CIA's bin Laden scheme imperils health work, charity says

ISLAMABAD — The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders on Thursday strongly condemned the CIA's secret use of a vaccination program as cover for spying on Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan, saying the ploy would damage public health efforts in poor countries.

The charity described the ruse by American intelligence agents as a "grave manipulation of the medical act" that threatened immunization work by doctors and nurses in developing countries.

"The risk is that vulnerable communities — anywhere — needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid," Unni Karunakara, the group's international president, said in a statement.

"The potential consequence is that even basic health care, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most."

McClatchy revealed this week that before the U.S. special forces raid that found and killed bin Laden in May, the CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor to set up a vaccination campaign for hepatitis B in Abbottabad, the northern garrison town where it thought that bin Laden was living. The doctor, Shakil Afridi, in turn hired nurses to try to enter the suspected bin Laden compound to determine through DNA samples whether those living there were relatives of the al Qaida leader.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the CIA hasn't publicly admitted using the doctor, said the nurses intended to give the full course of vaccinations to those treated in Abbottabad. Three doses are required.

"This was an actual vaccination campaign conducted by real medical professionals," the U.S. official said. "And it's not as if this kind of campaign is something the CIA runs every day."

However, McClatchy reporting from Abbottabad found that while the vaccine doses were genuine, the medical professionals involved weren't following standard medical procedures.

After distributing the vaccine in March in Nawa Sher, a poor section of Abbottabad that's some distance from the bin Laden compound, the medical team didn't return a month later to give the recipients the required second dose. Instead, according to local officials and residents, the team moved on in April to Bilal Town, the suburb where bin Laden lived, and started administering the vaccine there.

Pakistani intelligence arrested Afridi in late May for working for a foreign spy agency. The United States is pressing Pakistan to let him go and allow his family and his family to resettle in the United States.

The incident has deepened the rift between Washington and Islamabad, which has been infuriated by the CIA's secret activities in the country.

Doctors Without Borders, which works in more than 65 countries, including Pakistan, said that carrying out medical care under false pretenses "endangers those who provide legitimate and essential health services."

"It is challenging enough for health agencies and humanitarian aid workers to gain access to, and the trust of, communities, especially populations already skeptical of the motives of any outside assistance," Karunakara said.

The impact of the CIA vaccination drive may be keenly felt in Pakistan, a country with low immunization levels and where the public already sees an American conspiracy everywhere. Polio campaigns could be at particular risk, as Pakistan has the biggest polio problem in the world.

The U.S. official said: "The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world's top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn't shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn't used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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