U.S. halts spying ruses using vaccines

New York Times News ServiceMay 20, 2014 

— Three years after the Central Intelligence Agency set up a phony hepatitis vaccination program in Pakistan as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration told a group of U.S. health educators last week that the agency no longer uses immunization programs as a cover for spying operations.

In a letter to leaders at a dozen schools of public health, President Barack Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser said the CIA had banned the practice of making “operational use” of vaccination programs, adding that the agency would not seek to “obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.”

The letter from the adviser, Lisa O. Monaco, comes more than a year after public health officials wrote to Obama expressing anger that the United States had used immunization programs as a front for espionage. The educators were protesting the CIA’s employment of a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to set up a hepatitis B vaccination program in Abbottabad to gain access to a compound where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding.

“While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as a society set boundaries on these damages, and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those damages,” the educators’ letter said.

The intelligence operation failed to determine whether bin Laden was in the compound. The al-Qaida leader was killed shortly afterward, in May 2011, in a nighttime raid carried out by Navy SEALs. Afridi was arrested days after the raid and remains in jail in Pakistan.

While in custody, Afridi told interrogators that he was introduced to CIA officers in Pakistan by an employee of Save the Children. Both the CIA and Save the Children have denied the aid group was used for spying, but the revelation led it to close its operations in Pakistan.

Since the CIA’s vaccination program became public, dozens of public health workers in Pakistan have been killed, with militant groups sometimes announcing that the workers had been suspected of being spies.

John O. Brennan, the agency’s director, put the new policy into effect in August, an agency spokesman said. “By publicizing this policy,” said Ned Price, the spokesman, “our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers.”

Monaco’s letter was first reported by Yahoo News.

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