Doctor who helped locate bin Laden family worked for the CIA

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 31 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e785
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has confirmed that a doctor now in prison in Pakistan was working with the US Central Intelligence Agency on a fake vaccination campaign to help track down the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Shikal Afridi had claimed to be running a hepatitis B vaccination campaign as a ruse to gain entry to the compound in Abbotabad where bin Laden was living. The aim was to obtain DNA samples from those inside the compound that could be matched with bin Laden family DNA already on file at the CIA.

US officials say that Dr Afridi gained access to the compound but did not see bin Laden or obtain any DNA samples. However, in an interview on CBS News, Mr Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time, said that Dr Afridi had provided “very helpful” intelligence, the first official US acknowledgment that he had been working for the CIA.

The US launched a raid on the compound without informing the Pakistani authorities, killing bin Laden. Dr Afridi was arrested and remains in prison in Pakistan. Mr Panetta said that he was very concerned. “This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan,” he said.

“Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism, have a common cause against al Qaeda. And for them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think is a real mistake on their part.”

In October the Pakistani government commission investigating how bin Laden managed to live in the army town of Abbotabad undetected for up to five years and the circumstances surrounding the US raid said in a press statement that “a case of conspiracy against the state of Pakistan and high treason” should be brought against Dr Afridi. Such a charge carries the death penalty. A senior Pakistani official quoted anonymously by the US news network CNN said this week that the decision whether to charge Dr Afridi had not yet been taken.

Aid agencies have been strongly critical of the CIA’s use of a doctor as an intelligence agent, warning that it could hinder humanitarian efforts.

A spokesperson for Médecins sans Frontières told the BMJ: “Deceptive use of medical care endangers those who provide legitimate and essential health services. Furthermore, carrying out an act of no therapeutic or preventative benefit purely for military or intelligence purposes violates medical ethics, which require acting solely on the needs of patients and doing no harm.”

Jack Chow, the US ambassador on global HIV and AIDS from 2001 to 2003 and an assistant director general of the World Health Organization from 2003 to 2005, said that to attach a political and intelligence agenda to a medical campaign is to breach trust between doctors and patients. He warned that it would undermine a series of US international health operations.

“In the past, conspiracy theorists have accused the CIA of helping spread disease for its own nefarious purposes. In 2000, for example, South Africa’s then president, Thabo Mbeki, openly accused the US of fostering the region’s HIV and AIDS epidemic. Such accusations were easily deflected by their sheer ludicrousness. But with the revelation of the agency’s Pakistan operation the CIA is vulnerable to renewed attacks,” said Professor Chow.

Aid agencies say that their operations in Pakistan have been hindered by the breakdown in relations with the US. Save the Children withdrew some of its workers for a time after Dr Afridi falsely claimed that he was working for the charity, and the International Committee of the Red Cross announced this month that it has shut three of its clinics in northwestern Pakistan because its staff were being impeded from visiting the clinics.

Pascal Cuttat, former head of the Red Cross delegation in Pakistan, said in July, “To live and work and get permission to do anything has become more difficult.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e785