(Trends Wide) — The CIA assessed in an interim finding that the series of mysterious incidents ailing US officials around the world, known colloquially as the Havana syndrome, are unlikely to represent “a sustained global campaign” by Russia or any another foreign actor intent on harming US personnel, CIA officials said.
The agency did not rule out that a smaller subset of incidents could be attacks, and the intelligence community continues to investigate “whether any device or mechanism could cause the reported symptoms,” a senior CIA official said.
But in interim findings delivered to President Joe Biden and reported to Congress in recent weeks, the CIA has yet to find any evidence that a nation-state is behind any of the roughly 1,000 episodes reported around the world.
The findings represent the first major update from a CIA task force set up by Director Bill Burns to investigate the incidents, which in some cases wounded US officials so badly they were forced to withdraw.
The assessment is based in part on the fact that the task force found that the majority of reported cases can be attributed to other known causes, something that was to be expected after the CIA and other federal agencies urged their workers to report any unusual symptoms, current and former officials familiar with the investigation said. Those sources say officials anticipated an increase in reported incidents, not all of which would turn out to be suspicious for Havana syndrome.
“This finding does not dispute the fact that our officers are reporting real experiences and are suffering from real symptoms, nor does it explain all the reports,” the senior official said.
In most cases, the reported symptoms were attributed to “medical conditions or environmental and technical factors, including previously undiagnosed illnesses, and many more reports were made out of an abundance of caution,” the official said.
But there are cases that have defied explanation. Officials declined to say exactly how many reports have not been attributed to other causes, but of that unknown number, the task force focused on a core set of about two dozen to focus its investigation. CIA analysts believe those two dozen cases offer the agency its best chance of uncovering clues about who or what is behind the episodes.
They are also the “toughest” cases, said another CIA official. Until now, analysts have not been able to determine who caused those injuries and how, or even if those cases can be definitively called “Havana syndrome.”
“This was one of the puzzles, and really what made it more difficult than probably any other that we’ve analyzed analytically in the history of the agency,” said that official. “We’re cutting the data in a dozen different directions and we’re just not seeing those patterns at this stage that allow us to draw broader conclusions about attribution.”
For five years, American spies, service members and diplomats serving abroad have been plagued by this obscure set of symptoms, known within the government as “abnormal health incidents.” Victims complained of vertigo, nausea, head pressure and, in some cases, a piercing directional noise. Some were later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. The episodes were recorded first in Havana, Cuba, and later in China, Austria and other places. At least two potential incidents have been reported inside the United States, near the White House grounds, Trends Wide previously reported.
One working theory is that Russia, or possibly a proxy force, was using a directed-energy weapon to gather intelligence or to harass US personnel abroad, sources familiar with the investigation say. But while intelligence officials haven’t ruled out that possibility, they haven’t been able to corroborate it.
“We’re not going to take anything off the table at this point,” the second CIA official said. “We are looking at the full range of possible explanations for each of the cases. They are all different.”
The ambiguity led to growing frustration among some victims, lawmakers and government employees who follow the issue, including within the CIA itself, two sources familiar with the matter told Trends Wide.
“They have nothing,” said another source briefed on intelligence. “It’s very frustrating.”
A source familiar with the agency’s findings stressed that the assessments represent only “interim findings from one element of an agency.”
“There will be more reports to come that will be from across the government, including outside experts as appropriate, and that reflect the cases that are still under active analysis, while alternative reasonable explanations for the other reports are evaluated,” this person said.
A source familiar with the matter said a separate panel of outside experts convened by the Biden administration to study what technologies could theoretically cause the types of symptoms associated with Havana syndrome is finalizing its work.
The release of the findings caused a brief uproar among some US officials working on the issue, as well as victims. Two sources familiar with the matter said the CIA had not coordinated with the White House in its initial decision to brief Capitol Hill on its findings, nor did the agency’s findings take into account the work of the expert panel.
In the weeks after those initial reports, some officials interpreted the CIA’s determination that most cases could be attributed to known causes as evidence that the task force was casting doubt on the existence of Havana syndrome. Some scientists have publicly questioned its existence, and in the past, victims have criticized the CIA under former director Gina Haspel, accusing it of not taking their accounts seriously and, in some cases, failing to provide adequate medical care. .
“The CIA’s newly issued report may be labeled ‘interim’ and may leave the door open to some alternative explanation in some cases, but to dozens of dedicated public servants, their families, and their colleagues, it strikes a tone of finality and repudiation. “We have reason to believe that the interim report does not even represent the consensus of the CIA in its entirety, but instead reflects the views of a subset of officials,” the Havana Syndrome Victims’ Advocacy group said in a statement Wednesday. more interested in resolution and closure.”
So far, Burns’ handling of the issue has been widely praised by victims, and the Biden administration has been careful to avoid any hint that it isn’t taking victims seriously.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the fight.
One of the CIA officials said the task force’s work will continue and will continue to be fully resourced.
“While we have come to some significant interim findings, we are not done,” Burns said in a statement. “We will continue our mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it. While the underlying causes may differ, our officers are experiencing real symptoms. Our commitment to care is unwavering.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred this Thursday to the CIA’s interim report on the Havana syndrome and said that “he has no doubt” that State Department personnel have been affected by “real experiences, real symptoms and actual suffering.”
“We are going to continue to do everything possible with all the resources we can bring to bear to understand again what happened, why and who could be responsible,” Blinken told a news conference in Germany. “And we will leave no stone unturned.”
Blinken said he “has no higher priority as secretary than the health and safety of all of our colleagues and their families.”
Blinken also tried to directly reassure State Department employees that he continues to prioritize the issue, hinting at the uproar the CIA finding has caused behind the scenes.
“These findings do not challenge the fact that our colleagues are reporting real experiences and are suffering from real symptoms,” Blinken said in a workforce-wide memo obtained by Trends Wide. “We will continue to use all of our resources to learn more about these incidents, and additional reports will follow.”
Trends Wide’s Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.