The White House has announced that the CIA will never again set up a fake vaccination program as part of its espionage efforts, following the lethal response to the strategy it employed before raiding Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011.
The promise was made in a letter to the deans of 12 public health schools – who have criticized the Obama administration for using a vaccination effort as a cover for reconnaissance – and was written by the president’s top counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco.
In the wake of the CIA’s attempt to confirm bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad through a fake hepatitis B immunization campaign, many residents and local governments in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan have refused to take part in medical vaccination efforts out of fear of participating in a Western plot. With polio now making a comeback around the world and health workers being killed or tortured by the Taliban, the consequences have been deadly.
“I wanted to inform you that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers,” Monaco wrote to the deans, according to the letter obtained by Yahoo News.
“Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs,” she added. “This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.”
According to CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz, agency director John Brennan made the decision over public health concerns.
Before the raid that ended with the death of bin Laden, US officials were able to confirm that some of the Al-Qaeda leaders’ family was in the Abbottabad compound by orchestrating a hepatitis B vaccination campaign in the area. When DNA matches were found between some of the family’s children and bin Laden’s sister, who died previously in Boston, the US rationalized that bin Laden’s location had been identified.
In the aftermath of these revelations, many families decided not to participate in any more immunization drives, leaving numerous individuals and children at risk of disease. Although some groups, such as the Taliban, were outspoken opponents of vaccination even before the bin Laden raid, their claims that the health campaigns were secretly a cover for espionage or part of a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children gained traction.
In addition to refusing to get vaccinated, however, a deadly campaign against health practitioners in Pakistan was also initiated. As noted by Yahoo News, 56 immunization workers have been killed since December 2012, with others targets for torture and intimidation. In one instance reported by the Guardian, a female health worker was kidnapped from her home and found dead in a field the next day.
As a result, polio is on the rise in the country. Although a recent World Health Organization report found cases of the disease on the rise in multiple countries, Pakistan topped the list. There have been 77 cases of polio documented so far in 2014, and 61 were in Pakistan. For comparison, worldwide cases of polio were down to 187 in 2012, and were as high as 350,000 in 1988.
According to the Associated Press, Pakistan’s Health Ministry imposed strict travel restrictions as a response. Anyone leaving the country now must first receive the polio vaccination if they have not already done so.
Monaco’s letter comes about a year after a dozen public health schools wrote to the White House expressing their concern over the plight of immunization workers and those who wouldn’t be receiving medical assistance as a result of the CIA’s operation. According to Yahoo, the authors of the letter stated that, “as a general principle,” health campaigns shouldn’t be used for espionage.
“While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as an open society set boundaries on these damages,” they stated, “and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those boundaries.”