Kelley has raised the necessary question of what kind of activity an intelligence agency can engage in before it steps over a line and does far more harm than good, a process sometimes referred to as “blowback.” Her analysis of CIA use of a Pakistani doctor ostensibly involved in an eradication program to collect DNA samples in an area where terrorists were believed to be in hiding suggests that the US government is careless when it comes to the unintended consequences of some intelligence operations, leading locals to avoid programs to eradicate diseases like polio because of local concerns that the inoculations are all part of some kind of CIA plot.
I cannot argue with Kelley’s thoughtful analysis, but, as a former intelligence officer, my viewpoint is a bit different. I think that the recruitment of a single doctor to provide information from a part of Pakistan that was a no-go area for Americans was operationally a bold but necessary initiative. After all, you have a CIA because you expect its officers to be both creative and aggressive in their efforts to obtain information, not to sit around at desks in embassies collecting paychecks. The capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qaeda was and is very much in the US national interest even if one can argue about how they came to be terrorists in the first place. Using a doctor involved in a hepatitis eradication program (the US government claims it was a genuine program but critics have claimed more plausibly that it was fake) was supposed to remain a secret, protecting the doctor, the program, and, inter alia, US government interests. There clearly was a tradecraft failure in that Dr. Shakil Afridi aroused the suspicion of his medical colleagues – he should have had a solid explanation or cover story to explain his activities, which he apparently failed to have. As a product of that suspicion, the Pakistanis arrested Dr. Afridi as he was trying to leave the country shortly after the killing of bin Laden.
But more disturbing to me is that the case against Afridi was truly made when the Obama White House, or possibly someone in congress, began to leak information to the media confirming his involvement with the CIA. That sealed his fate because it tapped into the anger of Pakistanis regarding CIA and SOCOM unilateral operations carried out inside their country. Why the confirmation was provided at all continues to be something of a mystery to me, but it is important to realize that the exposure of Afridi and what he was doing was not carried out by the CIA, which would have taken pains to protect both the man and his activity. When Hillary Clinton and a number of congressmen subsequently began demanding Dr. Afridi’s release because he was a “hero,” that made it inevitable that the Pakistan government would go all out to convict him rather than work out a secret arrangement for his freedom.
As the Obama Administration has appointed a pair of prosecutors to look into the leaks of information on the US Cyberware on Iran and the drone assassination program, they should also include the handling of the information on Pakistani Doctor Shakil Afridi in their inquiry, a deliberate leak that compromised the security of a US intelligence asset. If the inquiry is conducted with any integrity at all I have no doubt but that the trail will lead directly back to a bad decision made by the White House.
CIA cannot use journalists, clerics, or academics as sources and also has internal restrictions on other types of contact, including using agents with criminal records (precisely the types that are likely to have good information and good access). By all means add health workers to that list, but eventually you will reach a point where running an intelligence operation will just become too lawyered up to be viable. I would argue in favor of CIA having considerable latitude to run somewhat risky operations in situations where there is just no alternative way to collect critical information. That is not to suggest that I would approve of wholesale exploitation of medical and humanitarian missions as cover mechanisms for CIA officers, but, as far as I know, that is not currently the case (others might disagree). It is indeed true that there have been cases of medical volunteers being killed in Afghanistan because of suspicion that they were western spies and Kelley’s point that disease eradication programs have suffered as a result of the same concerns is unquestionably correct.