CIA’s Havana Syndrome Report Doesn’t Sit Well With Some Lawmakers

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are raising questions about the CIA’s findings on the causes, or lack thereof, of the mysterious illness.

byBrett Tingley| UPDATED Jan 27, 2022 11:07 AM
CIA’s Havana Syndrome Report Doesn’t Sit Well With Some Lawmakers
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The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has released details of an interim report claiming that it is unlikely that a foreign power is behind the majority of the mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' cases that have been reported by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel since 2016. According to the CIA, all but a few dozen instances of the claimed unexplained illnesses are likely the result of stress or previously undiagnosed medical conditions. While the report leaves open the possibility that at least some cases could be the result of an unknown weapon or foreign espionage campaign, top lawmakers have expressed frustration with the inconclusiveness of the CIA’s findings and wonder why the CIA chose to brief journalists on its interim report just days before another panel of intelligence community subject matter experts is due to release its own findings.

The CIA’s interim report has not yet been released to the public, but unnamed intelligence officials described the report to several news outlets this week. The CIA believes all but around two dozen cases can be explained by environmental or medical factors and has found “plausible alternative explanations” that do not involve some form of exotic directed energy weapon as has been frequently suggested previously. The U.S. government has yet to make public any evidence that such a weapon exists

The United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba., AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Senators on both sides of the aisle are now confused by the CIA’s conclusions and have voiced concerns that the spy agency's preemptive release of its own conclusions is an attempt to offer an alternative to a separate intelligence community report expected later this month. “Everything we’ve been told up to now is different. All of a sudden we come up with a different conclusion?” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat,  told Politico this week.“ If you have an inconclusive determination, which isn’t a determination, why do you feel compelled to issue an interim report that is inconclusive?” 

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and who has personally met with individuals reporting Havana Syndrome symptoms, says she is “surprised at many of the findings, which seemed to contradict other testimony that we have had.” 

“I’ve still got questions that need to be answered,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said. “Some of our working assumptions that we’ve had for some time — am I surprised they didn’t pan out? Yes, but I’ve got to also go where the facts lie." Warner questioned a separate panel made up of experts from within the intelligence community that is currently examining all of the classified and unclassified evidence related to Havana Syndrome and is expected to release its own report in just ten days. “It might have been better to have this simultaneously released,” Warner said, according to Politico.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chair Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has for years been vocal about the issue, said this week that “It’s important to note that the CIA’s current assessment on what and who may be behind [anomalous health incidents] that have affected U.S. intelligence and diplomatic personnel reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force,” adding that he urges the CIA to look into the remaining few cases which have not been conclusively ruled out as stemming from an attack of some kind.

Pinning down a cause for the reported symptoms, at least publicly, appears difficult. “There’s no one explanation,” a senior CIA official told Politico, adding that the agency does not believe there is “a global campaign by a foreign actor” to target U.S. personnel. “We would definitely not rule out the possibility of foreign-actor involvement in some discrete cases,” the official said. “We have not identified a causal mechanism, a novel weapon, that's been used at this point.”

There are still some cases that the CIA cannot explain. “Some of our toughest cases remain unresolved," an unnamed official with the agency told NPR. Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns said in a statement that the agency is still investigating the matter. "While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done," Burns said. We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it."

William Burns was sworn in as CIA director by Kamala Harris on March 23, 2021., Public domain

Part of the confusion surrounding Havana Syndrome stems from the fact that the reported symptoms are wide-ranging, in some cases common, and could be attributed to many other medical issues or illnesses. Strange, unexplained health effects were first reported in late 2016 by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. The State Department expelled two Cuban diplomats shortly after, and in 2018 even published a travel advisory urging Americans not to travel to the island nation to avoid putting themselves at risk. Since then, intelligence personnel and diplomats have reported experiencing similar symptoms in the Washington, D.C. area, India, Taiwan, Australia, and the U.S. Embassies in Vienna, Berlin, and Bogota, Colombia

Concerns over the reported illness prompted officials to delay U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris’s August 2021 trip to Vietnam after reports of a "possible anomalous health incident" were reported by personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. At least one official had to be medically evacuated from the embassy due to their symptoms. 

According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2019, reported symptoms include hearing strange ‘pinging’ or grating noises, sensations of auditory pressure or vibration, headaches, lightheadedness, nausea, nosebleeds, sleeplessness, and memory loss. Some affected personnel have reported lingering effects such as memory loss, hearing loss, cognitive issues, or loss of balance. Overall, symptoms seem similar to those experienced after concussions or other brain injuries.

AP

The CIA and State Department were initially reluctant to investigate the matter out of concerns about revealing sensitive information about personnel and their operations. As reports began appearing more frequently in the media and lawmakers began receiving briefings on the matter, the U.S. government began to take action.

