CIA rules out hostile foreign power behind medical symptoms known as 'Havana Syndrome'

·8 min read

WASHINGTON – The CIA has ruled out Russia or any other foreign power’s involvement in causing the widespread battery of medical symptoms known as "Havana Syndrome," based on a new intelligence finding that attributes all but a few dozen of the cases to medical, environmental or "technical" causes.

A U.S. intelligence official told USA TODAY that while the report is technically classified as an interim assessment, it is a definitive and official agency finding based on months of intensive investigation into what was widely believed to be a sustained attack on U.S. spies and diplomats overseas by a hostile foreign power.

Until today, the U.S. had not publicly linked the incidents to any adversary, or officially come out with any formal conclusion to the contrary.

“We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, sound tradecraft, and compassion and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge,” CIA Director William J. Burns said in a statement given to USA TODAY.

In this Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, cars pass the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Many U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel around the world have suffered from headaches and other maladies in what has been called the "Havana Syndrome" because the first cases affected personnel in 2016 at the embassy.
In this Oct. 3, 2017, file photo, cars pass the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Many U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel around the world have suffered from headaches and other maladies in what has been called the "Havana Syndrome" because the first cases affected personnel in 2016 at the embassy.

“While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done,” Burns added. “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.”

Since taking over as CIA director in March, Burns has tripled the number of medical staff studying incidents linked to Havana Syndrome and has personally met with some agency personnel who had reported cases. As part of that effort, Burns ordered an agency-wide review of possible attacks using microwave or other directed energy.

Last September, another U.S. intelligence officer appeared to have been struck by Havana Syndrome symptoms, angering Burns and reviving the conversation about the mysterious illness.

Experts said that the officer's symptoms appeared to be consistent with the scores of other cases in recent years linked to Havana Syndrome, according to James Giordano, a scientist briefed on the case and others.

What's Havana Syndrome?

Burns and other U.S. intelligence officials stressed that they believe the victims of the purported attacks who say they are suffering from debilitating illness, including brain injury, dizziness, memory loss and extreme fatigue. Many of the cases originated at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba beginning in 2016 but others have reported similar symptoms while working or traveling in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.

“The work is continuing, we're not done yet,” said one U.S. intelligence official, speaking to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing effort. “That's important here. And nothing is more important than health and well being of the workforce.”

That official said the CIA, working with other U.S. intelligence agencies, “has been pursuing an exhaustive, rigorous effort to get to the bottom of this incredibly complex intelligence challenge, and to determine as best we can whether a foreign actor may be responsible for any of these incidents and whether there are devices or mechanisms that could have caused them.”

Many of the cases under investigation were brought to the CIA’s attention following growing workforce awareness of the issue, and a request for all personnel to come forward with any potential symptoms out of an abundance of caution. Most of them, the official said, were found to be the result of other factors, including pre-existing medical conditions or other “environmental and technical health factors.”

More: US investigates incidents of Havana Syndrome near the White House. What is the mysterious illness?

“There is a subset of cases, some of our toughest cases, that remain unresolved and remain the focus of active investigation,” the intelligence official added. “We have not ruled out the involvement of a foreign actor in those cases. We will continue an intensive effort to resolve them.”

But, the official said, “Despite extensive investigation, we have so far not found any evidence of state actor involvement in any incident. Taking into account all of the intelligence we've collected and reviewed at this point, we assess that it unlikely that a foreign actor including Russia, is conducting a sustained worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism.”

The U.S. is investigating increased reports of Havana Syndrome among diplomats and government officials.
The U.S. is investigating increased reports of Havana Syndrome among diplomats and government officials.

In response to the CIA assessment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a letter to all State Department personnel assuring them that the U.S. investigation into Havana Syndrome would continue even though the intelligence community found “plausible explanations for many — but not all — reports” of potentially related symptoms.

"We are going to continue to bring all of our resources to bear in learning more about these incidents, and there will be additional reports to follow,” Blinken said. “We will leave no stone unturned.”

