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Expert panel reaffirms directed energy could be behind "Havana Syndrome" cases

CIA releases interim "Havana Syndrome" report
CIA releases interim "Havana Syndrome" findings 06:43

Washington — A declassified summary of an expert panel's findings released Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that the mysterious neurological condition known as "Havana Syndrome" may be "plausibly" explained by pulsed, electromagnetic energy, reaffirming the findings of a previous study but otherwise making little headway in affirmatively identifying a cause.  

The panel, which included experts from inside and outside the U.S. government, was established by the Biden administration last year with the task of identifying potential mechanisms behind the incidents that for several years have affected scores of U.S. government personnel. Some victims have suffered effects so debilitating they have had to leave the workforce.  

Intelligence officials familiar with the work of the panel, formally called the Intelligence Community (IC) Experts Panel on Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs), said Wednesday that a "subset" of the incidents could not be explained by known environmental or medical conditions, suggesting they could be due to an external stimulus, including directed energy. 

"Pulsed electromagnetic energy, particularly in the radio frequency range, plausibly explains the core characteristics, although information gaps exist," a redacted summary of the findings says. "Using non-standard antennas and techniques, the signals could be propagated with low loss through the air for tens to hundreds of meters, and with some loss, through most building materials."

The panel noted, however, that "there is a dearth of systematic research on the effects of the relevant electromagnetic signals on humans."

The officials also said that psychosocial factors, including mass sociogenic illness, could not alone account for the reported symptoms — though they could play a role in compounding or prolonging some victims' medical effects.

The panel's main findings are in line with a previous study commissioned by the State Department and published in late 2020 by the National Academies of Sciences, which said the "most plausible" cause of the symptoms was "directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy." A small number of members of the expert panel also worked on the National Academies study, officials said.

The 2020 study, alongside anecdotal evidence cited by current and former American officials, fueled speculation that the cases could be the result of attempted intelligence collection by foreign government operatives who were using directed energy technologies or weapons, with Russia often mentioned as a leading suspect.

No evidence has emerged publicly tying Russia or any other foreign actor or specific technology to the incidents. U.S. officials have warned the Russian government at least twice of consequences, however, if it was determined to have a role.

Unlike the interim report issued by the CIA's internal task force last month, the experts panel did not consider questions related to attribution, including whether a foreign actor could be involved.  

According to the redacted summary, the panel examined thousands of classified documents and interviewed a select number of individuals who had reported symptoms. It focused its efforts on evaluating the plausibility of five potential causal mechanisms: acoustic signals, chemical and biological agents, ionizing radiation, natural and environmental factors, and radio frequency and other electromagnetic energy. 

It ruled out as "implausible" all but pulsed electromagnetic energy and ultrasound used in close proximity to a target. The other mechanisms the panel evaluated "are unlikely on their own to account for the required effects or are technically or practically infeasible," according to the summary. 

The CIA's report, which did not extensively examine physical or technological explanations for the incidents, ruled out attacks by an adversary in a "majority" of cases it examined, while acknowledging they were still possible in a small group of roughly two dozen cases. Those cases are the focus of continued investigation by its task force, intelligence officials said. 

There have been roughly 1,000 reports of suspected incidents made by U.S. personnel since 2016, when the first spate of cases arose among diplomats and intelligence officers in Havana, Cuba. Incidents have since been reported from every populated continent, and in some cases required officials to be medevaced to the U.S. for treatment.  

The expert panel personally interviewed between 10 and 20 victims while examining the medical records of "many, many more," officials said.

"We focused on ones that we felt were unique, without other possible explanations," one intelligence official said. "Not to diminish the other cases, but to give us an ability to focus in on a certain number."  

The panel's findings were cautiously welcomed by victims' groups, which urged continued investigation into the cause of symptoms that can include nausea, vertigo, ear ringing, debilitating headaches and, in some cases, a diagnosis of Traumatic Brain Injury.   

"Today's release of the unclassified executive summary of the report by the expert panel … reinforces the need for the intelligence community and the broader U.S. government to redouble their efforts to fully understand the causes of Anomalous Health Incidents, or 'Havana Syndrome,'" one victims' group said.  

Victims had been more critical of the CIA's interim findings, which they called a "disturbing curtailment" of government-wide efforts to arrive at attribution for the incidents and insisted "must not be the last word on this matter." 

Senior officials said the work of the expert panel would continue.  

"Moving forward, the work of the IC Experts Panel will help sharpen the work of the IC and broader U.S. Government as we focus on possible causes. We will stay at it, with continued rigor, for however long it takes," Director of National intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns said in a joint statement.  

"The U.S. Government remains committed to providing access to care for those who need it, and we will continue to share as much information as possible with our workforce and the American public as our efforts continue. Nothing is more important than the wellbeing and safety of our colleagues," they said. 

"We welcome the findings of the Intelligence Community Experts Panel on anomalous health incidents," a National Security Council spokesperson said. "The Panel undertook a rigorous, multi-disciplinary study that has identified important findings and recommendations that will inform intensive research and investigation moving forward as we continue our government-wide effort to get to the bottom of AHI."

The expert panel made seven recommendations for better understanding, preventing and managing the incidents, including streamlining data collection, identifying new biomarkers associated with the illness, improving detection mechanisms and better coordinating communication about the incidents.  

Importantly, the panel found that in most cases, swift medical care was integral to recovery.  

"What we do know is, if you report quickly and promptly get medical care, most people are getting well," one official said.  

Intelligence officials familiar with the panel's work acknowledged that the slow pace of progress in determining a cause was "frustrating." 

"Part of the challenge is, humans are all different," one official said. He cited a panel member who had observed, "humans are really good sensors, but not the best or sometimes inconsistent reporters."  

"One challenge we're dealing with is the signs, the symptoms, the incidents present themselves in a variety of ways," the official said.  

The officials also noted that some cases could have been exacerbated by the nature of some of the victims' work.

"Other incidents could be due to hyper vigilance and normal human reactions to stress and ambiguity, particularly among a workforce attuned to its surroundings and trained to think about security," the summary said.

The panel's findings are the latest but presumably not the last of the administration's efforts to arrive at an explanation for the incidents.    

On Tuesday, President Biden named the senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, Maher Bitar, to officially serve as the government's anomalous health incident interagency coordinator.

Bitar had been effectively carrying out this role since early last year, but provisions in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act mandated that the role be codified. Government agencies with personnel affected by Havana Syndrome — which include the State Department, the CIA and broader intelligence community, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, including the FBI — must also now name senior officials to serve as "AHI Coordination Leads" and update their guidance on the incidents to their respective workforces by February 25.  

Victims' groups lauded the appointment, calling it a "welcome expression of concern and support by the President and his team."  

"We look forward to other agencies and departments designating their AHI leads, as appropriate, and issuing updated guidance to elements of their workforce who are determined to be at risk of exposure to AHI," the group's statement said.  

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