Some U.S. officials suspect the so-called Havana Syndrome could be an unintentional byproduct of foreign efforts to collect intelligence from U.S. government employees’ electronic devices — and they are now concerned that America’s adversaries may have weaponized the tactic to intentionally cause physical harm.
A recent U.S. intelligence assessment generated by the Biden administration could not determine what caused the unexplained brain injuries suffered by diplomats, spies and other government workers at home and abroad, or why the victims were potentially targeted, according to one current and two former officials.
There is no consensus within the intelligence community on “the technique, the purpose, who is targeted, and what is just a coincidence,” one of the former officials said.
But one leading theory is that the victims suffered the effects of intense electromagnetic energy waves from devices intended to extract information from cellphones and other personal devices, the officials said.
Though inflicting harm may not have been the original intent, U.S. officials increasingly believe that whoever may be responsible is now well aware that the devices can cause debilitating symptoms and will seek to use them to target and physically harm individuals, a weapon that is difficult to trace.
The vast majority of the victims were overseas when they came down with the unusual symptoms. But in a previously undisclosed case, a former Defense Department employee came forward in the past month reporting symptoms that developed late last year while the person was in the Washington area, according to the officials.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it has ramped up its effort to identify the cause of the mysterious symptoms and determine whether a foreign actor is involved.
“As of now, we have no definitive information about the cause of these incidents, and it is premature and irresponsible to speculate,” the spokesperson said.
A senior administration official offered a similar assessment.
"At this time, we do not know the cause of these incidents, which are both limited in nature and the vast majority of which have been reported overseas," the official said. "We also do not know whether they constitute an attack of some kind by a foreign actor, but these are areas of active inquiry."
The cases first cropped up in Cuba in 2016. U.S. diplomats and other government workers stationed in Havana reported feeling strange symptoms, many after hearing strange high- and low-pitched sounds and experiencing bizarre physical sensations. The incidents caused hearing, balance and cognitive changes along with mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussion, that physicians were able to confirm through advanced imaging.
Some of the earliest affected Americans in Cuba were CIA officers serving under diplomatic cover. A number of U.S. workers in China later reported similar experiences and were evacuated for evaluation, with the U.S. formally confirming one case of a worker affected in China. More recently, additional potential cases have popped up elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Russia, Western Europe and even the U.S.
More than 130 people from across the U.S. government have come forward with potential symptoms of Havana Syndrome, although some cases have been proven unrelated. Of those 130, 60 to 80 people are associated with the Department of Defense.
“At this time we do not know the cause of specific incidents,” said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Defense Department spokesman. “These are areas of active inquiry. There is nothing that the Department takes more seriously than the safety, health and welfare of our personnel serving around the globe in defense of our values and freedoms.”
A 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences found that the symptoms were consistent with the effects of directed microwave energy.
U.S. officials believe Russia is behind the suspected attacks, but they don’t have conclusive evidence.
Without firm proof, President Joe Biden is unlikely to bring up the subject in an upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A former administration official said there is a subtle way for Biden to put Russia on notice but without clear attribution, his staff will probably advise against bringing it up.
The intelligence assessment comes amid growing pressure on the Biden administration from Congress to get to the bottom of the mysterious illnesses, and to better care for U.S. government staffers who have been injured. For years, staffers from the CIA, State Department and other agencies who reported being affected have privately complained they were unable to secure compensation for their injuries the way others injured in the line of duty can.
In an interview Tuesday, John Bolton, a former national security adviser in the Trump administration, said he had no doubt the people who reported symptoms were victims of an energy attack.
“We simply couldn’t get the intelligence community and others to focus and really admit there was a problem,” Bolton said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “It was extremely frustrating, I must say. I hope now it’s not too late.”
In the most recent attempt by lawmakers to address the situation, the Senate on Monday passed legislation titled the Havana Act that would authorize the CIA and the State Department to make financial payments to workers who suffer related injuries to the brain. Among the sponsors of the legislation are the Democratic and Republican co-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has received classified briefings from administration officials about the ongoing threat.
“There is no doubt that the victims who have suffered brain injuries must be provided with adequate care and compensation. Further, it is critical that our government determine who is behind these attacks and that we respond,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and co-chair of the Senate’s intelligence panel.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who for several years has led Senate efforts to authorize care for Havana Syndrome sufferers, said: “This bipartisan bill helps create a uniform response to these attacks, and I’ll keep working across the aisle to get to the bottom of these attacks and to support those suffering from critical injuries.”