The Washington Post
Report: ‘Havana syndrome’ is not an attack
Intelligence assessment debunks theory about an enemy energy weapon
The mysterious ailment known as “Havana syndrome” did not result from the actions of a foreign adversary, according to an intelligence report that shatters a long-disputed theory that hundreds of U.S. personnel were targeted and sickened by a clandestine enemy wielding energy waves as a weapon.
The new intelligence assessment caps a years-long effort by the CIA and several other U.S. intelligence agencies to explain why career diplomats, intelligence officers and others serving in U.S. missions around the world experienced what they described as strange and painful acoustic sensations. The effects of this mysterious trauma shortened careers, racked up large medical bills and in some cases caused severe physical and emotional suffering.
Many of the afflicted personnel say they were the victims of a deliberate attack — possibly at the hands of Russia or another adversarial government — a claim that the report contradicts in nearly every respect, according to two intelligence officials who are familiar with the assessment and described it to The Washington Post.
Seven intelligence agencies participated in the review of approximately 1,000 cases of “anomalous health incidents,” the term the government uses to describe a constellation of physical symptoms including ringing in the ears followed by pressure in the head and nausea, headaches and acute discomfort.
Five of those agencies determined it was “very unlikely” that
a foreign adversary was responsible for the symptoms, either as the result of purposeful actions — such as a directed energy weapon — or as the byproduct of some other activity, including electronic surveillance that unintentionally could have made people sick, the officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the findings of the assessment, which had not yet been made public.
One agency, which the officials did not name, determined that it was “unlikely” that a foreign actor was at fault, a slightly less emphatic finding that did not appreciably change the consensus. One agency abstained in its conclusion regarding a foreign actor. But when asked, no agency dissented from the conclusion that a foreign actor did not cause the symptoms, one of the intelligence officials said.
The symptoms were first reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016.
The officials said that as analysts examined clusters of reported cases, including at U.S. embassies, they found no pattern or common set of conditions that could link individual cases. They also found no evidence, including forensic information or geolocation data, that would suggest an adversary had used a form of directed energy such as radio waves or ultrasonic beams. In some cases, there was no “direct line of sight” to affected personnel working at U.S. facilities, further casting doubt on the possibility that a hypothetical energy weapon could have been the culprit, one of the officials said.
One of the officials said that even in geographic locations where U.S. intelligence effectively had total ability to monitor the environment for signs of malicious interference, analysts found no evidence of an adversary targeting personnel.
“There was nothing,” the official said. This person added that there was no intelligence that foreign leaders, including in Russia, had any knowledge of or had authorized an attack on U.S. personnel that could explain the symptoms.
The second official, who described a frustrating “mystery” as to why longtime colleagues had become ill, said analysts spent months churning data, looking for patterns and inventing new analytic methodologies, only to come up with no single plausible explanation.
Both officials said the intelligence community remained open to new ideas and evidence. For instance, if information emerged that a foreign adversary had made progress developing the technology for an energy weapon, that might cause analysts to adjust their assessments.
But they essentially foreclosed the possibility that Russia or another adversarial government or nonstate actor was behind the mysterious syndrome.
“One always wants to be humble,” one official said. “And we looked at what [additional information] we would need” to change the conclusions. The official added that some work on finding a source for the health conditions continues, notably at the Defense Department, and that intelligence agencies were prepared to lend their support to that effort.
In a statement, CIA Director William J. Burns said analysts had conducted “one of the largest and most intensive investigations in the Agency’s history. I and my leadership team stand firmly behind the work conducted and the findings.”
Current and former CIA personnel who have suffered symptoms have praised Burns for ensuring their claims were taken seriously and that they received medical treatment, whether or not their illness could be attributed to a foreign actor or any other cause.
“I want to be absolutely clear: these findings do not call into question the experiences and real health issues that US Government personnel and their family members — including CIA’S own officers — have reported while serving our country,” Burns said. “We will continue to remain alert to any risks to the health and wellbeing of Agency officers, to ensure access to care, and to provide officers the compassion and respect they deserve.”
“Needless to say, these findings do not call into question the very real experiences and symptoms that our colleagues and their family members have reported,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement.
The intelligence assessment also examined whether an adversary possessed a device capable of using energy to cause the reported symptoms. Of the seven agencies, five determined that it was “very unlikely,” while the other two said it was “unlikely.”
Over the years, government agencies including the State Department and FBI were unable to substantiate the use of an energy weapon.
But the new assessment is at odds with the view of an independent panel of experts, which last year found that an external energy source plausibly could explain the symptoms. The panel, which was convened by the intelligence community, suggested that a foreign power could have harnessed “pulsed electromagnetic energy” that made people sick.
The expert panel’s findings also were consistent with earlier conclusions of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which found that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases.”
David Relman, who headed the National Academies investigation and co-chaired the intelligence community experts panel, and had not reviewed the final intelligence assessment, said the energy weapon hypothesis remains viable.
“There are multiple possible explanations for the apparent discrepancy between the failure to identify a malefactor and the plausibility of directed energy as a mechanism. One should not necessarily discount the latter,” Relman told The Post.
The new intelligence report may represent the official word on the strange health ailment, but it probably won’t be the last word on the matter.
Representatives and lawyers for people suffering with symptoms lambasted the new report as incomplete and opaque. They called on intelligence agencies to disclose more information about how they reached their conclusions and to investigate other leads they said remained poorly examined.