Also, Blinken added, “These findings do not call into question the fact that our colleagues are reporting real experiences and are suffering real symptoms. I have heard those firsthand in my discussions in Washington and around the world with those afflicted.”

Immediate pushback from victims

The findings were instantaneously controversial, given the large number of people claiming to be suffering from the so-called Havana Syndrome. Already, it has prompted pushback from some purported victims of the illness and lawyers representing them.

“The CIA's interim conclusions are incredibly disappointing, insulting to those who are suffering and highly suspect,” said lawyer Mark Zaid, who has already filed what is known as a lawful classified urgent concern whistleblower complaint challenging the CIA's interim report.

Zaid’s firm represents more than 15 individuals from CIA, National Security Agency and the departments of Defense and Commerce who were impacted by Havana Syndrome-like symptoms while serving in a federal capacity from 1996 to the present.

“For one thing, this report was not coordinated with other federal agencies engaged with investigating the issue, and which hold different opinions,” Zaid said. “Once again it is demonstrated that the failure of the government to produce a uniform, expert report only causes further controversy rather than resolution.”

Zaid, like some others contacted by USA TODAY, questioned how the CIA could resolve hundreds of cases in the months since Burns took over, given that the issue has stymied the U.S. government for years.

More: State Department working to solve mysterious Havana Syndrome amid pressure from lawmakers

“It is more likely that this CIA public relations effort is to allay a workforce which in recent months has been refusing overseas assignments in the wake of an overwhelming number of reported new cases among its ranks,” Zaid told USA TODAY.

In a tweet, Zaid cited what appeared to be an unclassified National Security Agency report from Oct. 16, 2014 that associated one unnamed hostile country to which a potential victim 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."

That document also said, however, that the NSA had no evidence that such a weapon actually existed or was used against the person in question.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a senior CIA officer forced to retire due to symptoms he suffered during a health incident in Moscow in December 2017, also criticized the new assessment.

More: Another U.S. intelligence official has come down with Havana Syndrome symptoms. What are they?

"While the agency may have had good intentions in releasing an interim report to stem concern in the work force, the result has been an onslaught of shaming the victims in the media,” said Polymeropoulos, a case officer in Afghanistan and other hotspots who has been a public face of those fighting for answers.

“Today is a particularly difficult day for many involved, who have been humiliated with media coverage that focuses on the noise – the 1,000 plus cases that the agency has solved, that essentially were a result of their own data call – vice (versa) the reported several dozen core cases that still remain unsolved.”

Polymeropoulos said he has not been told whether his case is among the few dozen still under investigation.

Lawmakers commend CIA

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement praising Burns for his efforts to get to the bottom of the Havana Syndrome mystery after years of inattention by his predecessors at the spy agency.

“Reports of anomalous health incidents among intelligence, diplomatic and military personnel emerged as early as 2016 but were not always taken seriously in the past," Warner said in a statement. "CIA Director Burns has appropriately made this issue a top priority for the agency, seeking answers as to the cause of these mysterious symptoms, and whether they can be attributed to work of a foreign government."

“While Director Burns has earned the trust of the Senate Intelligence Committee that he is taking this challenge seriously, it’s important to note that today’s assessment, while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force," Warner said. "The Senate Intelligence Committee will continue pressing for answers on a bipartisan basis, and we look forward to robust engagement with the intelligence community, as well as the conclusions of the outside experts panel that has been assembled to seek answers to these very urgent and difficult questions.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, (D-CA), who heads the House intelligence committee, described the CIA assessment as “a first step toward answering the many questions that we have about these incidents, but it is far from the last."

"The House Intelligence Committee will remain focused on ensuring the rigor of the IC’s analysis around these issues, and will always insist that those who come forward with reports and who continue to suffer medical symptoms are respected and given all necessary care," Schiff said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Havana Syndrome': CIA finds no campaign by hostile foreign power