Indeed, you probably missed it, even though it was the direct — but unintended — consequence of a leak that told us the inside story about one of the biggest news stories of our time.
The news break: A Taliban commander announced a ban on free polio vaccinations just days before they were to be given to 161,000 children under age 5, in this region that is one of the last three places on the planet where this dreaded disease has not been eradicated. (The other two: Afghanistan and Nigeria.)
Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur said the ban on polio vaccinations would continue until the United States’ CIA ended its airborne attacks by pilotless drone aircraft. He warned that the vaccine program could be a U.S. spy effort, just as it had been in last year’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban’s ban on polio vaccines for 161,000 children was cruel news, but not really unexpected. Like many, I’d been dreading it ever since last July, when we all were dished that fascinating inside story of how the CIA concluded that the head of the family in an unpretentious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was Osama bin Laden.
Last year’s leaked scoop: A local physician, Dr. Shakil Afridi, worked with the CIA to run a polio-vaccination program that went house to house through Abbottabad. The doctor got inside the target compound and, while he didn’t manage to get the desired DNA sample, got other information that proved significant.
The story broke on July 11, 2011, in the excellent British newspaper The Guardian and ran later that day in The New York Times. Both accounts were quite detailed. But it is possible that Pakistani officials discovered the mission before its existence was leaked by unknown sources.
Importantly, the newspapers broke the stories well after Afridi had been arrested by Pakistani intelligence officials. So his cover already had been blown. His identity was not revealed by the leak that told the world the inside story. Half a year later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed Afridi’s role in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” Panetta was speaking, he made clear, because he was “very concerned” about Afridi’s welfare.
“This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation,” said Panetta, who was CIA director when the mission was undertaken. “And he was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan. He was not, in any way, doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan. ... Pakistan and the United States have a common cause here against terrorism. 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.”
The truth about that scapegoating country, Pakistan, is now evident to all the world: For a decade, its officials pretended to be America’s staunch allies in the fight to find and bring to justice bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader living under the noses of Pakistani military academy elites. But those officials convicted Afridi of high treason and he is now serving 33 years in prison. His crime was that he agreed to work with the CIA to accomplish what Pakistan’s leading officials pretended they were trying to accomplish.
Pakistan’s government contends that Afridi should have told some mid-level person in Pakistan’s government what was happening — even though some Pakistani officials clearly were dedicated to safeguarding bin Laden’s secret.
And that entire government was willing to scapegoat a patriotic physician for the crime of helping to fulfill what President Asif Ali Zardari said was Pakistan’s goal.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.