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Aid Worker as Spy: The Cost of a Fake Vaccination Campaign

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Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician was sentenced to 33 years in prison for charges of high treason in May of this year. According to the Pakistani officials Dr. Afridi had accepted helping the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by collecting DNA to verify Bin Laden's presence while running a fake vaccination campaign in Abbotabad. The United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was the Director of CIA at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid, also acknowledged in January 2012 that Dr. Afridi worked for the CIA.

The United States reaction to the sentencing of Dr. Afridi was immediate. The Senate Appropriations Committee said that it would cut $33 million in aid to Pakistan, $1 million for each year of the sentence. Notable politicians from both sides of the aisle including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Carl Levin and even the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton forcefully expressed their disappointment and displeasure over the decision by the Pakistani authorities. The Secretary of the State called his sentence "unjust and unwarranted," while Senator McCain and Levin called the verdict "shocking and outrageous." The president's spokesperson Jay Carney suggested that there were "no basis" for the harsh prison sentence.

Sadly, none of our politicians made any reference to the consequences and implications of recruiting aid workers as intelligence operatives. At the time of his recruitment by the CIA, Dr. Afridi was administering a polio vaccination effort in Khyber Agency, which is according to UNICEF, the worst hit area in Pakistan. Out of 23 polio cases reported in Pakistan this year, nine were detected in Khyber Agency. Vaccination experts working in Pakistan, including westerners, have acknowledged the demonstrable harm resulting from the CIA scheme last year.

The fallout from this has taken place at a number of levels. Firstly, the general population in Pakistan, especially in the more conservative and backward areas, including many of the conflict-afflicted areas has refused vaccinations for their children. At the general population level, the news of an aid professional working as a foreign intelligence operative and in some ways contributing to lethal targeting, stokes all too genuine fears, made even more real by the ongoing drone campaign.

Secondly, such complicity between intelligence and aid also ends up confirming local suspicions and conspiracy theories, especially given low levels of literacy in many of the areas. These include but are not restricted to the long existing Taliban propaganda campaign that considers vaccination as part of a western plot to create infertility among Muslims, as well as the idea that western vaccines contain pig products. The regional Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan recently banned anti-polio vaccination campaign and warned health officials to refrain from sending vaccination teams until the U.S. drone strikes are stopped. As a result despite efforts by international donors and a national campaign launched throughout Pakistan in July, more than 240,000 children in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan and the rest of FATA have not received polio vaccination.

Thirdly, the Government of Pakistan has started to take a much tougher stance towards some of the international non-governmental organizations and their staff, thus seriously undermining their ability to reach out to the most vulnerable in a timely manner. Save the Children was one of the worst effected in this regard. During his interrogations Dr. Afridi admitted to being introduced to the C.I.A through Save the Children, a charge Save the Children strongly refutes. Regardless, an estimated 35,000 infants were deprived medical care over a three-month period in the tribal belt of Pakistan as a direct consequence of the Pakistani custom officials' blocking some of Save the Children supplies.

Finally, In their letter to General David Petraeus, the present Director of the CIA, the InterAction's alliance of nearly 200 U.S.-based international non-government organizations, many with humanitarian operations in Pakistan, formally expressed deep concerns regarding the vaccination campaign carried out to collect intelligence information. In particular InterAction's February 21 letter argued that use of "impartial international public health efforts for counter-terrorism purposes" undermines the "hard-earned trust that is essential to vaccination and humanitarian efforts" and "causes setbacks in decades-long global health and humanitarian efforts."

Despite the human and ethical considerations involved, at least for now, there has been a rare show of bipartisan unity around ignoring these considerations. This utter disregard is even more startling given the efforts and sacrifices made by countless Americans contributing to and working in the humanitarian and development field all across the world, including in Pakistan.