In September 2021, Congress passed a bill later signed into law by President Joe Biden which authorized the CIA and State Department to offer financial support to personnel who have experienced symptoms or suffered brain injuries believed to be related to Havana Syndrome. “Simply put, this is kinda scary stuff,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while the House debated the bill. "The people who serve our nation overseas are generally worried for themselves and their families. And they need to know that we have their backs." The State Department has published a screening tool used to help determine what types of care are best for helping individuals experiencing Havana Syndrome symptoms, including mental health care.

Despite the bill’s passage, a State Department officer sued U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the State Department over claims that he received improper care and insufficient support stemming from the “acquired brain injury” he suffered while serving as a security engineering officer in Guangzhou, China. The suit claims the officer suffered the injury while conducting an inspection of yet another State Department official who had been medically evacuated due to their suspected Havana Syndrome symptoms.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken naming a new head of the department's Health Incident Response Task Force, which coordinated medical care for individuals experiencing symptoms of Havana Syndrome, in November 2021., AP

NBC News reported last year that even some FBI agents have reported symptoms consistent with the descriptions of Havana Syndrome. Unlike the CIA and State Department, however, the FBI “does not have the authority to provide direct medical treatment” and instead refers agents experiencing Havana Syndrome symptoms to apply for interagency medical options.

This isn’t the first time similar symptoms have been reported by diplomats and other overseas personnel, nor is it the first time that microwave radiation has been speculated to be the cause. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, diplomats and intelligence officers serving in Moscow experienced symptoms similar to those alleged to be the result of Havana Syndrome. There were reports at the time that Soviet intelligence agencies were beaming microwave radiation at the residences of American diplomats to power covert listening devices, or perhaps in an attempt to jam American sensors. Just as in the case of Havana Syndrome, the existence and exact nature of this “Moscow Signal,” as it came to be known, remains disputed to this day.

A covert listening device found in the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Moscow in 1952, now on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland., Wikimedia/Daderot

Fast-forward 60 years and the same debate is being held today. As recently as October of last year, lawmakers briefed on the matter told reporters that reported Havana Syndrome symptoms were “the result of directed energy attacks.” The Pentagon even briefed Congress about the threat of directed energy attacks related to Havana Syndrome on U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Despite these claims of novel directed energy weapons, evidence for the existence of such a system is scarce. An NBC report from 2018 claimed that the U.S. military "has been working to reverse-engineer the weapon or weapons used to harm the diplomats" and is conducting research at the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The War Zone reached out to Kirtland to inquire about NBC's report and were told simply that the base has no information for us.

A heavily redacted 2020 report published by the JASON advisory group found that the reported Havana Syndrome symptoms were likely caused by short-tailed crickets rather than an unknown directed energy weapon. That report directly contradicted a study published the same year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which found that “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases.”

The cover of the 2018 JASON report on Havana Syndrome., Buzzfeed via FOIA

Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote in a 2021 op-ed that “the evidence for microwave effects of the type categorized as Havana syndrome is exceedingly weak” and that it’s possible that disparate medical issues and symptoms are being needlessly grouped together.  “No proponent of the idea has outlined how the weapon would actually work. No evidence has been offered that such a weapon has been developed by any nation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

Rofer adds that while a single study in the 1960s found evidence that pulsed microwave radiation can cause people to hear anomalous sounds, known as the microwave auditory effect, scientists have since cast doubts on that theory. “With no clear biological connection of microwaves to Havana syndrome, it’s not possible to describe a weapon that would produce that syndrome,” Rofer wrote. “We do not know what frequency the supposed microwaves would be or whether they are pulsed or continuous.”

Nevertheless, at least one lawsuit has already been filed against the CIA after the release of their recent report on behalf of Mike Beck, a former counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency who says he was targeted with a microwave weapon while working overseas on behalf of the agency in 1996. The NSA released a memo in 2014, seen below, seeming to confirm that there was at least intelligence associating such a weapon with "the hostile country to which Mr. Beck traveled in the late 1990s."

An NSA memo confirms intelligence about a high-powered microwave weapon that can produce similar effects as those associated with Havana Syndrome., NSA

While the CIA and various experts do not believe Havana Syndrome to be the result of a microwave weapon or other form of directed energy, there are, in fact, many forms of these technologies in development in government-funded laboratories worldwide. The US Air Force Laboratory developed a microwave "pain ray" to deter large crowds that was briefly deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, though it was never actually employed there. 

The Pentagon has also tested what it calls "Non-Lethal Laser Induced Plasma Effects," created by ultra-short laser blasts that can produce specific audio wavelengths and generate sounds such as a human voice. Microwaves are also being eyed for use in space as anti-satellite weapons, and the Pentagon has multiple projects researching the use of microwaves to bring down drones or even missiles. None of these projects produce anything like the effects described by individuals reporting Havana Syndrome symptoms, but whether an adversary has developed new technology that can, remains the primary point of contention.

As the reactions from lawmakers this week have shown, Havana Syndrome remains a contentious topic within the U.S. government. The CIA's controversial interim report, which appears to pour cold water on some of the claims surrounding the subject, will no doubt only add to what has become something of a bizarre debate. 

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com

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