The Biden administration is signaling a commitment to solving the mystery of the so-called “Havana Syndrome” that hit numerous U.S. spies and diplomats.
This as there is a renewed bipartisan push to determine the source of what many believe are invisible attacks by a yet-unknown adversary.
The CIA is working with others to “double down” on finding answers regarding the “unexplained global health incidents,” CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett told the Washington Examiner while stressing the well-being of CIA officers was top priority. A U.S. government official told the Washington Examiner the CIA set up a centralized team with doctors, counterintelligence officials, and human resources for anyone affected.
In addition, President Biden’s picks to lead the CIA and State Department promised to get answers on who is responsible and to ensure U.S. government employees get the healthcare they need, a change in pace from the Trump administration, which was largely secretive about the situation.
The U.S. government has yet to offer an explanation for the apparent attacks that have led to unusual symptoms among U.S. personnel abroad in places such as Cuba, Russia, and China. The illnesses feature dizziness, head pain, vision problems, cognitive troubles, loud noises, vertigo, and possible traumatic brain injuries. The leading theory is these are microwave weapon attacks, and a possible top culprit is Russia, though neither has been confirmed by U.S. spy agencies. This burst into public view following “Havana Syndrome” at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba in 2016, but related incidents have been reported to have occurred before and after.
Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, longtime State Department official William Burns, vowed Wednesday to investigate and get CIA personnel the treatment needed during his Senate Intelligence confirmation hearing as Democratic Chairman Mark Warner and Republican Vice Chairman Marco Rubio pressed him. “We’ve seen evidence, now not just agency personnel but State Department personnel and others, become victims of mysterious attacks,” Warner said.
“I will have no higher priority than taking care of people, of colleagues, and their families,” Burns said. “And I do commit to you that, if I am confirmed, I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who is responsible for the attacks that you just described and to ensure that colleagues and their families get the care that they deserve, including at the National Institutes of Health and at Walter Reed.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she hoped those who needed medical care would get it without “hassles and roadblocks” and asked for his commitment to “identifying the perpetrator.” Burns gave his “commitment on both counts.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made similar promises during his Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing in January, vowing, “The priority is making sure that our diplomats are safe and secure, but also that we find out who is responsible, if a state actor or others are responsible, having accountability and making sure that we put the protections in place.”
A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner the federal government is working to determine what happened and to “ensure the well-being and health of our officials going forward.” Blinken received briefings on this since the presidential transition, the spokesperson said, adding the department is prioritizing it and elevating the interagency task force leader to a senior position.
A 2018 report by a State Department Accountability Review Board noted that “in addition to Embassy Havana, there were reports of similar incidents at several other posts (Tashkent [Uzbekistan], [redacted country name], and China).” The board concluded there was “a Consulate Guangzhou employee who described incidents in Guangzhou, China, similar to those experienced by Embassy Havana community members and whose injuries were confirmed by medical experts to match those of the Havana victims.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention carried out an inconclusive “epidemiologic investigation” in 2019.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill in December to compensate “American public servants who have incurred brain injuries from probable microwave attacks.” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton said the legislation would ensure CIA agents and foreign service officers are taken care of as they recover from “cowardly attacks by our adversaries.”
The National Academies of Sciences report last year considered possible explanations, including psychological problems, diseases, chemical exposure, and energy weapons. It concluded 40 diplomats in Havana and a dozen in China suffered symptoms “consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed, radiofrequency energy” but “could not rule out other possible mechanisms.”
Mark Zaid, who represents a dozen employees from the State Department, Commerce Department, CIA, and NSA, purportedly hit by these attacks, told the Washington Examiner the comments by Burns were encouraging, “but it will take a very strong leader to break through CIA’s historical posture, which has been to hide and deny its knowledge of these attacks.”
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer hit with a wave of dizziness and vertigo during a 2017 Moscow trip, told the Washington Examiner he was happy to see bipartisan support requiring Burns to “ensure medical care for those CIA officers injured by microwave attacks,” something he said was lacking under Trump. Polymeropoulos was “heartened” to see Burns commit to “finding the perpetrator of the attacks” and believed sustained congressional oversight, Burns and Blinken pushing back on any internal resistance, a “whole of government approach” coordinated by the National Security Council, and funding for agencies “to send their wounded officers” to Walter Reed were all needed.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff also spoke of the need for rooting out the origin of the attacks.
“Unless we can make public attribution of who is responsible, unless we can take protective measures against for the repetition of these kinds of attacks, we can expect them to proliferate,” the California Democrat said at a Hayden Center talk Thursday.
A declassified National Security Agency document from 2014 “confirms that there is intelligence information from 2012 associating the hostile country to which” NSA counterintelligence officer Michael Beck traveled in the late 1990s “with a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency assessed in 1976 that Soviet research on microwaves for “internal sound perception” showed potential for “disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel.”