Of course such weapons might put millions or billions of people at risk if an error (or insufficient safeguards against mutation) were used but by first developing a vaccine against that particular virus the power putting a targeted bioweapon to use might be able to buy reasonable protection for themselves.

Sure, it’s unlikely to happen in the way portrayed but biologists have already demonstrated the (imperfect) ability to recognize sequences with certain properties and deploy payloads based on these properties. This is exactly what certain targeted genetic therapies are supposed to do. I see no reason why one couldn’t design a cold with the ability to produce a fatal toxin only in the presence of certain uncommon DNA sequences and build in several failsafes to prevent these safeguards from mutating away.

David Leppik October 29, 2012 3:50 PM

Yeah, I can think of a lot of uses for the DNA of foreign dignitaries other than bio-weapons. For example, knowing what genetic diseases a particular head of state is prone to might be useful in negotiations. Or being able to tell that Prince So-and-so isn’t genetically the son of King So-and-so. Or being able to identify that a particular incriminating document was touched by a head of state.

But avoiding DNA collection is nigh impossible. Whoever washes the dishes and linens at a banquet can collect samples. And if the president were to somehow avoid foreign meals, I’m sure there’s a clever way to secretly collect DNA from a handshake.

Harvey MacDonald October 29, 2012 4:17 PM

The Ferengi (ref. ST DS9) figured this out a long time ago – they can make a toxin that the president is immune to, but will viciously kill (via allergic reaction) any person it touches. The generic plan is to thoroughly coat the president’s right hand with the stuff, then send him off to shake hands with random dignitaries of other nations.

Joe October 29, 2012 4:38 PM

Handshake anyone? Why would the Secret Service do this when the President (while serving as the active President) shakes hands with hundreds of members of the public every day? If any of you have been to an event with a sitting president, they shake hands like crazy.

Henning Makholm October 29, 2012 4:40 PM

@Peter Gerdes: “especially given that failed uses would almost certainly go undetected” — really? If you’re trying to develop a targeted bioweapon, overbreadth seems to be just as likely a failure mode as underactivity.

AJ October 29, 2012 5:07 PM

Do they do the same thing for the first daughters as well? Collecting DNA from both of them should give anyone who gets that a significant proportion of the president’s genome, and if they get Michelle’s too they can eliminate her contributions from the girls’ as well…

Jeff Bell October 29, 2012 5:18 PM

It reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper where all that remains of the “great leader” is his nose, and top secret attempts are underway to clone the rest of his body.

Same idea.

Figureitout October 29, 2012 5:49 PM

Instead of trying to mitigate an impossibility (protecting your DNA), it may be time better spent correcting sick/devious thoughts of individualized bioweapons and sneaking around collecting people’s DNA; it may halt other problems at the source. A part of me also thinks of deeper psychology, like world “leaders” enjoying being “sought after”.

AC2 October 30, 2012 12:18 AM

Better reference would be to Clarke’s Rama Revealed where the arachnids target a bioweapon at the human population…

But yes this is as much science fiction as the novel, in the context of bioweapons.

matt October 30, 2012 1:49 AM

the only missing big person is hitler ! when DNA was not invented they burned him to prevent another hitler in future ..

Sentin3l October 30, 2012 2:17 AM

We need presidential holograms and maybe clones (barcoded so we know which is which). No more touching or physically engaging the populations of the world – we need containment suits and force fields around the president and they (these leaders) need to be biologically decontaminated every 1-20 min after touching anything within a certain environment or when necessary. We need some sort of physical spoofs. Some form of body cream that forms a barrier to pathogens without killing the president while trying to help them. IDK maybe we just live our lives and make sure we select 5 stand in presidents trained and ready and one droid resembling the president physically which the president can speak through for when the severity of probability is high risk for the occurrence of such an biological attack – folks who can stand in, in-case one expires… It’s a serious threat don’t get me wrong therefore I’m for an anti-biological pathogenic virus inhibiting Gnome specific but moisturizing body cream myself.

officerX October 30, 2012 2:37 AM

I see a potential for a “fake urinal or toilet cubicle attack” at state banquet event locations (often normal hotels or congress centers).

Clive Robinson October 30, 2012 3:29 AM

Purely by coincidence about a day before Bruce posted this, a friend sent me a web link to somebody on the Internet who looks incredibly like me and worse even sounds the same.

My friend jokingly asked me if it was my body double…

Which reminded me of how many despots actualy had intentional body doubles to use as stand ins for various reasons.

