U.S. conducting intelligence review of "Havana Syndrome" incidents, as suspected CIA cases rise
More than a dozen CIA officers serving in multiple overseas locations have returned to the U.S. to seek care this year after reporting symptoms consistent with "Havana Syndrome," the mysterious, debilitating illness that is thought to have already afflicted scores of U.S. personnel since 2016, according to current and former U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter. The new suspected incidents occurred in the early months of 2021, and at least one happened as recently as March, according to three sources.
In many of the cases, the officers felt so sick, so suddenly, that they required emergency medical evacuation, two people familiar with the matter said. The recent incidents have taken place on three continents, according to one of the people.
The reported cases are the latest in what lawmakers of both parties have said is an "increasing" pattern of suspected "attacks" on U.S. officials — which have included diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel — and which have prompted several government investigations at the CIA, State Department and Pentagon.
A White House spokesperson said the cause of the incidents is an area of "active inquiry," and that the National Security Council (NSC) has been coordinating a "government-wide effort" since the start of the administration to determine who is responsible and ensure those affected receive medical evaluations and proper care.
"As part of the inquiry, the NSC is coordinating a full review of intelligence reporting to ascertain whether there may be previously unreported incidents that fit a broader pattern," the spokesperson said. "We cannot address additional specifics at this time, but this remains a priority and we are bringing the U.S. government's resources to bear to get to the bottom of this."
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers recently expressed frustration with the CIA in particular for what they see as obfuscation of the scope and severity of a problem whose existence has been known for years.
Last Wednesday, a CIA briefing team was sharply upbraided by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who reacted angrily to the officials' lack of definitive answers and the agency's halting progress in connecting some employees who had reported symptoms with medical care.
The classified briefing, delivered by members of a CIA task force created late last year to address the incidents, became highly contentious; two sources familiar with its dynamic described it as a "bloodbath," and said the effectiveness of the task force itself was viewed by congressional overseers and agency victims with increasing skepticism. CNN first reported the heated nature of the briefing.
Senators demanded that CIA officials who may have delayed officers who reported feeling ill from receiving prompted medical treatment be held accountable, and they raised concerns that agency leadership, principally during the tenures of former Director Gina Haspel and Mike Pompeo, failed to take complaints from its workforce seriously, according to the two sources.
A spokeswoman for the committee declined to comment on the briefing.
On Friday, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate committee issued a statement characterizing the incidents as "attacks" and vowing to work to uncover their origin.
"For nearly five years, we have been aware of reports of mysterious attacks on United States Government personnel in Havana, Cuba and around the world. This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing," Intelligence Committee Chairman and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said. "The Senate Intelligence Committee intends to get to the bottom of this. We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more."
"[W]e welcome CIA Director Burns' renewed focus on these attacks," the senators' statement continued. "Our committee will continue to work with him, and the rest of the Intelligence Community, to better understand the technology behind the weapon responsible for these attacks."
A spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee said that panel had also been examining the origin of the alleged attacks "quietly and persistently behind closed doors" since they were first reported.
"The committee will continue to hold events and briefings on this subject and we will follow the evidence wherever it may lead and ensure anyone responsible is held to account," the spokesperson said.
Individuals afflicted with Havana Syndrome have reported a range of neurological symptoms, including vertigo, dizziness, ear pain and popping, nausea and intense and persistent headaches. Some have been determined to be suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The syndrome gets its name from the first known instances of the illness, which in 2016 and 2017 sickened more than a dozen U.S. embassy and intelligence officials in Cuba.
An assessment by the National Academies of Sciences — completed at the State Department's request and released late last year — said the "most plausible" cause of the officials' symptoms was "directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy."
Although the Russian government is widely thought to be behind the incidents, the U.S. government has made no official attribution, and U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached a conclusion about their origin, according to current and former U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Some U.S. officials have also informally blamed China, where, in 2018, American diplomats fell ill with similar symptoms.
Current and former American officials familiar with the government's investigations have also warned, however, that significant unknowns about the incidents — including at least two reported as taking place on U.S. soil — persist. The officials said it remained unclear whether all of the incidents are connected and whether they are all the result of actual directed energy attacks.
Two U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence being evaluated by the CIA said a consensus had not yet emerged among analysts who have questioned, among other things, what would motivate a foreign government to employ a technique with traceable effects on as wide a variety and as large a number of targets as have reported symptoms.
A CIA spokeswoman declined to offer comment, referring to prior public remarks on the matter by Director William Burns.
The CIA's task force, which was first established in December of 2020, was created to examine the health incidents and handle the care of agency employees who have fallen ill. Burns, who took the helm at the agency in March, said he had since designated a senior-level officer and direct report to run the task force.
Burns told Congress that he personally visited Walter Reed and the National Institutes of Health to thank medical professionals for the support they had provided to date, and met for several hours with agency employees who had fallen ill.
"I said in my confirmation hearing I would make this a very high priority to ensure my colleagues get the care they deserve and we get to the bottom of who was responsible," Burns said in public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last month. "I've tried very hard to demonstrate that commitment."
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