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.
Yesterday, October 7th, two people were killed in a terrorist attack on a polio vaccination campaign in the troubled frontier city of Peshawar in Pakistan. Despite being one of the few nations in the world were polio remains endemic, attacks on vaccination workers are not uncommon. Rumours and distrust of the vaccines are spread by fundamentalist clerics in the country, and large swathes of the country remain unvaccinated despite the authorities’ desire to eradicate the disease and amidst continuing warnings from the World Health Organisation. Recent weeks have seen numerous serious terrorist attacks in Pakistan, raising fears of further destabilisation surrounding the nation’s already acute security challenges. In particular, further moves to attack aid organisations and ethnic minority groups are particularly concerning.
The blast happened outside a health clinic in Sulemankhen, on the outskirts of Peshawar, yesterday. Two people were killed, one a police officer and the other a local member of a ‘volunteer peace committee’. 20 people, mainly members of the police, were also injured in the attack. A second, larger, device was found at the scene and diffused. Monday was the third and final day of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 10’000 children through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the bomb was detonated remotely when police gathered to protect the vaccination teams.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jundullah, has claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing a statement saying “Jews and the United States want to stamp out Islamic beliefs through these drops”. Jundullah is a prolific terrorist organisation, and has been connected with numerous attacks throughout Pakistan in recent months, including the murder of climbers in Gilget-Baltistan in June and last month’s attack on the Christian community in Peshawar.
Vaccination campaigns have come under attack in Pakistan before. Earlier this year, also in Peshawar, two female aid workers were shot dead, while another 8 vaccination workers were murdered in December last year. The use by the CIA of a fake hepatitis vaccination program to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 has reportedly damaged the reputation of aid and vaccination programs in Pakistan. However, issues with vaccinations have been fermenting for several years outside of this, with Islamist propaganda in Pakistan often claiming vaccination programs are attempts by the West to sterilise Muslim populations, or that the vaccines are ‘un-Islamic’ as they supposedly contain pork derivatives. This phenomenon has manifested in other countries with similar strains of Islamist militancy such as Nigeria, which saw the murder of nine vaccination workers earlier this year.
Largely seen as an anachronism in the West, polio remains endemic in only three countries worldwide – Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amidst increasing rates of the disease in Pakistan and the warnings of international health organisations, the Pakistani authorities have launched campaigns in attempts to eradicate the disease in recent years, but have faced widespread resistance in the fractious and restive border and tribal areas.
This recent attack comes amidst a spate of serious attacks throughout the country in recent weeks that have killed over 150 people. Despite the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif making overtures to militants late in August, the security situation in Pakistan appears to be becoming increasing unstable, with the country’s regular terrorist attacks showing no sign of abating. The Pakistani authorities have been criticised in the past for the lack of a coherent or robust national security strategy, and with elements of the Pakistani state widely seen as collaborating with some terrorist movements, serious doubts remain about their ability to contain the violence. Currently, all the indications are that the security situation in Pakistan is only likely to deteriorate further in the foreseeable future.
A particularly concerning trend is a diversification of the victims targeted in terrorist attacks, as opposed to the traditional targets of Shia Muslims or the Pakistani security forces. Recent months have seen the murder of foreign mountaineers at the base of Nanga Parbat, attacks on Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority and yesterday’s targeting of an UN-backed health campaign. As such, the security risks for foreigners in Pakistan remain severe and are only set to increase if, as seems likely, this trend continues.