So firstly there is a problem of whos DNA you have actualy collected the “glorious leaders” or one of their body doubles…

As for targeted Bio-Weapons, why is every one assuming they are to “kill”?

It would be easier to find an existing cold or flu virus strain that they are much more susceptable to than others. Given at the right time say three to four days before an important meeting of heads of state it would put them at a significant disadvantage as they would be well below par. It does not matter if they infect other heads of state as the incubation time of the virus would make them ill a day or so after the confrence.

It would go almost unnoticed as the virus would be “known” to the likes of the CDC etc and further it is unlikely to cause a death or fatality and importantly many many people get colds etc when they travel simply because crossing time zones weakens your immune system and brings you into contact with new to you viral infections that are already established in the foriegn population.

Which raises an interesting question… If the Secret Service are minimizing US Presidential DNA loss, are they also giving immune system enhancing drugs to the President to reduce their susceptibility to viral attack etc?

Anyone for a life long course of some of the newer statins as a precaution (known to help people against viral infection). Then a shot of Immune/Gamma Globulin and a couple of antimicrobials such as Tamiflu before traveling oh and good cup of tea (natural anti-biotic) for breakfast to wash down various vitimin supliments but importantly remember to moisturize your hands with that eucalyptus oil (a known source of anti-virals along with some other essential oils) hand cream befor going out and shaking peoples hands…

Sentin3l October 30, 2012 4:43 AM

Seriously there are many factors to concider in dealing with an immensely complex matter. This is not a security issue that has any one fix. Security will need to find ways of identifying signs of sickness (symptoms) and carriers that might not display such symptoms when first assesed and effectively block air-born or physical materials used by humans or animals on the presidents route. (A nasal spray used to dissemination air-born pathogens). This whole scenerio to my mind needs to be brought down to include a physical security level where one needs to find and factor in viral-biology (powerful and invisible air-born genetically engineered virusses, which can cause a variety of potentially deadly symptoms. How do you effectively stop the invisible transfer of such agents at the physical personal level and space of a head of state? Things that can be transferred by touch or sneeze to methods of transferring close proximity gnome specific viral agent’s that might not have any known anti-dote with superfast symptomatic development. You do the math. How does biology (counter-warfare- are we beyond moral ethic?) and its development cover such a vast and intricate field while enabling a last line\level of physical protection to a head of state? I can only say they will have to look at it simply, like how to stop entry of such pathogens the open doors to the human biological system and then specifically the individual. It will not be a easy feat.

moo October 30, 2012 2:18 PM

@Herr Glove:

+1 ! But actually, its the purity of our precious bodily fluids that most concerns me.

…even if we don’t see any public uses of a DNA-targeted bioweapon in the next decade or two, we will eventually have molecular manufacturing capabilities which will make these kind of targeted weapons easy, and even more scary (imagine a virulent plague that kills all humans within a specifically-defined geographical boundary, and has a fixed expiry-date… it could wipe out the unwanted occupants of a neighboring country, leaving their cities and infrastructure behind for you to take over).

vasiliy pupkin October 31, 2012 7:33 AM

I was thinking about artificial sperm related part in the article.
For sure many guys will suffer (financilally and emotionally – civil liability, even being incarcerated – criminal liability in US in particular) in the future first, then new laws related will be adopted by legislature and courts will take into consideartion possibility of framing innocent person. Unfortunately, that is how system works handling new technology used by bad guys.

Q October 31, 2012 11:09 AM

This is typical American Insanity. A movie-plot style threat costing ungodly amounts of money and expertise. Meanwhile we blow up civilians and children with UAVs all the time. What makes you think someone can’t build a UAV in their basement? Make it small, too small to be seen, electric, quiet, with a range of miles… Are the people we want to protect ever outside?

PrometheeFeu November 2, 2012 11:57 AM

Why do we care that much. Last I checked, dead Presidents while problematic, don’t result in widespread disruptions for the general population. Let’s stop worrying so much about assassination attempts. They are really not that big of a deal.

Barty Crouch November 13, 2012 6:40 AM

Ferengi, Sleeper, X-Files, but apparently no Harry Potter fans here 🙂

Would be great to make “polyjuice potion” with. Impersonation is much better than simply bio-targeting someone!

Philo Pharynx November 15, 2012 10:53 AM

So, do they protect the DNA of all presidential candidates? If someone is looking to get DNA, they could do it easier before the person is actually president.

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