One year after a letter expressing their concern, the White House last week finally responded to public health school officials’ concerns, promising to never again use vaccination programs as cover to gather intelligence.
The letter from White House counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco to the deans of some of the top public health schools in the country — including UCLA, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins — was first obtained by Yahoo News on Monday. “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 in the letter.
“Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs,” Monaco continued. “This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.” Monaco’s letter was delivered to the twelve deans who last year wrote to President Obama protesting the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign as cover in Abottabad, Pakistan in 2011 as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. According to the Guardian’s reporting on the matter, DNA obtained from Osama bin Laden’s relatives “treated” during the campaign was used to confirm that the terrorist leader was living in the vast estate in which the U.S. suspected him of hiding.
While the mission to kill bin Laden was successful, the decision to utilize a vaccination campaign as the cover has had huge negative consequences on the efforts to fight polio. Namely, militants in Pakistan have come to see all vaccination campaigns as being part of some Western scheme. Attacks against health workers skyrocketed in the months after the bin Laden raid and continue to this day. When the deans wrote last January, the situation on the ground was bad enough that “because of these assassinations of vaccination workers, the UN has been forced to suspend polio eradication efforts in Pakistan.”
The United Nations’ efforts eventually restarted, but the damage done to Pakistan’s attempts to eradicate polio have been telling. 91 cases of polio were identified in Pakistan in 2013, up from 58 the year before. Already so far in 2014, Pakistan has seen a staggering 61 cases of polio. The South Asian state remains one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic, though violence in the Middle East and Africa is threatening to undo much of the efforts of the past few years. The situation in Pakistan is dire enough that the World Health Organization has imposed international travel restrictions on leaving the country without proof of vaccination starting on June 1.
And despite the Obama administration’s pledge, the violence against health workers in Pakistan — the majority of whom are women — continues. Just weeks into the new year, Akbari Begum, whose son was paralyzed by polio, was killed in an attack in Qayyumabad. “She wanted to save as many children from the crippling disease as possible,” a relative told Pakistani newspaper The News. In March, Pakistani police discovered the body of Salma Farooqi, a 30 year-old polio worker, in a field two miles from her house, where armed men had kidnapped her the night before. Farooqi was tortured and repeatedly shot, police said, in one of the most violent attacks so far against an aid worker.
Across the border, India recently celebrated becoming entirely polio-free. Last month, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif for the first time asked the military to protect polio workers. While the comparisons are not direct, the difference between the two neighbors is striking. And though much more of the blame clearly rests with the militants attacking the workers than the CIA, the legacy of the decision to allow the intelligence-gathering operation to proceed in the first place continues to be felt in the form of the Pakistani children who may never walk as a result.