When reports leaked in 2011 that the CIA had hired a Pakistani doctor to vaccinate the children of Osama bin Laden in a ruse to capture their DNA, global public health experts were quick to condemn the action. They feared that the tactic, aimed at confirming the terrorist mastermind’s presence through genetic evidence, would undermine legitimate efforts to eradicate diseases. These concerns, reiterated in a Jan. 7 letter to President Obama by 12 public-health school deans including Harvard’s Julio Frenk, are proving prescient. International health workers in Pakistan have come under suspicion, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The deans are right to highlight the “unintended negative public health impacts” of clandestine programs, including the one used to ensnare bin Laden. But it’s crucial to remember that bin Laden had vowed to strike on a massive scale against the United States; normal restrictions shouldn’t necessarily apply when investigators are seeking to prevent potentially catastrophic attacks.