CIA "Havana Syndrome" task force rules out foreign attacks in most reported cases in interim report
The Central Intelligence Agency has issued a set of interim findings on hundreds of reported cases of the mysterious neurological illness known as "Havana Syndrome," ruling out in the "majority" of instances an attack by a foreign adversary, but vowing to intensify its focus on a group of two dozen "priority" cases that remain unexplained.
"We assess that the majority of reports of [anomalous health incidents] can be reasonably explained by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors, including previously undiagnosed illnesses," a senior CIA official said, using the term coined by the Biden administration to describe the incidents.
Summarizing the findings of an internal CIA task force dedicated to investigating the cases, the official said, "In this extensive investigation we have so far not found evidence of state-actor involvement in any incident," adding, "[W]e assess it unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign, harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism."
However, the official emphasized, the agency's task force would continue investigating a small number of cases whose cause could not be determined. In those cases, the official said, the CIA has still "not ruled out the involvement of a foreign actor."
"There is a subset of cases, some of our toughest cases, that remain unresolved and remain the focus of active investigation," the official said, confirming they involved U.S. personnel from the CIA and other government agencies, but declining to specify where or when those incidents had occurred.
In a statement, CIA Director William Burns said, "We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, sound tradecraft, and compassion and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge."
"While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done. We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it," said Burns, who, since he was nominated to lead the agency, has repeatedly vowed to find answers and provide care to affected personnel.
The CIA's findings, which reflect the intelligence community's current view, come amid an ongoing, government-wide effort to understand and identify the cause of the mysterious affliction, which is characterized by symptoms like nausea, dizziness, ear popping and headaches, and is often preceded by a sensation of heat or pressure. The incidents first gained prominence after they were reported by personnel at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, in 2016.
There has since been a stream of reports made by American diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel stationed or traveling in countries worldwide — including Austria, Colombia, Germany, Serbia, India, Vietnam and others — many of which resulted in victims being medevaced to the U.S. for medical treatment. There have also been cases reported on U.S. soil, including in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Boston.
In 2020, a study by the National Academies of Sciences commissioned by the State Department said the "most plausible" cause was "directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy." That study, alongside other evidence circulated by current and former American officials, fueled unofficial hypotheses that the cases were the result of attempted intelligence collection by Russian or other government operatives who were using directed energy technologies or weapons.
Burns has in the past said that Russia "could be" behind the incidents, but also allowed that there were "a number of possibilities."
He also personally warned the Russians during meetings in Moscow last November of "consequences" if they were found to be involved. It was the second time the incidents were known to have been raised with Russia; they were also raised briefly during President Biden's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last June.
Burns personally witnessed a member of his staff suffer symptoms consistent with Havana Syndrome during a trip to Delhi, India, in September. The officer sought immediate medical care following the incident.
Moscow has consistently denied involvement in the incidents, and no evidence has emerged publicly tying Russia to the illness.
In early 2021, the Biden administration launched an intelligence review and established an expert panel of intelligence officers and medical experts to evaluate reported cases and the possible technologies behind them; its findings are expected to be delivered soon . National security adviser Jake Sullivan also appointed a senior director at the National Security Council to streamline data collection and lines of inquiry.
As part of its efforts, the Biden administration and the agencies with personnel who have been affected encouraged employees to report health incidents they suspected might be linked to Havana Syndrome.
The result was a significant influx of reports, many of which CIA officials acknowledged may have been made out of an "abundance of caution" and out of a growing awareness about the incidents among government employees.
Over time, the drumbeat of reports began to resonate among the workforces at the State Department, Pentagon and CIA, whose employees were most often involved. Unease about the cause of the symptoms and concerns about several incidents that involved family members and children led some employees considering deployment overseas to waver, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The continuing reports also prompted rare bipartisan action from Congress, which unanimously passed legislation, signed into law by President Biden last fall, designed to boost compensation and access to medical care for victims with confirmed brain injuries. The CIA and the State Department are currently working on establishing internal criteria for compensating victims who have suffered symptoms, as required by the legislation.
Many U.S. officials affected by the syndrome struggled with debilitating symptoms for years, and paid out of pocket for diagnostic and medical care. As the cases gained prominence and Congress and the administration took action, many expressed a sense of relief that their experiences were being recognized and acknowledged as real by government leaders.
A number of victims have also since begun receiving treatment at either Walter Reed or Johns Hopkins Medicine, both of which have established specialized programs for evaluating and treating the incidents.
But victims' groups responded to the CIA's interim findings with concern and disappointment, and urged investigations into the incidents' cause to continue.
"[A]s the CIA itself acknowledges, not all the cases can be explained away. This cannot and must not be the last word on this matter, because it is neither definitive, nor comprehensive," the "Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome" group said in a statement. "We respectfully ask the President of the United States to tell the interagency to keep working and return to him at such time as they have a collective answer or hypothesis."
The group also called on congressional oversight committees to "examine the conclusions" and crafting of the report, as well as the decisions that led to its release.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said of the CIA's assessment, "[I]t's important to note that today's assessment, while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force."
"The Senate Intelligence Committee will continue pressing for answers on a bipartisan basis, and we look forward to a final government report, as well as the conclusions of the outside experts panel that has been assembled to seek answers to these very urgent and difficult questions," Warner said.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult problem set, and a whole of government approach is required to solve it, using all the resources of the [intelligence community] and [Department of Defense], as well as open source and commercially available data," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who resigned a senior post after struggling with debilitating symptoms that began during a 2017 visit to Moscow.
CIA officials who briefed reporters on the agency's interim findings said there was "community agreement" across U.S. intelligence agencies that there was no evidence of a global campaign being waged by a foreign actor, though some intelligence agencies had differing confidence levels in that assessment. They also said the task force had worked closely with other U.S. and foreign government partners in looking into the matter.
The National Security Council referred questions about the CIA's findings and process back to the agency.
The officials noted that there were no common characteristics among the unexplained cases, which complicated efforts to understand their cause.
"This has been one of the conundrums and really what has made this harder than probably any other we've looked at analytically in the agency's history, there definitely aren't patterns in the data," one CIA official said of the analysis done to date by the task force, which, the official said, would remain "fully staffed, fully resourced and fully invested in its mission."
But something about the outstanding cases at least suggest that they may pave the way to more answers in the future.
"We are focused most intensely on this couple of dozen because we view those as the most likely to produce progress at this point," the official said.
"[I]f and as we receive additional reports from our colleagues that have concerning phenomena or symptoms, we are going to be investigating and reporting them, and we don't want to prejudge what we're going to find," the CIA official said.
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