World

The White House Finally Promised To Stop Using Polio Campaigns As Fronts For Spying

Because, surprise, it’s a terribly dangerous idea.

Guards standby as as a polio worker waits to give polio vaccine drops to children in Peshawar, Pakistan. Fayaz Aziz / Reuters

The White House has pledged to never again use polio vaccination campaigns as a front for CIA spying, as it infamously did during the 2011 search for Osama Bin Laden in polio-stricken Pakistan, Yahoo News reported Monday.

“I wanted to inform you that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed in August 2013 that the agency make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers,” Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s top counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, wrote in a May 16 letter to the deans of 12 public health schools, according to Yahoo News.

“Similarly, the Agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs,” Monaco continued. “This CIA policy applies worldwide and to U.S. and non-U.S. persons alike.”

In 2011, the CIA enlisted a Pakistani doctor to hold a fake immunization campaign in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where bin Laden was eventually found to be hiding, as part of the CIA’s search. The CIA hoped to use DNA obtained from children during the vaccination process to confirm bin Laden’s whereabouts, The Guardian reported in July 2011.

Many Pakistanis have long been skeptical of U.S.- and U.N.-backed immunization campaigns, with rumors circulating that the campaigns were fronts for sterilizing Muslims, among other accusations. The 2011 CIA operation further fanned the flames of distrust, leading many Pakistani parents to forgo vaccinations for polio and other ailments. Violence against medical workers, and the police officers guarding them, has killed 56 people between December 2012 and May 2014.

In this climate, while polio basically has been wiped out worldwide, in Pakistan the disease has thrived; of the 77 documented new polio cases worldwide in 2014, 61 so far have been in Pakistan, and mostly in Taliban stronghold areas.

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