U.S. intelligence review says “very unlikely” foreign adversary is behind “Havana Syndrome”
A multi-year U.S. intelligence review has deemed it “very unlikely” that a foreign adversary is behind the mysterious neurological symptoms known as “Havana Syndrome” that have been reported by more than a thousand American officials since 2016, eliminating a leading theory shared by some victims and lawmakers that U.S. personnel were being targeted by a hostile government.
The unclassified assessment, released Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), reflected the views of seven agencies that participated in the inquiry.
“Most [intelligence community] agencies have concluded that it is ‘very unlikely’ a foreign adversary is responsible for the reported AHIs,” the assessment said, noting different agencies had varying levels of confidence in the finding.
Five of them found that “available intelligence consistently points against the involvement of U.S. adversaries in causing the reported incidents,” according to the assessment.
“Most IC agencies judge it is very unlikely a foreign adversary played a role, although confidence in the judgment related to this line of inquiry varies, with two agencies having moderate-to-high confidence; three agencies having moderate confidence; and one agency abstaining,” the assessment said. “One agency judges it is only unlikely a foreign adversary played a role and has only low confidence in this judgment.”
Briefing reporters at ODNI headquarters on Wednesday, two intelligence officials laid out the results of what one described as an “historic” level of expertise and resources dedicated to the inquiry. Investigators reviewed more than 1,500 reported cases from 96 countries, including some reports made this year.
In a statement, CIA Director William Burns said the CIA had applied its “very best operational, analytic, and technical tradecraft to what is one of the largest and most intensive investigations in the Agency’s history. I and my leadership team stand firmly behind the work conducted and the findings.”
“I want to be absolutely clear,” his statement continued. “[T]hese findings do not call into question the experiences and real health issues that US Government personnel and their family members – including CIA’s own officers – have reported while serving our country.”
“This work will and must endure,” said Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in another statement. “We will continue to prioritize our work on such incidents, remaining vigilant regarding information that would undercut the IC’s judgments and continuing to respond to individuals who report incidents, including investing in health resources for such purposes.”
“Havana Syndrome,” which gets its name from the cases first reported by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers in Havana, Cuba in 2016, can be characterized by a range of neurological symptoms, including intense headaches and head pressure, vertigo, nausea and a ringing or popping in the ears. Victims have described hearing a painfully high-pitched sound and reported being able to evade it by moving to a different area. Some were forced to leave the workforce because their symptoms were so debilitating.
In its early days, the Biden administration launched an intelligence review intended to encourage and streamline reports of what it termed “Anomalous Health Incidents,” or AHIs. The administration later named an interagency coordinator to oversee the government’s investigations, which spanned multiple agencies, including the State Department, Defense Department and CIA.
Cases have since been reported from every populated continent, in dozens of countries, by diplomats, intelligence officers or military personnel. Several of the incidents required victims to be medevacked, including in two cases reported by aides to CIA Director William Burns and Vice President Kamala Harris who fell ill while traveling overseas.
In total, investigators have reviewed more than 1,500 reported incidents dating back to 2016, finding explanations for all but several dozen.
Some victims had believed their symptoms were the result of a foreign government using directed energy technologies or weapons to collect intelligence, citing Russia as a leading suspect. A number of U.S. lawmakers have publicly supported that view, referring to the incidents as “attacks.”
Last year, a declassified summary of the findings of an expert panel convened by ODNI said the symptoms could be “plausibly” explained by pulsed, electromagnetic energy — a finding in line with a prior inquiry released in 2020 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
“Pulsed electromagnetic energy, particularly in the radio frequency range, plausibly explains the core characteristics, although information gaps exist,” a redacted summary of the findings said.
That panel did not evaluate the possibility of a foreign actor being behind the incidents, focusing instead on potential causal mechanisms and issuing recommendations for managing the ailment’s symptoms.
It noted prompt medical care was integral to recovery, and that psychosocial factors — including mass hysteria, which had been raised as a possibility by skeptics of the condition — could not alone account for the symptoms.
In an interim report released in January 2022, the CIA’s internal task force dedicated to investigating the incidents said they were “unlikely” to be the result of a sustained, worldwide campaign waged by a foreign actor. The agency said at the time it would continue investigating roughly two dozen cases whose cause could not be determined.
Some Havana Syndrome victims struggled for years to bring awareness to the incidents and have been critical of government agencies for failing to offer support or access to specialized medical care. Many paid for costly diagnoses or treatments out of pocket, and felt marginalized while the condition was unacknowledged.
As public attention to it grew, U.S. lawmakers passed legislation to boost support and compensation for those who suffered brain injuries as a result of the syndrome; President Biden signed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act in October of 2021.
According to guidelines required by the law and later published by the State Department, some victims with confirmed brain injuries could be eligible for payments of more than $180,000. The CIA’s guidelines remain classified but are similar, people familiar with them have said. Victims from both agencies began receiving payments last year.
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