As an intelligence operation, it must have seemed like pure genius: Recruit a Pakistani doctor to collect blood samples that could identify Osama bin Laden’s family, under cover of an ongoing vaccination program. But as an ethical matter, it was something else.
The CIA’s vaccination gambit put at risk something very precious — the integrity of public health programs in Pakistan and around the globe. It also added to the dangers facing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in a world that’s increasingly hostile to U.S. aid organizations.
Five questions for Pakistan about al-Qaeda: The country can’t keep ducking questions about bin Laden and his accomplices’ decade-long sojourn there.
What’s gotten attention in America is the plight of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the CIA through his vaccination campaign in the tribal areas and the nearby province where bin Laden was hiding. The doctor was sentenced last week to 33 years in prison for treason, prompting indignant protests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
U.S. officials shouldn’t treat the Afridi case simply as outrageous behavior by Pakistan. They’re right that the doctor’s actions weren’t treasonous: He was seeking information about terrorist leaders who were Pakistan’s enemies. I hope he’ll be released, but in any event Afridi and his handlers should reckon with the moral consequences of what they did.
Here’s the painful truth: Some people may die because they don’t get vaccinations, suspecting that immunization is part of a CIA plot. The rate of polio infection is rising in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, in part because people believe conspiracy theories about vaccination. If the spread can’t be reversed in these three countries, warns a recent World Health Organization report, “polio eradication will fail.”
Among the organizations concerned is Save the Children, the biggest foreign-aid agency in Pakistan. According to the New York Times, Afridi told Pakistani authorities he was first contacted by the CIA through Save the Children, a claim that the organization denies. The Times reported that, after Afridi’s arrest last July, the NGO’s staff had been monitored by Pakistani intelligence and shipment of its medical supplies had been held at the border. A spokesman said Tuesday that the group hasn’t had any problems in recent months.
The potential danger for health workers was outlined in a Feb. 21 letter to CIA Director David Petraeus from Samuel A. Worthington, the president of an alliance of 200 NGOs that operate abroad. He warned: “Since reports of the CIA campaign first surfaced last summer, we have seen a continued erosion of U.S. NGOs’ ability to deliver critical humanitarian programs in Pakistan as well as an uptick in targeted violence against humanitarian workers. I fear the CIA’s activities in Pakistan and the perception that U.S. NGOs have ties with intelligence efforts may have contributed to these alarming developments.”