Vienna has always been a popular place for espionage activity.
Located centrally in Europe, and, historically the nexus where East and West clashed covertly during the Cold War, it was also popular in literature in movies, namely the film noir masterpiece, The Third Man.
In that film, an out of work pulp fiction novelist, Holly Martins, arrives in a post-war Vienna divided into sectors by the victorious allies, and gets ensared in a murder mystery involving his old school chum, Harry Lime.
Likewise, and in reality, it has also been a sought-after post for US spies.
US intelligence officers, especially those with families, have long sought out assignments in Vienna because the city is seen as a safe, comfortable, an interesting place to live and work.
“Our job is to try to get access to people and recruit them,” John Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014 after a twenty-eight-year career in the National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations, said.
“Vienna is perfect. Everyone is there. It’s good living and it’s good hunting — and you don’t have to worry too much about getting caught.”
That is until now.
According to a report by Adam Entous at The New Yorker, since US President Joe Biden took office, about two dozen US intelligence officers, diplomats, and other government officials in Vienna have reported experiencing mysterious afflictions similar to the Havana Syndrome.
Shockingly, US officials say the number of possible new cases in the Austrian capital is now greater than the number reported by officials in any city except for Havana itself, where the first cases were reported.
The exact cause of the ailments in Vienna, which US government agencies formally refer to as “anomalous health incidents” or “unexplained health incidents,” remains unknown, but in response to the surge the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies are redoubling their efforts to determine the cause, and to identify the culprit or culprits.
A CIA spokesperson said that the agency’s director, William Burns, was “personally engaged with personnel affected by anomalous health incidents and is highly committed to their care and to determining the cause of these incidents.”
The Havana Syndrome derives its name from the Cuban capital, where CIA officers and State Department employees first reported experiencing strange sensations of sound and pressure in their heads in 2016 and 2017, The New Yorker reported.
Some of the patients said the sensations seemed to follow them around their homes, apartments, and hotel rooms in the Cuban capital. Some of the patients described feeling as though they were standing in an invisible beam of energy.
Many of them suffered debilitating symptoms, from headaches and vertigo to vision problems. Specialists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair used advanced MRIs to study the brains of forty of the original patients from Havana.
They found no signs of physical impact to the patients’ skulls — it was as if they had “a concussion without a concussion,” one specialist told me — and the team detected signs of damage to their brains.
Senior officials in the Trump and Biden Administrations suspect that the Russians are responsible for the syndrome.
Their working hypothesis is that operatives working for the GRU, the Russian military-intelligence service, have been aiming microwave-radiation devices at US officials, possibly to steal data from their computers or smartphones, which inflicted serious harm on the people they targeted, The New Yorker reported.
But American intelligence analysts and operatives, and the FBI have so far been unable to find concrete evidence proving that.
After the events in Cuba, a handful of potentially related cases involving CIA and State Department personnel emerged in other countries; one of them involved a CIA officer who, in 2017, woke up in a Moscow hotel room with severe vertigo.
In 2018, American diplomats at the consulate in Guangzhou, China, reported more possible cases, though State Department officials have never disclosed how many of those patients were confirmed to have the syndrome, The New Yorker reported.
In early June, 2019, two White House staffers reported Havana Syndrome-like episodes in a hotel room in London during a state visit by then President Donald Trump. One of those victims subsequently reported an incident outside her home in Virginia.
By mid-2020, at the direction of Trump’s National Security Council, government agencies started to report possible syndrome cases to a special unit within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In the months that followed, dozens of American officials, including members of the US military, came forward to report similar episodes.
Among them were at least two other White House staff members who said they were afflicted while crossing the Ellipse, near the White House. Other cases were reported in Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, among other places.
The Austrian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that the country is working with US authorities to get to the bottom of the reported cases.
“We take these reports very seriously, and in line with our role as host state, we are working with the US authorities on jointly getting to the bottom of this,” the ministry said in a short statement.
“The safety of diplomats posted to Vienna and their families is of the utmost importance to us.”
A retired CIA officer, who says he has been a victim of Havana Syndrome, calls the mysterious and debilitating neurological symptoms “an act of war against US officials.”
Marc Polymeropolous ran clandestine operations across Europe and Asia for the Central Intelligence Agency. So, when he traveled to Moscow in 2017, the watching eyes of Russian intelligence did not faze him.
“Even in my hotel room, I’d go to the gym, and a guy in a black trench coat comes down and, you know, checks on me down there,” he told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge. “Not unexpected. Part of the job.”
Then, in his hotel room, the trip took a dangerous turn.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, because I had this incredible case of vertigo. It felt almost as if I was in some kind of carnival ride. And I’ll tell you, Catherine, I had spent years in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. I put my life on the line. This was the most terrifying experience of my life. I had no control.”
Polymeropoulos said he experienced pressure in his head, a loss of balance, and ringing in the ears.
He said it took three years to get help at Walter Reed military hospital. “They diagnosed me with a traumatic brain injury. It’s on paper. I have it.”
Meanwhile, Vienna has long been a den of spies.
The city is home to many large UN agencies, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, among other international bodies that employ officials from around the world who have access to information of interest to US and foreign intelligence services.
In addition to significant numbers of American, British, Chinese, French, and Russian spies, the Iranians, the Syrians, and the North Koreans, among others, are believed to have operatives on the ground in Vienna.
The annual report of the Austrian Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT) says Austria is a “favoured area of operations” for foreign spies and the number of intelligence agents remains “high.”
The city is currently hosting indirect talks between Iran and the US over attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
A former chief in the Austrian intelligence service once told the Telegraph that more than 7,000 spies operated in Vienna, a city of nearly 1.8 million people.
It’s “a nice place for spies to live and bring their families,” he added.
Traditionally, Austria’s domestic-security services have turned a blind eye to foreign-intelligence operations on Austrian soil as long as those operations don’t threaten Austrian interests.
“If you spy against other governments in Vienna, you’re left alone. That’s what everybody likes,” Siegfried Beer, the founder of the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda, and Security Studies, located on the campus of the University of Graz, said.
“This is why, when spies are detected, they disappear quickly.”
Sources: The New Yorker, CBC News, BBC News, CBS News, The Daily Beast, The Telegraph