"As an intelligence operation, it must have seemed like pure genius: Recruit a Pakistani doctor to collect blood samples that could identify Osama bin Ladenās family, under cover of an ongoing vaccination program. But as an ethical matter, it was something else. The CIAās vaccination gambit put at risk something very precious ā the integrity of public health programs in Pakistan and around the globe. It also added to the dangers facing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in a world thatās increasingly hostile to U.S. aid organizations. Whatās gotten attention in America is the plight of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who helped the CIA through his vaccination campaign in the tribal areas and the nearby province where bin Laden was hiding. The doctor was sentenced last week to 33 years in prison for treason, prompting indignant protests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. U.S. officials shouldnāt treat the Afridi case simply as outrageous behavior by Pakistan. Theyāre right that the doctorās actions werenāt treasonous: He was seeking information about terrorist leaders who were Pakistanās enemies. I hope heāll be released, but in any event Afridi and his handlers should reckon with the moral consequences of what they did. Hereās the painful truth: Some people may die because they donāt get vaccinations, suspecting that immunization is part of a CIA plot. The rate of polio infection is rising in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, in part because people believe conspiracy theories about vaccination. If the spread canāt be reversed in these three countries, warns a recent World Health Organization report, āpolio eradication will fail.ā
Among the organizations concerned is Save the Children, the biggest foreign-aid agency in Pakistan. According to the New York Times, Afridi told Pakistani authorities he was first contacted by the CIA through Save the Children, a claim that the organization denies. The Times reported that, after Afridiās arrest last July, the NGOās staff had been monitored by Pakistani intelligence and shipment of its medical supplies had been held at the border. A spokesman said Tuesday that the group hasnāt had any problems in recent months. The potential danger for health workers was outlined in a Feb. 21 letter to CIA Director David Petraeus from Samuel A. Worthington, the president of an alliance of 200 NGOs that operate abroad. He warned: āSince reports of the CIA campaign first surfaced last summer, we have seen a continued erosion of U.S. NGOsā ability to deliver critical humanitarian programs in Pakistan as well as an uptick in targeted violence against humanitarian workers. I fear the CIAās activities in Pakistan and the perception that U.S. NGOs have ties with intelligence efforts may have contributed to these alarming developments.ā CIA spokesman Preston Golson, queried for this article, said he couldnāt comment on āany possible operational activity.ā But he noted: āThe agency is receptive to the views of the NGO community, and met with community representatives for a full and frank exchange on their concerns.ā"