CIA finds no ‘worldwide campaign’ by any foreign power behind mysterious Havana syndrome
The Washington Post January 20, 2022
The Central Intelligence Agency has determined that a foreign country is probably not mounting a global attack aimed at U.S. personnel who have reported painful and sometimes debilitating physical symptoms, a significant finding that could undermine some officials’ suspicion that Russia is to blame for a years-long series of mysterious illnesses.
“We assess it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism,” said a senior CIA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the agency.
That leaves open the possibility that a foreign power could be responsible for cases that cannot be attributed to medical conditions or other factors, the official said.
Since the first cases of personnel suffering from symptoms including dizziness and headaches were reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016, government investigators have reviewed more than 1,000 cases of what officials have termed “anomalous health incidents,” the official said.
The symptoms, which are accompanied by sensations such as ringing in the ears, have come to be known commonly as Havana syndrome, and have been reported by intelligence, diplomatic and military personnel on every continent except Antarctica.
The majority of cases could be attributed to a preexisting medical condition or environmental or other factors, the senior official said. “A few dozen” of those incidents, which the official called “the toughest cases,” could not be explained and will receive further scrutiny, the official said. “Our work is continuing, and we are not done yet.”
But another U.S. official said the category of unexplained cases was larger than a few dozen and noted that other investigations are pending, including by a panel of independent experts and other government agencies, and they might reach different conclusions than those of the CIA.
Pressure had mounted on the Biden administration to get to the bottom of the mystery after some former government personnel who have experienced the symptoms accused Trump administration officials of ignoring their plight or being too quick to dismiss their symptoms as imaginary.
Over the past year, more government personnel came forward to report symptoms, after their managers in the intelligence community, State Department and the military encouraged them to do so. That led to a flood of cases that had to be investigated, and most of those were attributed to some known cause, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.
The CIA established a task force to investigate the health incidents, led by a senior officer who previously played a key role in the agency’s successful search for Osama bin Laden.
In a written statement, CIA Director William J. Burns pledged to provide medical care for those who were afflicted, even if the cause of their illness remains unknown.
“We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, sound tradecraft and compassion, and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge,” Burns said. “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. While underlying causes may differ, our officers are suffering real symptoms. Our commitment to care is unwavering.”
The Biden administration has sought to develop plans for providing compensation and improved medical care to those affected by the phenomenon.
Under the Havana Act, which President Biden signed into law in October, the administration has six months to establish a framework for making payments to individuals who have suffered from related health incidents.
But efforts to deal with the episodes had been complicated by officials’ inability to establish a clear diagnosis for a spate of symptoms that while sometimes debilitating are also common.
Officials said late last year they had detected no patterns among apparent victims, despite an extensive investigation by the CIA and other agencies.
While investigators had uncovered no hard evidence, some senior officials and lawmakers have maintained that Russia may be targeting U.S. personnel and their families with a powerful form of directed energy, either with the intent to surveil or inflict harm. Canadian diplomats have also reported being affected.
At his confirmation hearing in February, Burns promised to “make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged in November to “do absolutely everything we can - leaving no stone unturned - to stop these occurrences.”