It began with officials of the US and Canadian embassies in Havana in 2016-17, who were hit by a mysterious, debilitating illness consistent with Traumatic Brain Injury.
A varying set of complaints that includes ear popping, vertigo, pounding headaches and nausea, sometimes accompanied by an unidentified “piercing directional noise.”
Since then, speculation for the cause of what’s become known as “Havana Syndrome” has included everything from the spraying of insecticides around embassy grounds, to foreign powers bombarding the facilities with an enigmatic sonic weapon, or some other form of unknown technical surveillance by an “unknown actor.”
Although the Russian government — possibly elements of the the GRU or FSB — are widely thought to be behind the incidents, the US government has made no official attribution.
Cuba, meanwhile, has dismissed the US claims as “science fiction,” and Russia has denied any involvement.
To this day, nobody knows what is causing it or who is behind it.
Now, there is new concern, after more than a dozen CIA officers serving in multiple overseas locations have returned to the US to seek care, after reporting symptoms consistent with Havana Syndrome, according to a report by CBS News, quoting former intelligence officials.
The new suspected incidents occurred in the early months of 2021, and at least one happened as recently as March, according to sources.
In many of the cases, the officers felt so sick, so suddenly, that they required emergency medical evacuation, two people familiar with the matter said. The recent incidents have taken place on three continents, according to one source.
The reported cases are the latest in what lawmakers of both parties have said is an “increasing” pattern of suspected “attacks” on US officials — which have included diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel — and which have prompted several government investigations at the CIA, State Department and Pentagon.
It was also reported this week that Global Affairs Canada removed the lone military police officer stationed on security duty at the Canadian embassy in Havana, nearly one year after what officials have said was the last confirmed Canadian case of suspected Havana syndrome.
Confirmation of the removal comes after Global News reported that a letter sent on behalf of nine Canadian diplomats and their families last month to Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said there were “at least three” additional cases in 2019 and 2020.
Global Affairs Canada says the embassy in Havana remains an “unaccompanied” posting.
That means individuals posted there cannot bring their family with them.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, was in Moscow in 2017 when he was suddenly stricken.
“I was woken up in the middle of the night with an incredible case of vertigo,” Polymeropoulos told The Guardian.
“My head was spinning, incredible nausea, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom and throw up. It was just a terrifying moment for me.
“I had tinnitus which was ringing in my ears, and the vertigo was really what was incredibly debilitating and I really wasn’t sure what was happening. I couldn’t stand up. I was falling over.”
Four years later, Polymeropoulos said his headache still hasn’t stopped. In 2019, he retired from the CIA because of his symptoms.
“I had a lot more to offer,” the former intelligence officer said. “I was 50, but I had to retire because these goddamn headaches don’t go away.”
Meanwhile, a White House spokesperson said the cause of the incidents is an area of “active inquiry,” and that the National Security Council has been co-ordinating a “government-wide effort” to determine who is responsible and ensure those affected receive medical evaluations and proper care.
“This remains a priority and we are bringing the US government’s resources to bear to get to the bottom of this,” the spokesman said.
Last Wednesday, a CIA briefing team was sharply upbraided by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who reacted angrily to the officials’ lack of definitive answers.
The classified briefing, delivered by members of a CIA task force created to address the incidents, became highly contentious; two sources familiar with its dynamic described it as a “bloodbath.”
Senators demanded that CIA officials be held accountable, and they raised concerns that agency leadership, principally during the tenures of former Director Gina Haspel and Mike Pompeo, failed to take complaints from its workforce seriously.
On Friday, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate committee issued a statement characterizing the incidents as “attacks” and vowing to work to uncover their origin.
“For nearly five years, we have been aware of reports of mysterious attacks on United States government personnel in Havana, Cuba and around the world. This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing,” Intelligence Committee Chairman and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee intends to get to the bottom of this. We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more.”
A study by the National Academies of Sciences — completed at the State Department’s request and released late last year — said the “most plausible” cause of the officials’ symptoms was “directed, pulsed, radio-frequency energy.”
Analysts have also questioned, among other things, what would motivate a foreign government to employ a technique with traceable effects on as wide a variety and as large a number of targets as have reported symptoms.
CNN reported last week that the Pentagon and other US federal agencies are also investigating at least two potentially alarming cases on American soil — one just steps from the White House itself.
If this so-called energy device is actually being directed, or pointed at targets, that means it could hit anyone, including heads of state — a terrifying reality.
According to that report, one NSC official became sick after an incident near the south lawn of the White House in November 2019, while a White House official said she had a similar experience while walking her dog in a suburb of nearby Virginia.
President Biden, meanwhile, has taken a more confrontational approach to Russia than his predecessor. His CIA director, William Burns, has also vowed to make investigating the directed energy incidents an “extraordinarily high priority.”
“Under Bill Burns, there seems to be a sea change,” Polymeropoulos, who is now being treated at the Walter Reed military hospital, told The Guardian. “We have to see actions now, not just words. But I have hope.”
Sources: The Guardian, CBS News, CNN, Global News, NBC News, The Independent