The intelligence community still isn’t sure who is causing the strange array of nervous system symptoms, or if they can be definitively termed “attacks.” Even the technology that might cause such an inconsistent set of symptoms is a matter of debate.
The second official, whose case has not been previously reported, was struck weeks later near an entrance to the White House grounds, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN. The second official suffered more serious symptoms and was ill enough to seek immediate medical treatment, the sources said.
This story is based on interviews with over a dozen current and former officials with knowledge of the US efforts to respond to these mysterious incidents.
There have also been suspected cases in Europe, CNN previously reported, and additional suspected cases are being investigated domestically, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
‘Anomalous health incidents’
Under pressure from lawmakers and victims, the Biden administration has dramatically ramped up its efforts to “identify the cause of these incidents, determine attribution, increase collection efforts, and prevent” what the intelligence community now terms “anomalous health incidents,” a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement on Tuesday.
CIA Director Bill Burns has begun to receive daily briefings on the matter, including some from victims of these strange encounters, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
But even a definitive diagnosis proving any one case is, in fact, “Havana Syndrome,” has proven frustratingly difficult, officials say. Victims suffer a myriad of different symptoms both initially and over time, and scientists, engineers and medical experts are divided over whether all of the cases under investigation can be attributed to a single cause.
The government has successfully identified and fielded a blood test that can point to some markers that may indicate exposure, according to two US officials with direct knowledge of the matter. That test was among the diagnostic tools used in recent cases of intelligence officers who reported symptoms consistent with Havana Syndrome, and in the case of at least one of the White House victims, according to sources familiar with the matter. But the test alone is not enough to offer a clear diagnosis.
Multiple agencies are also trying to create or repurpose a type of sensor that could be used to detect anomalous activity and, theoretically, help establish that personnel are being hit, according to two current US officials and one former US official — although sources cautioned such a tool would only be able to detect the activity, not protect from it.
“How do you counter something you don’t know is coming?” said one intelligence official.
“The whole ‘microwave’ theory is not because someone has any intelligence to suggest it, or someone saw it happen,” said one source familiar with the intelligence on the matter. “This is what’s been so maddening. It’s based purely on symptoms.”
“We have no hard leads — just all circumstantial evidence,” the official added. “And it’s circumstantial evidence that could also be something completely different.”
A National Security Agency memo made public in 2014 revealed that the agency had intelligence from as recently as 2012 pointing to the possible existence of “a high-powered microwave system weapon … designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.” But the memo did not definitively confirm the existence of such a weapon, or which country may have developed it.
And some officials have questioned how such a weapon might be discreetly powered — especially in crowded downtown Washington — and focused so precisely that it would only cause injury to the target’s brain and not the rest of the body.
Equally murky is who might be behind these incidents, if they are indeed attacks. Some evidence points to Russia as a likely culprit, officials say, but it is largely circumstantial: Russia is one of only a few countries that has dedicated research and development to what some experts believe could be the kind of weapon that could cause symptoms consistent with Havana Syndrome.
Some officials tracking Havana Syndrome suggest that, if a foreign adversary is using some kind of directed energy weapon, the intent may not be to harass or maim US personnel, but rather to collect information from their cell phones.
“I don’t know if they stumbled across a collection mechanism that allows it to be used as a weapon system or if they are just trying to collect (data from cell phones) and it (causes) adverse side effects,” said one person with direct knowledge of the incidents. “From what I read that the jury’s still out on what exactly people thought it was.”
‘We don’t have the smoking gun’
The new incidents, including those in Washington, have sparked growing frustration among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who say the intelligence community has failed to provide Congress with enough information on what it knows and how it’s responding — and has not properly taken care of the victims.
“I’m appalled that many of these individuals who were injured in the line of duty have had to fight to get adequate medical care, to have their injuries even recognized and acknowledge and to receive financial compensation,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees have been demanding additional details and have urged intelligence officials to declassify information about the attacks. Lawmakers have praised Burns’ stated commitment to the issue, but a recent closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on the subject was one of the committee’s most contentious in recent memory, according to two sources familiar with the briefing.
Congress has also expressed concern that the government has failed to sufficiently coordinate efforts out of multiple agencies — including the Pentagon, intelligence community and State Department — to address the problem.
“There are lots of entities in the government looking at this. We need to have it better coordinated,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner. “I think there’s a level of seriousness given to this now that frankly was not there until Director Burns came and made this a priority.”
The Virginia Democrat said it was frustrating that after five years since these apparent attacks began occurring, there’s still difficulty in everything from taking care of those who have been injured to determining who is responsible and even what tools or weapons were used.
For some victims of these strange incidents — some of whom are suffering from debilitating ongoing health problems — the government’s response has been equally frustrating. Current and former officials say that during the Trump administration, individuals who reported experiencing these symptoms weren’t always believed.
“It took a while for certain people to take it very serious,” said one official with direct knowledge of the incidents.
Even now, officials who report these symptoms are closely screened to confirm whether their symptoms are physical or psychosomatic.
“The problem with the handful (of episodes) that I know have happened here in this country (is) the smoking gun,” said the official. “We don’t have the smoking gun.”