A top White House official has pledged that the CIA will no longer use vaccination programmes as cover for spying operations. The agency used the ruse in targeting Osama bin Laden before the US raid that killed him in 2011.
Lisa Monaco, US President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, wrote to the deans of 13 prominent public health schools last week, saying that the CIA had agreed it would no longer use vaccination programmes or workers for intelligence purposes.
The agency also agreed to not use genetic materials obtained through such programmes.
A Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, offered a programme of hepatitis vaccinations in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad as cover for his CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from children at a compound where bin Laden was later killed during a 2011 raid by US Navy Seals. Afridi was convicted and sentenced by a Pakistani court to 33 years in prison for treason. The sentence was later overturned and Afridi now faces a retrial.
The health school deans were among a group of medical authorities who publicly criticised the CIA's use of the vaccination programme after it was disclosed by media accounts and Pakistan's arrest of Afridi as a CIA operative.
In her May 16 letter to the health school deans, Monaco said the US "strongly supports the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and efforts to end the spread of the polio virus forever".
She added that CIA Director John Brennan committed in 2013 that the agency would "make no operational use of vaccination programmes, which includes vaccination workers". Also saying no DNA or genetic material would be used from such programmes, Monaco said the CIA policy "applied worldwide and to US and non-US persons alike".
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said Brennan "took seriously the concerns … examined them closely and took decisive action".
Monaco's letter and the CIA statement did not acknowledge any error in the decision to use the Pakistan vaccine programme as a cover. The letter was first disclosed in a report by Yahoo News.
The White House statement came three days after Pakistan acted to quell a growing polio crisis within its borders. The public health deans had warned last year that the CIA's use of a vaccination programme had played a role in the shootings of several health workers in Pakistan and could hamper anti-polio efforts.