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Top U.S. officials meet to discuss "Havana Syndrome" as cause remains unclear

Washington — Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines convened a top-level meeting late last week to discuss the intelligence community's efforts to uncover the cause of the mysterious illness known as "Havana Syndrome." But even after months of intensified effort by multiple government agencies, evidence pinpointing the origin of the illness remains inconclusive, U.S. officials familiar with the matter said.  

According to a press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Haines led a meeting of the Joint Intelligence Community Council, which included briefings from "a wide range of experts" late Friday. Among the participants were CIA Director William Burns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, an administration official confirmed. 

The Cabinet-level meeting is the latest in a series of government engagements on the issue, which achieved new prominence in recent months as former U.S. officials who have suffered symptoms shared more details about their experiences and, in some cases, their difficulty obtaining proper medical care.  

Cases of Havana Syndrome, which the Biden administration has begun referring to as "Anomalous Health Incidents," are characterized by a set of neurological symptoms that can include dizziness, nausea, persistent headaches, vision problems and traumatic brain injury. A 2020 report commissioned by the State Department and completed by the National Academies of Science found "directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy" was the most plausible explanation for the symptoms, which have been reported from all the populated continents, including on U.S. soil.

Officials familiar with the intelligence being evaluated say the origin of the incidents is an area of "active inquiry" and that several hypotheses — including that it is the work of Russian operatives using directed-energy technology to collect information from electronic devices — are still being investigated. Cuba, China and Iran have also been cited as potential actors, though the intelligence community has said it has not determined that the cases are the work of a foreign actor.  

One U.S. official familiar with the government's efforts said the inquiry was a "humbling" undertaking — the murkiness and variability of cases, some of which have happened in classified locations, have complicated past inquiries into their cause.

In its early weeks, the Biden administration launched an intelligence review meant to evaluate possible patterns among the roughly 200 suspected cases reported by American personnel, including intelligence officers and diplomats, since they first arose in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. National security adviser Jake Sullivan appointed a senior director to oversee a multi-agency effort to streamline ongoing investigations and help get victims and their families access specialized medical care.  

Congress has also passed legislation boosting financial support for victims and introduced new measures mandating changes to how potential cases are monitored and disclosed. Lawmakers have expressed concern that the pattern of incidents is "increasing," though officials have said it is possible more potential victims are coming forward to report past symptoms as the issue garners more attention.  

Still, both victims and the lawmakers who have heard from them have steadily pressured the administration to publicly identify the incidents' cause, worrying that without public attribution — and meaningful consequences for any actors involved — their number will continue to grow.  

Agencies whose personnel have been affected have recently boosted their outreach on the matter, without offering specifics on possible leads.  

Last week, Blinken, the secretary of state, addressed what he acknowledged were "growing concerns" among State Department employees for their safety while stationed abroad.   

"I wish we had more answers for you," Blinken wrote, while vowing the department would "do a better job keeping you informed."

And in a letter sent last week to former CIA officers that was obtained by CBS News, Burns, the director, said he was "personally committed" to addressing the cases.

"While a certain amount of interrupted sleep comes with the job, it's the safety of our people that worries me the most," Burns wrote. "That is why I am personally committed to addressing Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs)." 

"We're bringing all our strengths to bear on AHIs, along with those of our IC partners, to identify what and who causes them, protect our officers and their families, and ensure the best care for all those who have been affected," Burns' letter said.

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