July 14th, 2011
05:44 PM ET

U.S.: Catching bin Laden justifies CIA vaccination ruse

A senior U.S. official on Thursday acknowledged CIA involvement in a vaccination campaign in Pakistan, but said it was a legitimate piece of the strategy for catching Osama bin Laden, who was killed by a U.S. raid on his hideout in Abbottabad in May.

"This was one small piece of a very large intelligence effort to determine that bin Laden was located at the compound, and it was conducted shortly before the May 1 raid. People need to put this into some perspective,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The vaccination campaign was part of the hunt for the world’s top terrorist, and nothing else. If the United States hadn’t shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn’t used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden."

The comments are a response to criticism of the CIA role, which involved health workers going door to door in the neighborhood near bin Laden’s compound, offering vaccinations against Hepatitis B. According to reports in the Guardian and the New York Times, the goal was to collect DNA to aid in the eventual identification of bin Laden. It’s not clear if the mission was successful.

According to the senior U.S. official, “This was an actual vaccination campaign conducted by real medical professionals. It wasn’t some kind of fake public health effort." The official added, “The plan was for everyone to get the full course of treatments. The disruption of the campaign occurred because medical professionals were rounded up." The Pakistani doctor who led the vaccination effort was later detained by Pakistani security forces.

Earlier Thursday, the aid group Doctors Without Borders issued a statement calling the CIA’s involvement, “a dangerous abuse of medical care.” Dr. Unni Karunakara, the group’s president, said, “The risk is that vulnerable communities—anywhere—needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid. The potential consequence is that even basic health care, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most.”

Doctors Without Borders currently offers care in several regions of Pakistan. Karunakara said that heightened mistrust would make working conditions more dangerous to health workers there, and in other countries.

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