ISLAMABAD — Seventeen local health workers have been fired for their part in a scheme that the CIA orchestrated in an effort to confirm that al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden was hiding in a walled compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, a health official in that town said Wednesday.
The low-ranking health department employees were punished for helping a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, undertake what turned out to be a fake vaccination campaign that the CIA hoped would obtain a DNA sample that would prove bin Laden's presence in the compound. The effort apparently failed, but U.S. Navy SEALs raided the compound on May 2 anyway, killing bin Laden.
Pakistani authorities arrested Afridi shortly after the raid, and he remains the only Pakistani known to be in custody as a result of the bin Laden operation. No one has been detained for failing to detect bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad, and no Pakistani official been dismissed for the military's failure to detect the American raid until after U.S. helicopters had left Pakistan, carrying bin Laden's body.
It was unlikely that any of the fired health workers knew the vaccination campaign was a CIA-orchestrated fake, but they were fired anyway for breaking the rules, said Zafeer Ahmed, the official in charge of health services for Abbottabad.
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"There was negligence as these workers did not have permission from the provincial government or the health department to work with Shakil Afridi," Ahmed said. "I was ordered by the provincial government to take action against them."
A provincial government inquiry into the affair is ongoing, and higher-ranking health officials could be disciplined in the future, he said.
McClatchy revealed in July that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate had arrested Afridi for running the fake vaccination campaign on behalf of the CIA. His arrest has added to the breakdown in relations between Washington and Islamabad, with Americans pressing Pakistan to free him and allow him to travel to the U.S., where he would be resettled. To date, Pakistan has refused the U.S. request, and a commission investigating the bin Laden raid has suggested Afridi should be charged with treason for working for a foreign intelligence agency.
Under the fake campaign, Afridi hired unwitting, lowly paid health service nurses to go house to house in Abbottabad, vaccinating residents against Hepatitis B, with the aim of getting inside the suspected bin Laden home and extracting DNA from one of his children. The al Qaida leader habitually lived with many members of his large family even while on the run.
The sacked workers include all 15 female visiting nurses employed in Nawa Sher, the district of Abbottabad where bin Laden lived, plus two more senior health officials for the town. Among the fired employees is a nurse known as Bakhto, whose full name is Mukhtar Bibi. She is believed to have gotten inside the bin Laden compound with the vaccination program.
Afridi was a senior health official posted in a part of Pakistan's tribal region, far from Abbottabad. He traveled to Abbottabad and used the health workers there without the knowledge of senior local officials.
Afridi earlier this month reportedly was removed from his post, while his wife was separately dismissed from her government job, running a girls college in the northwest.
The dismissed visiting nurses would have been paid little, though in this country, their employment would have been critical to make ends meet for their families. Their dismissals also will damage preventive health efforts in Abbottabad. The CIA scheme already has been blamed for damaging vaccination programs throughout Pakistan, including for polio, because it has fed rumors that the medicines actually are part of an American conspiracy to sterilize Pakistanis.
In January, Leon Panetta, then the CIA director and now the U.S. secretary of defense, called for Afridi's release, acknowledging for the first time the doctor's role in the hunt for bin Laden.
"I am very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual (Afridi). This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation," Panetta said then.
An official Pakistani commission is examining how bin Laden managed to remain hidden inside Pakistan for at least five years. The commission's report is due shortly, though it is unclear whether the findings will be made public.
The head of the ISI, Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is scheduled to retire next month, perhaps before the Abbottabad commission reports.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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