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The CIA symbol on the floor of CIA Headquarters, July 9, 2004, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. A panel of experts is focused on identifying the cause and potential mechanisms of "Havana syndrome."
The CIA symbol on the floor of CIA Headquarters, July 9, 2004, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. A panel of experts is focused on identifying the cause and potential mechanisms of "Havana syndrome." (Mark Wilson, Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — A panel of experts led by senior intelligence officers has met in recent weeks on “Havana syndrome” as the investigation into unexplained health incidents among American personnel enters what one U.S. official described as a new and intensive phase.

The panel — which is focused on identifying the cause and potential mechanisms of the mysterious illnesses — is led by senior officers from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA, and includes scientific experts from outside government who are already cleared to access classified material.

“The intelligence community has convened a panel of experts from across the U.S. government and private sector to work collectively to increase understanding of the possible mechanisms that are causing these anomalous health incidents,” an intelligence official told McClatchy.

The intelligence panel is one of two set up by President Joe Biden last month to study the strange sensory phenomenon that has baffled and concerned the government since at least 2016, when American diplomats in Cuba became ill with mysterious ailments.

Since then, over 130 American officials stationed overseas — including in Britain, China and Austria — and at home in the United States have reported symptoms.

The U.S. diplomats, CIA officers and National Security Council officials have described experiencing sudden sound pressure or heat, vertigo, nausea, and head or neck pain that government physicians have been unable to diagnose.

A second panel is primarily focused on trying to identify protective measures for U.S. personnel going forward. Neither panel is time-bound.

Biden has lent urgency to the probe since taking office, and the CIA’s new director, Bill Burns, is receiving regular briefings on investigative work and suspected cases.

“Director Burns is personally engaged with personnel affected by anomalous health incidents and is highly committed to their care and to determining the cause of these incidents,” a CIA spokesperson said.

Over the past six months, the National Security Council led an effort to centralize the reporting of cases and standardize treatment for affected personnel across agencies and departments. Officials hope the new process will help experts identify patterns.

Last year, a committee at the National Academy of Sciences studied the matter and produced a report for the Trump administration. But members of that committee complained that they lacked sufficient access to classified information to render a complete assessment — a problem that has been corrected in the formation of the current panels, officials say.

Additional U.S. personnel overseas have reported experiencing the syndrome this year, with some returning to the United States for treatment, two sources said.

The phenomenon gained public attention after a cluster of American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana experienced similar symptoms. A handful of reported cases may have predated the events in Cuba.

Current and former officials suspect the incidents are being caused by attacks from a foreign power, using some form of directed energy. But intelligence agencies say they have not been able to identify a cause or source with any confidence.

Nevertheless, the issue was raised in Biden’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, a State Department official told reporters at the time. Officials have declined to provide details.

“The National Security Council is coordinating a full review of intelligence reporting to ascertain whether there may be previously unreported incidents that fit a broader pattern,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

“At this time, we still don’t know the cause of these incidents or whether they constitute an attack of some kind by a foreign actor,” Psaki said. “These are areas of active inquiry, something our intelligence community is working on — and very focused on.”

©2021 McClatchy Washington Bureau.

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