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CIA finds no ‘worldwide campaign’ by any foreign power behind mysterious ‘Havana syndrome’

The U. S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where personnel first reported unexplained physical symptoms in 2016.
The U. S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where personnel first reported unexplained physical symptoms in 2016. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The Central Intelligence Agency has determined that a foreign country is probably not mounting a global attack aimed at U.S. personnel who have reported painful and sometimes debilitating physical symptoms, a significant finding that could undermine some officials’ suspicion that Russia is to blame for a years-long series of mysterious illnesses.

A senior CIA official stressed that the agency’s investigation continues. But the interim finding drew swift criticism from people who say they were victimized and accused the agency of trying to prematurely close the case. Some officials and lawmakers urged patience while the investigation continues and seemed to distance themselves from the CIA’s conclusions.

“We assess it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism,” said a senior CIA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the agency.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed a question about a Central Intelligence Agency report on Havana syndrome while speaking in Germany on Jan. 20. (Video: The Washington Post)

That leaves open the possibility that a foreign power could be responsible for cases that cannot be attributed to medical conditions or other factors, the official said.

Since the first cases of personnel suffering from symptoms including dizziness and headaches were reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016, government investigators have reviewed more than 1,000 cases of what officials have termed “anomalous health incidents,” the official said.

The symptoms, which are accompanied by sensations such as ringing in the ears, have come to be known commonly as “Havana syndrome,” and have been reported by intelligence, diplomatic and military personnel on every continent except Antarctica.

The majority of cases could be attributed to a preexisting medical condition or environmental or other factors, the senior official said. “A few dozen” of those incidents, which the official called “the toughest cases,” could not be explained and will receive further scrutiny, the official said. “Our work is continuing, and we are not done yet.”

But another U.S. official said the category of unexplained cases was larger than a few dozen and noted that other investigations are pending, including by a panel of independent experts and other government agencies, and they might reach different conclusions than those of the CIA.

Unanswered questions loom over Biden administration push to strengthen ‘Havana syndrome’ response

On Wednesday evening, a group whose members think they and some of their family members were attacked rejected the agency’s findings. “The CIA’s newly issued report may be labeled ‘interim’ and it may leave open the door for some alternative explanation in some cases, but to scores of dedicated public servants, their families, and their colleagues, it has a ring of finality and repudiation,” the group Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome said in a statement.

The CIA declined to comment on the statement.

The rollout of the report caught some officials at other agencies by surprise, said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal communications. The official said other agencies were not adequately informed before the CIA briefed Congress.

The official added that while there was no substantive disagreement with the agency’s finding, the conclusion that most of the reported cases could be explained by medical or environmental factors was still likely to complicate the effort at the State Department and other agencies to better support employees who have reported problems and improve medical care.

It could also make it more difficult to implement a law signed by President Biden last year which would compensate victims of anomalous health incidents, the official said.

A CIA official said that the agency “has worked in lockstep with other government agencies on this rigorous investigation. These interim findings were well coordinated within the intelligence community.”

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the CIA report in a letter to State Department employees obtained by The Washington Post.

“These findings do not call into question the fact that our colleagues are reporting real experiences and are suffering real symptoms,” Blinken wrote, echoing assurances from the CIA that the agency is focused on providing medical care to anyone who is suffering.

But Blinken didn’t endorse the CIA’s conclusions, which he attributed to “our colleagues in the intelligence community” and described only as an assessment of a global, sustained campaign against many U.S. personnel.

“We are going to continue to bring all of our resources to bear in learning more about these incidents, and there will be additional reports to follow. We will leave no stone unturned,” he wrote.

The chairs of the congressional intelligence oversight committees portrayed the CIA’s report as a first step in an ongoing investigation.

“It’s important to note that today’s assessment, while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement. The Senate Intelligence Committee chairman added that he “look[ed] forward” to the report from the panel of experts.

In the House, chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement that the CIA report was “a first step toward answering the many questions that we have about these incidents, but it is far from the last.”

Pressure had mounted on the Biden administration to get to the bottom of the mystery after some former government personnel who have experienced the symptoms accused Trump administration officials of ignoring their plight or being too quick to dismiss their symptoms as imaginary.

Over the past year, more government personnel came forward to report symptoms, after their managers in the intelligence community, State Department and the military encouraged them to do so. That led to a flood of cases that had to be investigated, and most of those were attributed to some known cause, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.

In a statement, CIA Director William J. Burns pledged to provide medical care for those who were afflicted, even if the cause of their illness remains unknown.

“We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, sound tradecraft and compassion, and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge,” Burns said. “While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done. We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it. While underlying causes may differ, our officers are suffering real symptoms. Our commitment to care is unwavering.”

State Dept. names new team to oversee ‘Havana syndrome’ response

The Biden administration has sought to develop plans for providing compensation and improved medical care to those affected by the phenomenon.

Under the Havana Act, which Biden signed into law in October, the administration has six months to establish a framework for making payments to individuals who have suffered from related health incidents.

But efforts to deal with the episodes had been complicated by officials’ inability to establish a clear diagnosis for a spate of symptoms that while sometimes debilitating are also common.

While investigators had uncovered no hard evidence, some senior officials and lawmakers have maintained that Russia may be targeting U.S. personnel and their families with a powerful form of directed energy, either with the intent to surveil or inflict harm. Canadian diplomats have also reported being affected.

Ryan reported from Geneva.

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