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The Hunt for Osama — The Fake Vaccination Scheme

Aid agency withdrew Pakistan staff after CIA fake vaccination scheme

Save the Children, which was not linked to the scheme, flew workers out of the country after US warning about

their safety. 

Declan Walsh

Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound

The compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed after the CIA ran a fake vaccination programme in the town. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Fears that a fake CIA vaccination scheme created to hunt Osama bin Laden has compromised the operations of aid agencies in Pakistan have intensified after it emerged that a major NGO was forced to evacuate its staff following warnings about their security.

Save the Children flew eight expatriate aid workers out of Pakistan in late July after receiving a warning from US officials at the Peshawar consulate. Two senior local staff were moved into five-star hotels in Islamabad.

Western and Pakistani officials say there were fears that Save the Children staff could be picked up by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) over alleged links to Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor at the heart of the covert CIA vaccination scheme that helped locate Bin Laden.

Save the Children vehemently denies any links to the CIA scheme, which the Guardian first reported in July, and said it was the victim of a broader crackdown on aid agencies in Pakistan caused by CIA tactics.

“Dr Afridi never worked for Save the Children and his alleged activities were not in any way connected with us. We did not have a vaccination programme in Abbottabad,” said a spokeswoman, Ishbel Matheson, in London.

The charity did have a passing connection with Afridi, however, which may explain the ISI scrutiny of its activities. Afridi participated in two health-worker training courses run by Save the Children in 2008 and 2010, Matheson confirmed. Pakistan’s ministry of health nominated him for participation, she added.

The training courses were part of a US-funded child health programme in the tribal belt along the Afghan border that Save the Children has been running since 2007.

ISI suspicions were also stoked by Afridi himself. A senior western official said Afridi told his wife he was working for Save the Children when he was in fact running the fake CIA programme. The allegation emerged during interrogation.

A senior aid worker corroborated that account, saying Afridi may have mentioned Save the Children “during the early stages of his interrogation”. Save the Children said it was horrified that Afridi had abused its name.

“We are shocked by the allegations that our name has been falsely used in this way. Save the Children’s work in Pakistan is helping the most vulnerable children and their families,” said Matheson.

Furious aid workers say the CIA’s reckless use of aid work as a cover by spy agencies has threatened the safety of genuine aid workers and endangered multimillion-pound programmes to help Pakistan’s poor.

Save the Children has 2,000 employees in Pakistan and assisted 7 million people in 2010, half of whom where caught in massive floods while the remainder benefited from long-term development programmes.

After the security threat in late July, those activities slowed or juddered to a halt. Staff were temporarily transferred out of sensitive areas, such as the Swat valley. British and American diplomats interceded with the authorities, offering assurances of the charity’s bona fides.

Two weeks later in mid-August, after receiving a green light from the ISI, Save the Children sent a handful of expatriate staff who had been staying in Bangkok back to Pakistan. The two local employees, who had been staying at the Serena hotel, returned home.

The ISI learned of the CIA vaccination scheme after US Navy Seals burst into the house on 2 May, killing Bin Laden. Immediately afterwards, the spy agency began an intensive drive to understand how the CIA had operated in the town – and whether any western aid workers had helped it.

Three weeks later Afridi was arrested on the outskirts of Peshawar. Western aid agencies, especially those with American employees or US government funding, started to come under sharp intelligence scrutiny.

A young American aid worker with Catholic Relief Services was put on trial for visa irregularities in the southern city of Sukkur before being deported. Other aid workers were also forced to leave. Since then charities have experienced long delays in obtaining visas, and say shipments of relief goods have suffered inexplicable delays at Karachi port.

Others complain of regular visits to their offices from intelligence officials seeking detailed information about their staff. One intelligence document, inadvertently left behind at one aid agency and seen by the Guardian, directs operatives to investigate the “covert funding” and “covert operations” of international NGOs.

In July the departing director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Pascal Cuttat, said Pakistan was becoming increasingly difficult to work in. “We are consistently facing suspicion of any foreigner working in the country,” he told a press conference in Geneva. “To live and work and get permission to do anything has become more difficult. Everyone is struggling with the bureaucracy.” The ICRC is still awaiting permission to bring a new country director into Pakistan.

Aid agencies in Pakistan are currently battling massive floods in the southern Sindh province that have affected more than 5 million people. Few aid workers would speak on the record, fearing further recrimination, though some directed their anger at the CIA. InterAction, an alliance of 190 US-based NGOs, has called on the spy agency to stop using humanitarian work as a cover for counter-terrorism.

“Such unethical behaviour endangers not only local populations but also the lives of legitimate humanitarian workers,” said the InterAction president, Samuel Worthington.

Afridi, meanwhile, is in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. A government commission investigating the Bin Laden affair has banned him from leaving Pakistan.

The US wants to resettle the Pashtun doctor in America but Pakistani officials say he may be charged with espionage or treason.

Meanwhile, Bin Laden’s former house stands empty. On 20 September the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders complained that the government had banned the foreign press from visiting the site, stating that Abbottabad had been placed under “what is in effect a state of emergency”.

The CIA did not respond to requests for comment on the vaccination programme or its impact.


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