U.S. officials remain determined to get to the bottom of mysterious, neurological “anomalous health incidents” that have befallen a growing number of diplomats, military personnel and intelligence officials.
Senior leaders in the Biden administration have ramped up efforts to treat those with the mysterious symptoms, which a National Academy of Sciences report from December said “are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radiofrequency (RF) energy.”
The suspected attacks — causing what’s known as Havana Syndrome, after a rash of reports from U.S. Embassy staff in Cuba — cause often debilitating symptoms, including vertigo and headaches, that can last years. Many suspect the attacks are from a microwave or directed-energy weapon.
Congress, too, has stepped up its efforts, passing legislation this month to provide financial assistance to victims.
But as for definitively pinning down the source and who may be responsible, the U.S. remains baffled.
“I feel, still, a strong degree of humility about being able to give you a best guess, because it could be completely wrong,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, told reporters last week.
Mr. Schiff said the U.S. government has not ruled anything out in terms of who or what may be causing the incidents. He said not all of the reported incidents may be “attributable to the same cause.”
“At the same time, the seriousness of the injuries and the proliferating nature of these anomalies demands are full, for the deployment of resources across the government to find out,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William J. Burns have both made firm commitments to determining the cause, and ensuring victims are cared for.
“This was one of the few issues that Secretary Blinken asked to have added to his roster of briefings, even before he was sworn in,” a State Department spokesperson said Friday. “He wanted to make sure that we get a full understanding of where we were in terms of understanding anomalous health incidents, and what more we needed to do.”
Mr. Blinken remains personally engaged in the matter and has appointed a senior official to oversee the State Department’s work alongside the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community to continue to press for answers.
Mr. Burns told NPR in July that the attacks on CIA personnel were among his top priorities.
“I’m certainly persuaded that what our officers and some family members, as well as other U.S. government employees, have experienced is real, and it’s serious,” Mr. Burns told NPR. “I am absolutely determined … to get to the bottom of the question of what and who caused this.”
In August, Mr. Burns recalled the chief of station in Vienna after agency officials determined he did not adequately address multiple anomalous health incidents in Austria.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged service members to come forward if they experience any symptoms.
“As part of a government-wide effort, the Department is committed to finding the cause and the source of these AHI and ensuring that affected individuals receive appropriate medical care as possible when needed,” Mr. Austin said in a memo.
Some estimate that more than 200 officials have been targeted in the attacks, which have affected officials from the State Department, the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Since the initial diagnoses in 2016, the number of U.S. officials around the globe reporting symptoms, including on U.S. soil, has continued to swell.
In May, reports revealed information about two U.S. officials struck by Havana syndrome near the White House.
In August, a “possible anomalous health incident” — which some believed to be a Havana syndrome case — was reported by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and briefly delayed Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Vietnam.
Earlier this month, a CIA officer reported symptoms while traveling in India, at the same time Mr. Burns was in the country.
When the incidents first began being reported, several officials said their cases were dismissed by leadership within the State Department and CIA, and that the government denied them access to medical treatment for the symptoms. In some cases, the victims were forced to end their service due to the injuries they sustained, which they said were ignored.
In an early investigation into the rash of reports from the U.S. embassy in Cuba, the State Department in 2018 commissioned a study by the JASON advisory group, which investigated sounds recorded by victims who suffered from anomalous health incidents in Havana.
The report, a declassified version of which was published Thursday by BuzzFeed, paints a picture of the uphill battle early victims faced.
In its report, JASON concluded that the recorded sounds were “mechanical or biological in origin, rather than electronic” and not consistent with a microwave energy attack. The report also concluded that “a possible explanation for the reported symptoms is a psychogenic illness,” though it stopped short of declaring a targeted attack by a bad actor.
The State Department has since dismissed the 2018 study, according to a spokesperson who said the report exhibits several shortcomings, including reliance on scant data and a lack of “broad access to information and effective personnel necessary to fully understand such a complex issue.” The researchers behind the JASON report interviewed only one person who had reported symptoms commonly associated with anomalous health incidents.
“And it was because of the flaws and shortcomings in prior studies including this one, that we have focused on sharing information across departments and agencies and making all of that data available to the [intelligence community’s] expert panel,” he said.
The State Department spokesperson said the JASON report is not “aligned with this administration’s understanding” of the anomalous health incidents and has not “informed” the government’s more recent inquiry into the matter.
“I think we’ve made a lot of improvements in terms of how the government, the whole government, is treating those who are suffering from these anomalies,” Mr. Schiff said.
But Mr. Schiff says there are still questions to be answered. He said he still thinks there could be a variety of causes behind the symptoms.
“These attacks, there’s certainly many of them that seem quite deliberate and what the causes and what the motivation is, what the intent is — I think these are still very much open questions,” he said. “But I do think that we are getting closer to some of the answers, and bringing new tools to bear to help us get those answers.”
Mr. Schiff said he is still open to the possibility that Havana Syndrome is not a result of targeted attacks.
But, he said, “if a nation-state actor is behind it or more than one nation-state actor, and these are deliberate attacks where their efforts are undertaken with the knowledge that they’re causing people physical injury, I’m also confident there’ll be very serious repercussions.”