Fact Check

Obama Admin Grants Immunity to CDC Scientist

Rumor: President Obama granted immunity to a CDC whistleblower to allow him to freely testify about the link between vaccines and autism.

Published Feb 5, 2015

Claim:   President Obama granted immunity to a CDC whistleblower to allow him to freely testify about the link between vaccines and autism.


Example:   [Collected via Twitter, February 2015]

Obama Grants Immunity to CDC Whistleblower on Measles Vaccine Link to Autism


Origins:   On 3 February 2015, the website Daily Caller published an article titled "Obama Admin Grants Immunity to CDC Scientist That Fudged Vaccine Report ... Whistleblower Plans to Testify Before Congress." The claims it contained subsequently circulated across alternative health blogs, and were unique in part because no other outlet reported anything remotely resembling them prior to the article.

The background of the piece entailed a controversy that began in August 2014, when Centers for Disease Control researcher Dr. William Thompson was identified by vaccine opponents in a series of claims regarding 2004 study. Thompson later confirmed he had expressed reservations about omission of data from the research in question in a larger statement. And while he was dubbed a "CDC whistleblower," language used by Thompson in the statement appeared to contradict two aspects of that claim.

First, Thompson stated he was neither informed nor did he consent to the "whistleblowing" in question — the scientist instead described somewhat of an ambush. Secondly, Thompson denied he'd been sanctioned to any degree within the CDC:

I have had many discussions with Dr. Brian Hooker over the last 10 months regarding studies the CDC has carried out regarding vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes including autism spectrum disorders. I share his belief that CDC decision-making and analyses should be transparent. I was not, however, aware that he was recording any of our conversations, nor was I given any choice regarding whether my name would be made public or my voice would be put on the Internet.

My colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since this matter became public. In fact, I received a performance-based award after this story came out. I have experienced no pressure or retaliation and certainly was not escorted from the building, as some have stated.

In the August 2014 statement, Thompson also said:

I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.

Nearly six months later, the February 2015 article linked above was published, claiming Thompson was granted immunity by the Obama administration. (Iterations of the rumor stated President Obama granted immunity to Thompson so he could testify about vaccine safety.) However, at least two immediate issues cast doubt on the claim.

One is a lack of context, as the article simply reported:

Dr. Thompson recently brought his case to Republican Florida Rep. Bill Posey.

"A whistleblower came to our office, Dr. William Thompson. He came forward with documents, saying that at CDC he had manipulated one of the studies he was an author on to get a desired outcome," Posey spokesman George Cecala told TheDC. "The study has relation to vaccines and their relationship to autism."

"We're working with the Science Committee to get a hearing," Anna said. "What we're talking about is integrity within an agency. It's rightfully under the purview of the Science Committee."

Republican House Science Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith did not respond to an inquiry about when the hearing might happen, or if it will still go forward amid the current national controversy.

Thompson gained official whistleblower immunity months ago. The Department of Justice fruitlessly referred TheDC to the whistleblower ombudsman within the Department of Health and Human Services, which adjudicates CDC employees' whistleblower protection claims.

Notably missing from the article were a number of key details: when the purported "immunity" in question was proffered, why such protection would be required, why the story was reported in early February 2015 and not when the immunity status was granted, and who might have specifically granted immunity to Thompson.

Moreover, the lack of detail encompassed another inconsistency. If Thompson's statement truly constituted whistleblowing in the manner in which it has been framed, any future statements he might opt to make would likely fall under laws and statutes designed to protect

whistleblowers. But even that purely hypothetical scenario doesn't appear to be relevant to the claims made by Thompson, as his statement pertained to a dispute over whether collected data was statistically relevant to the overall findings of the research in the 2004 study. Thompson now believes the decision to omit the data was detrimental to the sum of the research, but invoking the specter of "immunity granted" implied a level of ongoing criminality investigation that appeared to be non-existent.

Ultimately, the Daily Caller's claims were vague and unsourced, with no information appended to support them. Were Thompson to testify about his 2014 statements, there is no indication immunity would be necessary to shield him from any potential prosecution. And if it were necessary, extant whistleblower protections laws would likely sufficiently cover him. However, Thompson's statements through a lawyer in August 2014 seemed to indicate he does not consider himself a whistleblower and he has not faced any retaliatory action from his colleagues at or the administration of the CDC.

The Daily Caller did not respond to a request for additional information.

Last updated:   5 February 2015

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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