The CIA’s interim finding that a single global power is probably not carrying out attacks on U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials abroad is hardly the last word. The intelligence community must continue to hunt for who or what is behind it, and the Biden administration must show compassion to a large cohort of government employees in distress.
What’s been called “Havana syndrome” began in 2016, when U.S. officials stationed in Cuba reported symptoms that included headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and memory loss after hearing strange noises and feeling odd sensations. A report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 suggested a cause for the injuries could be the use of “directed, pulsed radio frequency” energy. As the number of cases blossomed, the diagnoses became more varied. The perpetrator has never been identified.
Much speculation has focused in recent years on Russia, which has denied responsibility. Now a senior CIA official has announced, “We have assessed that it is unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism.” This statement does not exclude the possibility that lesser actors — perhaps subcontracted — are responsible for the attacks, nor does it rule out that multiple sources are to blame. That might explain the diverse locations where the victims report being hit, although if such a large group of attackers was afoot, it might also increase the chances the culprits would be caught. So far, no one has. The intelligence community must keep burrowing into the question, and we hope that a report from a panel of experts who have scrutinized the classified material will be forthcoming soon.
President Donald Trump and his administration fumbled a response to the problem. President Biden and Congress have done a considerably better job over the past year, with the signing into law of a bill to address the needs of those affected. Initially, there were a few dozen cases, and a subset of those victims reported very similar symptoms. In the past year, however, the number of cases has exploded to more than 1,000 with a heterogeneity of symptoms. The two major clusters have been from Havana and Vienna, although other cases have occurred around the world.
This poses a difficult but not insurmountable challenge for the CIA and the administration. They must address all — and we mean every last one — of the employees with the care and attention befitting Americans who went abroad to serve their country. No doubt among such a large group there will be conditions that can be explained by other factors, such as environmental hazards and extremely stressful duty, but no one should be excluded casually. The administration must show all those considering a post abroad that the United States will have their back, no matter what. At the same time, there is a smaller group of victims with injuries that may help point the way to a cause and perpetrators, and there is every reason to focus on them for forensic clues. This troubling challenge is not yet resolved.
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