It is old news by now that while trying to capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, the CIA had a Pakistan doctor infiltrate the Bin Laden compound by launching a fake vaccination campaign. What might have seem like an innocent guise has turned deadly: late last year innocent polio vaccinators in Pakistan have been attacked and a number of them have been killed. The knock-on health effect might be even greater: polio eradication efforts have been suspended in Pakistan and organizations like Save the Children have had to pull out their foreign nationals.

In what I thought was a very well written and well informed letter to the Deans of a number of American Schools of Public Health have written to President Obama condemning these actions and asking him to take action to help restore these vital public health efforts. I wanted to share the text of this letter, so it is copied below.

Can trust ever be restored in public health in Pakistan? Who knows. The Deans suggest that an executive order might be a first step in helping to restore confidence in international public health efforts. Charles Kenny at the Center for Global Development has provided some concrete suggestions how such an order can be done here.

Addendum: Brett Keller sent me a link to this petition, where you too can show your support in banning the use of public health campaigns for intelligence missions.

January 6, 2013

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. 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*
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*

*Institutional affiliation is provided for identification only.

James W. Curran, M.D., M.P.H.
Dean, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University*
Regina M. Benjamin, United States Surgeon General
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State
Thomas Frieden, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary of Health
Michael J. Morell, Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security
Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services

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2 Responses to “Unleashing one villain while trying to capture another”

  1. Joseph says:

    Great post. It’s about time people spoke up about this.

    But why is James Curran cc’ed in this letter? Shame treatment for not joining the Deans’ Crew? 🙂

  2. Obi says:

    That’s quite disappointing. That the lives of innocent people are in danger because of failure to fully consider the potential adverse effects of a plan.

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