An activist health worker administers a polio vaccination to a child in Aleppo. (Hosam Katan/Reuters)

Three years after the CIA used an immunization survey as a cover in its hunt for Osama bin Laden, the White House has promised that the agency will never again use a vaccination campaign in its operations, an official said Monday.

Responding to a letter from the deans of 12 U.S. public health schools, Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, informed them last week that the CIA will no longer conduct such campaigns, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

The deans wrote to President Obama in January 2013 to protest the precedent set when the CIA used Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani surgeon, to seek information about bin Laden under the guise of conducting a hepatitis immunization survey in the northwest city where the al-Qaeda leader was later killed in a raid. The goal of the immunization survey was to obtain fluid containing DNA from relatives living near the bin Laden residence. The effort failed, and Afridi was convicted of treason in Pakistan. He has been sentenced to 23 years in prison.

“This disguising of an intelligence-gathering effort as a humanitarian public health service has resulted in serious collateral consequences that affect the public health community,” the deans wrote.

The administration’s response Friday said that under CIA policy, established by CIA Director John Brennan in August 2013, “the Agency will make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers.” The letter also said the agency “will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs.”

A CIA spokesman said that Brennan “took seriously the concerns raised by the public health community.”

International aid organizations were forced to move some of their staff members out of Pakistan, and some health workers were killed in a backlash against a polio vaccination effort. Attacks have continued sporadically. Last year, 83 new polio cases were reported in Pakistan, more than in Afghanistan or Nigeria, the other countries where it is endemic.

Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization declared the spread of polio to several countries to be a global health emergency. It was only the second time the WHO has made such an announcement since rules allowing such designations were adopted by the organization in 2007.

One of the deans, Lynn Goldman of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said she was pleased the White House took their concerns seriously.

“People involved as vaccination workers need to be able to do their work safely. They need to be protected by all people globally,” she said. Referring to the CIA pledge, she said: “I think this is a very important commitment. All we can do is hope they will honor that commitment.”

“The clearer the delineation that exists between the intelligence and humanitarian operations, the better,” said Sam Worthington, chief executive of InterAction, a Washington-based coalition of relief and development organizations.

In many ways, “the damage already exists,” he said. “We need unequivocal understanding that there will not be the use of vaccination or any humanitarian intervention [in the guise of intelligence], as it puts the lives of both humanitarians and those they serve at risk.”

Afridi was not an employee
of a humanitarian organization, but humanitarian organizations were suspected of being involved in intelligence after revelations about Afridi and the bin Laden raid. “That is exactly the type of thing we deny, and we do not want to be associated with any of this going forward,” Worthington said.

Local health officials in Pakistan have said the incident caused Pakistanis to start hating the polio teams. It has become extremely challenging, Worthington said, to eradicate the crippling disease, especially in areas controlled by insurgents, where neutrality and clear focus on the disease are key.

The WHO said current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East are an “extraordinary event” that requires a coordinated international response. It identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders and recommended that those governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.

Asked why it took 16 months for the White House to respond to the deans, a senior administration official said the government rarely discusses intelligence matters. “But this was a unique case that required deliberate thought and review on our end before we made such a statement publicly,” the official said.