The CIA will no longer use vaccination programs as cover for spying operations, a White House official announced.
The agency used the ruse in targeting Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Lisa Monaco, Barack Obama’s leading counter-terrorism adviser, wrote to the deans of 13 prominent public health schools last week saying that the CIA had agreed it would no longer use vaccination programs or workers for intelligence purposes.
The CIA also agreed not to use genetic materials obtained through such programs.
Dr. Shakil Afridi offered a program of hepatitis vaccinations in Abbottabad as cover for his CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from children at a compound where Osama bin Laden was later killed during a 2011 raid by US navy Seals.
The doctor was convicted and sentenced by a Pakistani court to 33 years in prison for treason. The sentence was later overturned and Shakil Afridi faces a retrial.
The health school deans were among a group of medical authorities who publicly criticized the CIA’s use of the vaccination program after it was disclosed by media accounts and Pakistan’s arrest of Shakil Afridi as a CIA operative.
In her letter dated May 16, Lisa Monaco said the US “strongly supports the global polio eradication initiative and efforts to end the spread of the polio virus forever”.
Lisa Monaco said the CIA director, John Brennan, committed in August 2013 to “make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers”. She said the CIA policy “applied worldwide and to US and non-US persons alike,” and that no DNA or genetic material would be used from such programs.
The CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said Brennan “took seriously the concerns raised by the public health community, examined them closely and took decisive action”.
Lisa Monaco’s letter and the CIA statement did not acknowledge any error in the decision to use the Pakistan vaccine program as a spying cover. The letter was first disclosed in a report by Yahoo News.
The public health deans warned last year that the CIA’s use of a vaccination program had played a role in the shootings of several health workers in Pakistan and could hamper anti-polio efforts. “Public health programs should not be used as cover for covert operations,” they said.
Last week, Pakistan’s health ministry announced it would require all travelers leaving the country to first get a polio vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that polio’s spread is an international public health emergency, and identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as nations that have allowed polio to spread beyond their borders.
Pakistan was the only country with reported endemic polio that saw a rise in new cases in 2012, the WHO reported. The country accounted for more than a fifth of all polio cases identified around the world in 2013.
The CIA’s use of a polio vaccine program to spy on Osama bin Laden’s compound undercut Barack Obama’s high-profile speech to the Muslim world in 2009 in which he touted US efforts to slow the growth of polio in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With Obama administration assurances, Muslim scholars in two international groups issued religious decrees urging parents to vaccinate their children.
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