Public health school deans from prominent colleges and universities across the country have signed a letter condemning a hoax the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly used to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden's former compound before the raid that killed him, the New York Times reports.
Signed by representatives from Columbia, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, as well as other public health programs, the letter claims forces hostile to the United States have now targeted vaccinators fighting to eliminate polio in the region because a CIA operation destroyed the trust established between vaccinators and Pakistanis.
The Guardian reported in July 2011 that the CIA admitted to hiring a Pakistani doctor and sending him to Abbottabad in March 2011. He was instructed to tell officials he had procured funds to give free vaccinations for hepatitis B and to sidestep local health services by paying off low-ranking government workers. Health-related professionals typically “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,” according to The Guardian.
The operation, which the CIA has acknowledged, used an existing international framework to eliminate polio; the doctor started his task in poorer districts to avoid suspicion and more closely align himself with existing operations.
After the hoax came to light following the U.S military raid resulting in the death of bin Laden in May 2011, angry villagers have run legitimate vaccinators out of town, and the Taliban has banned health workers from two districts in Pakistan until the United States agrees to end drone attacks -- a relatively ineffective ultimatum, according to World Health Organization officials who spoke with the Times.
Nine polio vaccinators were killed in December. In their letter, the public health deans urge the U.S. government to stop using health officials as undercover agents.
The full text of the letter is provided below.
Dear President Obama,
In the first years of the Peace Corps, its director, Sargent Shriver, discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was infiltrating his efforts and programs for covert purposes. Mr. Shriver forcefully expressed the unacceptability of this to the President. His action, and the repeated vigilance and actions of future directors, has preserved the Peace Corps as a vehicle of service for our country’s most idealistic citizens. It also protects our Peace Corps volunteers from unwarranted suspicion, and provides opportunities for the Peace Corps to operate in areas of great need that otherwise would be closed off to them.
In September Save the Children was forced by the Government of Pakistan (GoP) to withdraw all foreign national staff. This action was apparently the result of CIA having used the cover of a fictional vaccination campaign to gather information about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. In fact, Save the Children never employed the Pakistani physician serving the CIA, yet in the eyes of the GoP he was associated with the organization. This past month, eight or more United Nations health workers who were vaccinating Pakistani children against polio were gunned down in unforgivable acts of terrorism. While political and security agendas may by necessity induce collateral damage, we as an open society set boundaries on these damages, and we believe this sham vaccination campaign exceeded those boundaries.
As an example of the gravity of the situation, today we are on the verge of completely eradicating polio. With your leadership, the U.S. is the largest bilateral donor to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and has provided strong direction and technical assistance as well. Polio particularly threatens young children in the most disadvantaged communities and today has been isolated to just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Now, because of these assassinations of vaccination workers, the UN has been forced to suspend polio eradication efforts in Pakistan. This is only one example, and illustrates why, as a general principle, public health programs should not be used as cover for covert operations.
Independent of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, contaminating humanitarian and public health programs with covert activities threatens the present participants and future potential of much of what we undertake internationally to improve health and provide humanitarian assistance. As public health academic leaders, we hereby urge you to assure the public that this type of practice will not be repeated.
International public health work builds peace and is one of the most constructive means by which our past, present, and future public health students can pursue a life of fulfillment and service. Please do not allow that outlet of common good to be closed to them because of political and/or security interests that ignore the type of unintended negative public health impacts we are witnessing in Pakistan.
Pierre M. Buekens, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Dean, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine*
James W. Curran, M.D., M.P.H.
Dean, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University*
John R. Finnegan Jr., Ph.D.
Professor and Dean, University of Minnesota School of Public Health*
Chair of the Board, Association of Schools of Public Health*
Julio Frenk, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Dean and T&G Angelopoulos Professor of Public Health and International Development
Harvard School of Public Health*
Linda P. Fried, M.D., M.P.H.
Dean, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University*
Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H.
Dean, School of Public Health, University of Washington*
Lynn R. Goldman, M.D., M.P.H.
Professor and Dean, School of Public Health and Health Services, George Washington University*
Jody Heymann, M.D., M.P.P., Ph.D.
Dean, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health*
Michael J. Klag, M.D., M.P.H.
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health*
Martin Philbert, Ph.D.
Dean, School of Public Health, University of Michigan*
Barbara K. Rimer, Dr.P.H.
Dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor
UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health*
Stephen M. Shortell, Ph.D.
Dean, School of Public Health, University of California Berkeley*