C.I.A. Vaccine Ruse

In the March 27, 2014 posting, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, I wrote the following:

“Several polio hotspots remain in the world. Three major ones are Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Recent outbreaks have also occurred in Syria and Somalia. In each of these instances, social and political climates make it difficult to carry out eradication campaigns…As recently as March 2014, militants attacked a polio vaccination team in northwest Pakistan, detonating a roadside bomb and then opening fire on their convoy, killing 12 of their security team, and wounding dozens more. Some Pakistani religious leaders denounced the vaccination campaign in Pakistan as a cover for spying …”

The article by Mark Mazzetti in yesterday’s (May 20, 2014) New York Times, entitled: U.S. Cites End to C.I.A. Ruses Using Vaccines, reaffirms that accusations by the Taliban and Pakistani clerics were not simply propaganda or paranoia. Mazzetti’s piece is as follows:

“WASHINGTON — 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 American 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 Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser said the C.I.A. 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 Mr. Obama expressing anger that the United States had used immunization programs as a front for espionage. The educators were protesting the C.I.A.’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 Qaeda leader was killed shortly afterward, in May 2011, in a nighttime raid carried out by Navy SEALs. Dr. Afridi was arrested days after the raid and remains in jail in Pakistan.

While in custody, Dr. Afridi told interrogators that he was introduced to C.I.A. officers in Pakistan by an employee of Save the Children. Both the C.I.A. 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 C.I.A.’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 last 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.”

The earlier article, by Saeed Shah, in the July 11, 2011 The Guardian, entitled CIA Organised Fake Vaccination Drive to get Osama Bin Laden’s Family DNA, provides additional details.

“The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family, a Guardian investigation has found.

As part of extensive preparations for the raid that killed Bin Laden in May, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, even starting the “project” in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic, according to Pakistani and US officials and local residents.

The doctor, Shakil Afridi, has since been arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for co-operating with American intelligence agents.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad, already severely strained by the Bin Laden operation, have deteriorated considerably since then. The doctor’s arrest has exacerbated these tensions. The US is understood to be concerned for the doctor’s safety, and is thought to have intervened on his behalf.

The vaccination plan was conceived after American intelligence officers tracked an al-Qaida courier, known as Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, to what turned out to be Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound last summer. The agency monitored the compound by satellite and surveillance from a local CIA safe house in Abbottabad, but wanted confirmation that Bin Laden was there before mounting a risky operation inside another country.

DNA from any of the Bin Laden children in the compound could be compared with a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010, to provide evidence that the family was present.

So agents approached Afridi, the health official in charge of Khyber, part of the tribal area that runs along the Afghan border.

The doctor went to Abbottabad in March, saying he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers, who took part in the operation without knowing about the connection to Bin Laden. Health visitors in the area were among the few people who had gained access to the Bin Laden compound in the past, administering polio drops to some of the children.

Afridi had posters for the vaccination programme put up around Abbottabad, featuring a vaccine made by Amson, a medicine manufacturer based on the outskirts of Islamabad.

In March health workers administered the vaccine in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Abbottabad called Nawa Sher. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given in three doses, the second a month after the first. But in April, instead of administering the second dose in Nawa Sher, the doctor returned to Abbottabad and moved the nurses on to Bilal Town, the suburb where Bin Laden lived.

It is not known exactly how the doctor hoped to get DNA from the vaccinations, although nurses could have been trained to withdraw some blood in the needle after administrating the drug.

“The whole thing was totally irregular,” said one Pakistani official. “Bilal Town is a well-to-do area. Why would you choose that place to give free vaccines? And what is the official surgeon of Khyber doing working in Abbottabad?”

A nurse known as Bakhto, whose full name is Mukhtar Bibi, managed to gain entry to the Bin Laden compound to administer the vaccines. According to several sources, the doctor, who waited outside, told her to take in a handbag that was fitted with an electronic device. It is not clear what the device was, or whether she left it behind. It is also not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any Bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed.

Mukhtar Bibi, who was unaware of the real purpose of the vaccination campaign, would not comment on the programme.

Pakistani intelligence became aware of the doctor’s activities during the investigation into the US raid in which Bin Laden was killed on the top floor of the Abbottabad house. Islamabad refused to comment officially on Afridi’s arrest, but one senior official said: “Wouldn’t any country detain people for working for a foreign spy service?”

The doctor is one of several people suspected of helping the CIA to have been arrested by the ISI, but he is thought to be the only one still in custody.

Pakistan is furious over being kept in the dark about the raid, and the US is angry that the Pakistani investigation appears more focused on finding out how the CIA was able to track down the al-Qaida leader than on how Bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad for five years.

Over the weekend, relations were pummelled further when the US announced that it would cut $800m (£500m) worth of military aid as punishment for Pakistan’s perceived lack of co-operation in the anti-terror fight. William Daley, the White House chief of staff, went on US television on Sunday to say: “Obviously, there’s still a lot of pain that the political system in Pakistan is feeling by virtue of the raid that we did to get Osama bin Laden, something the president felt strongly about and we have no regrets over.”

The CIA refused to comment on the vaccination plot.”

National Public Radio’s Jason Beaubien filed the following for last night’s edition of All Things Considered:

“‘The CIA is not exclusively responsible for the problems we have in getting children vaccinated but it certainly didn’t make it anything easier,’ says Anthony Robbins, the co-editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. Robbins wrote an editorial denouncing the CIA use of fake vaccination programs back in August of 2012. Even before bin Laden was killed in 2011, the Taliban had banned polio immunization in the parts of Pakistan it controls. The Taliban claimed the polio drops sterilize Pakistani children and vaccinators were American spies.

“The head of one large anti-polio campaign in Pakistan wasn’t happy to hear the CIA’s latest declaration. ‘I don’t think this statement is going to help in anyway,’ says Aziz Memon, who heads Rotary International’s polio eradication effort in Pakistan. He says Pakistanis were starting to forget about the controversy over the fake CIA vaccination campaign and now he expects the issue to blow up in the local media all over again.”

 

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