CIA Ends Vaccine ProgrammeMay 21, 2014 in Pakistan
On Tuesday, the White House confirmed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has ended the use of vaccine programmes in its spying operations amidst concerns for the safety of health workers. In a letter to US public health schools, a White House aide indicated that the CIA had stopped such practices in August 2013.
In a letter dated 16 May, the White House assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, Lisa Monaco, wrote that CIA director John Brennan had directed the agency to cease “operational use of vaccine programmes.” The letter further indicated, “similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes,” adding that the policy applied worldwide to US and non-US persons alike.
The CIA had used a fake vaccine programme in a bid to locate Osama Bin Laden before US Special Forces killed in May 2011. Genetic material obtained through a fake door-to-door hepatitis B vaccination programme reportedly helped the CIA confirm Bin Laden’s whereabouts in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The Pakistani doctor accused of running the vaccination campaign remains in jail. Dr Shakil Afridi was convicted of having ties to militant groups, which he has denied. He was imprisoned in 2012 in a move that is widely seen as punishment for his helping the CIA, with sources indicating that he is regarded as a traitor by Pakistan’s security agencies.
The CIA’s decision to end the use of vaccine programmes in its spying operations comes after a wave of deadly attacks by militants on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan. According to CIA spokesman Dean Boyd, “by publicizing this policy, our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers.”
However despite the CIA ending the programme in August, a number of health workers have been targeted, kidnapped or killed as militants suspected that they were either CIA agents or had links to it. Since January, sixty-six cases of polio have been declared in Pakistan, compared with only eight during the same period last year. The geographical spread of the cases suggests that they are mostly sourced to the north-western Wairistan tribal region. Militants who control this region have banned vaccinations, citing that health workers may include American spies. In turn, more than sixty polio workers and security personnel were killed in the country between December 2012 and April 2014. According to Pakistani officials and humanitarian workers, most of them were killed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
While the CIA’s announcement of ending such vaccination programmes is seen as a positive step, the CIA’s spokesman has warned that “many obstacles” still remain and will likely stand in the way of vaccination programmes. These include myths that vaccinations cause sterility or HIV along with claims that they are spy programmes run by Western governments. Mr Boyd noted “while the CIA can do little about the former, the CIA director felt he could do something important to dispel the latter and he acted,” adding “it is important to note that militant groups have a long history of attacking humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan and those attacks began years before the raid against the Bin Laden compound and years before any press reports claiming a CIA-sponsored vaccination programme.”
In Pakistan, the decision will likely be welcomed, as polio has been spreading fast since the Taliban banned the vaccination campaign two years ago. Prior to the release of the letter, Professor Ibrahim Khan, an intermediary for the Taliban, had indicated that the militants wanted assurances that the vaccination programme was not being used for other purposes. He further added that he was hopeful that the Taliban would then lift the ban on the vaccine. However this is contingent on the success of peace negotiations with the Pakistani government. Currently, the talks have stalled, with the Ministry of Interior indicating that access to the polio vaccination will lead the agenda in the next round of talks.