By/ Jessica Firger/CBS News/May 19, 2014, 7:26 PM
CIA says it will not use vaccine programs for spying
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. / Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
The CIA says that it will longer use vaccination programs to cover spying operations, the agency and a White House official confirmed to CBS News.
The policy, which was instituted by CIA Director John Brennan in August 2013, had not previously been made public.
The Department of Homeland Security's Assistant to the President, Lisa Monaco, sent out a letter to the deans of 13 public health schools last week, which stated the policy had been put in place.
"The CIA will make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers. Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs," she wrote in the letter obtained by CBS News.
The letter was made public after Laurie Garrett, a journalist and senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, posted it on her Facebook page, along with a thread of emails from officials at the National Security Council about the policy.
Todd Ebitz, a spokesperson for the CIA, told CBS News the policy was established last summer after Brennan considered concerns expressed by the public health community.
"There are many obstacles that can stand in the way of successful vaccination programs abroad," Ebitz told CBS News in an email statement.
"These obstacles run the gamut from myths that vaccinations cause sterility or HIV, to long-standing extremist claims that foreign vaccination programs are spy operations run by Western governments. While the CIA can do little about the former, the director felt he could do something important to dispel the latter and he acted."
In May 2012, a Pakistani doctor helped in the operation to track down Osama bin Laden by providing polio vaccinations as cover while attempting to obtain DNA samples from children in the Abbottabad compound where the terrorist leader was believed to be hiding. Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison for conspiring against the state; the verdict that was later overturned and he is facing a retrial.
Many have said Afrida's involvement in the operation has spurred widespread militant attacks on vaccination workers in Pakistan. However, Ebitz disputes this claim.
"It is important to note that militant groups have a long history of attacking humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan and those attacks began years before the raid against the bin Laden compound and years before any press reports claiming a CIA-sponsored vaccination program," he told CBS News.
Earlier this month the World Health Organization issued a report that found a majority of polio incidences in Middle East region occurred in Pakistan. It warned that of a growing threat to public health and said Pakistan is largely responsible for the resurgence of the virus , which causes paralysis but can be effectively prevented with vaccines.
Ebitz said U.S. officials decided to make the policy public in order to help counteract the ongoing string of attacks on vaccination workers in the region.
"CIA has great respect for the vital work that vaccination workers perform around the globe, often under very dangerous conditions. By publicizing this policy, our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers," he said in his statement.