WASHINGTON: Three years after the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used a vaccination programme in Pakistan to trace Osama bin Laden, the White House announced that it has ordered the agency not to use health initiatives as a ruse for spying.
The order followed a year-long campaign by the deans of America’s 13 top medical schools for banning the use of public health drives for spy operations.
In a letter sent to US President Barack Obama in January 2013, the deans pointed out that the CIA had admitted hiring a Pakistani doctor to give out hepatitis B vaccines in Abbottabad. The doctor, Shakil Afridi, was instructed to use the ruse to collect DNA samples from a compound the CIA suspected was Bin Laden’s hideout.
“That has caused a severe backlash against vaccination in Pakistan. Nine polio vaccinators have been shot dead, and the effort to fight polio there was halted for weeks. Deaths from measles also soared in 2012, to 306 from 64 the year before,” the deans wrote.
The White House took more than a year to respond but on May 16, President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser Lisa O. Monaco wrote back, saying: “The US strongly supports the global polio eradication initiative and efforts to end the spread of the polio virus.
“In response to your January 2013 letter to the president expressing concern about the safety of vaccination workers, I wanted to inform you that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programmes which involve vaccination workers.
“Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes. This CIA policy applies worldwide and to US and non-US programmes alike.
“Please feel free to share the information with whomever you deem appropriate.”
In 2012, the United Nations suspended polio vaccination in Pakistan after gunmen killed several health workers. Taliban militants accused health workers of acting as spies for the US.
On Tuesday, a CIA spokesman told reporters that the agency’s director, John Brennan, “took seriously the concerns raised by the public health community, examined them closely and took decisive action”.
The CIA operation failed to determine whether Bin Laden was in the compound. The Qaeda leader was killed shortly afterwards, in May 2011, by US Navy SEALs who raided his compound. Dr Afridi was arrested days after the raid and remains in jail.