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Deputy CIA chief briefs senators on ‘Havana Syndrome’ as U.S. prepares to pay victims

Some payments are expected to exceed $100,000 per person, people familiar with a classified briefing said.
Image: U.S. embassy in Havana
The U.S. Embassy in Havana in December 2015. Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Top Biden administration officials told senators Thursday that the government will soon release its plan to issue payments to U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers who suffered mysterious injuries abroad known as “Havana Syndrome,” four people with knowledge of the matter told NBC News.

In a classified briefing, Deputy CIA Director David Cohen and Assistant FBI Director Alan Kohler updated a group of senators on the latest on the yearslong investigation into the injuries, which the administration calls “anomalous health incidents.” They were joined by Melissa Dalton, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary overseeing the Western Hemisphere, and by senior officials from the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

It was unclear what information they provided about the investigation into the incidents, which remain unexplained more than five years after U.S. diplomats and spies in Havana began to report experiencing strange sounds and sensations followed by a variety of symptoms, including brain injury. U.S. officials familiar with the investigation say the U.S. has still not determined a cause.

State Department and CIA officials told senators that within days, the administration will release a plan to compensate U.S. personnel who have suffered injuries and how much to pay them, with some payments expected to exceed $100,000 per person, people familiar with the briefing said.

The Washington Post first  reported that victims could receive six-figure compensation.

The plan will come in the form of new regulations called for under the HAVANA Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law last year. The law gave the secretary of state and the CIA the authority to determine who is eligible for the payments, a thorny task given the wide disagreement over what should be considered legitimate, “confirmed” cases. 

There have also been longstanding tensions over Havana Syndrome between the CIA and the State Department, which have pursued different approaches to responding to incidents reported by their employees.

The dollar ranges for how much people could receive are still being finalized, and they could change, people briefed on the plan said. The Biden administration has already missed an April deadline to propose a system for who will be eligible and for what sum.

The State Department declined to comment on the briefing with senators. It said it would release more information about the compensation proposal “soon.” 

“The department is doing everything possible to ensure that employees who report an AHI receive immediate and appropriate attention and care,” a State Department spokesperson said, using an initialism for “anomalous health incident.”

A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the briefing.

A provision added to an annual military spending bill by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, requires the administration to brief lawmakers periodically about the status of the investigation.

Yet there have been few public updates about what the government has learned about the cause of the incidents since early in the year, when a pair of intelligence assessments added fresh uncertainty to the question of how many Americans were affected and by what.

In January, a CIA interim assessment ruled out the possibility of a sustained global campaign by a foreign power to hurt Americans, but it said about two dozen cases remain unexplained and could have resulted from hostile acts. Weeks later, a panel of scientific experts enlisted by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded at least some injuries were most likely caused by pulsed electromagnetic energy from an external device.

“The U.S. government continues to take all reports of AHI seriously,” a White House National Security Council spokesman said. “We remain committed to ensuring that individuals who report an AHI have access to medical care, and we will continue to rigorously investigate the cause of these incidents.”

Starting in late 2016, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers serving in Havana began reporting bizarre sounds and physical sensations followed by unexplained illnesses and symptoms, including vision and hearing loss, memory and balance issues, headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. In the years since then, many hundreds of U.S. government workers in more than a dozen countries came forward reported suspected incidents, NBC News has reported.

Shaheen, who also wrote the legislation authorizing the monetary payments for a “qualifying injury to the brain,” said Senate Democrats and Republicans continue to work to ensure that public servants injured on the job have access to resources “to heal and recover.”

“There is a lot we still don’t know about directed-energy attacks but what we do know is that the injuries are real,” Shaheen said in a statement Thursday. “Much work remains to get to the bottom of these attacks to understand how our government can best assist victims — that work goes on.”

Since the incidents first became public in 2017, Cuba has adamantly denied any knowledge of or involvement in any attacks on U.S. diplomats. U.S. intelligence officials have long considered Russia a leading suspect, NBC News has reported; Moscow has firmly denied being involved. Some U.S. officials and experts who have studied the cases have raised the possibility that mass hysteria could explain many of the cases, although doctors treating the victims say at least some of them have concrete medical findings similar to mild traumatic brain injury.