“Until the shrouds of secrecy are lifted and the analysis that led to today’s assertions are available and subject to proper challenge, the alleged conclusions are substantively worthless,” Mark S. Zaid, an attorney representing more than two dozen people experiencing symptoms, said in a statement.
An advocacy group composed of current and former officials also took aim at the intelligence report’s findings, saying it “does not track with our lived experiences, nor does it account for what many medical professionals across multiple institutions have found in working with us. Our doctors have determined that environmental or preexisting medical issues did not cause the symptoms and traumatic injuries to our neurological systems that many of us have been diagnosed with,” the group Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome said in a statement.
Michael R. Turner (R- Ohio) and Jim Himes (D- Conn), the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, stopped short of endorsing the report, but didn’t dispute its findings. In a statement they said would “seek to ensure the review was conducted with the highest degree of analytical rigor and that it considered all the available intelligence and perspectives, documenting all substantial differences in analysis.”
Some current and former officials whose conditions remained unexplained say that the CIA and other intelligence agencies did not sufficiently investigate the possibility that an energy weapon was used against them. They argue that analysts could have done more to find correlations between, say, the travel histories of suspected Russian intelligence operatives and the times and places where symptoms were reported.
Intelligence officials counter that analysts looked closely at that possibility and devoted extraordinary resources to the search for a possible cause. A dedicated group staffed by seasoned analysts and led by a senior CIA officer was set up to study the issue. People involved in the analysis have described it as the most complex and difficult challenge of their careers. In the end, they found no pattern to connect reported cases to a potential cause.
The CIA and other agencies also devoted more resources to providing medical care for afflicted personnel, a move that some sufferers applauded, saying that in the first years that symptoms were reported, they were treated skeptically by their managers and medical experts.
A senior official said on Wednesday that the Biden administration would continue to ensure personnel receive medical care and that it would process requests under a law that compensates government employees who experienced symptoms and in some cases had to stop working. Some individuals will be eligible for payments in the sixfigure range.
“Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our workforce,” Maher Bitar, the senior director for intelligence programs on the National Security Council, said in a statement.
“Since the start of the BidenHarris Administration, we have focused on ensuring that our colleagues have access to the care and support they need. … Our commitment to the health and safety of U.S. Government personnel remains unwavering,” said Bitar, who is the interagency coordinator for the response to anomalous health incidents.
Early in the Biden administration, officials encouraged government employees who thought they were experiencing symptoms associated with the health incidents to come forward. That, the intelligence officials acknowledged, led to a flood of reported cases, most of which were attributed to other factors, such as preexisting medical conditions.
The final report’s conclusions are in keeping with an earlier interim assessment by the same group of agencies, which found that the health incidents probably were not the work of another country mounting a global attack.
“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,” a senior CIA official said at the time.
Intelligence analysts had reviewed cases that were reported on every continent except Antarctica. The vast majority of them were attributed to preexisting medical conditions or environmental or other factors, the official said.
The earlier, interim assessment had left open the possibility that a few dozen individuals whose symptoms remained unexplained, which the official called “the toughest cases,” might have been targeted in isolated attacks. “Our work is continuing, and we are not done yet,” the official said at the time.
Many of those afflicted were serving in U.S. embassies or diplomatic facilities or were traveling overseas when they fell ill. Children of U.S. government personnel also have reported symptoms.
But in the end, the final intelligence report found that medical experts could not attribute the symptoms to an external cause separate from a preexisting condition or environmental factors, including conditions such as clogged air ducts in office buildings that could cause headaches, the officials aid.
Over time, the state of medical understanding about the condition has evolved in ways that point away from a foreign adversary’s involvement, the officials said.
State Department personnel serving in U.S. embassies are among those who have reported symptoms over the years. Despite the new conclusions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remains of the view that something happened to those employees who have reported significant ailments, and he is committed to making sure they are cared for, said a person familiar with Blinken’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a divisive topic within the department.
Blinken has long doubted that personnel are suffering from mass hysteria or some psychogenic event, officials have said. Previous investigations, notably by the FBI, had raised the possibility that the symptoms had a psychological origin, not a physical one, outraging many sufferers who felt their pain had been marginalized and their claims not taken seriously by medical personnel. Experts have emphasized that even if the illnesses were psychogenic, that doesn’t mean sufferers are imagining their symptoms.
“Those who have been affected have real stories to tell — their pain is real,” Blinken wrote to all U.S. diplomats when the CIA previewed its interim findings. “There is no doubt in my mind about that.” Blinken called the symptoms described by people he met with as “gut wrenching.”
The independent experts panel also cast doubt on a psychological cause. “Psychosocial factors alone cannot account for the core characteristics, although they may cause some other incidents or contribute to long-term symptoms,” they wrote.
Some proponents of the hypothesis that a foreign actor is to blame and who were familiar with the new report’s findings said they felt frustrated and weren’t ready to abandon the possibility that a foreign government, probably Russia, was at work. They have pointed out that the drop in recent reported symptoms has coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin’s resources were spread too thin to continue a possible campaign against U.S. personnel.
“The timing is deeply suspicious,” a State Department official said.
There have been no accounts of Russia introducing a new type of energy weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine.
At the height of public concern about Havana syndrome, U.S. officials who questioned or were even neutral on the possible cause faced significant scrutiny.
The CIA recalled its top officer in Vienna in 2021 after he was accused of not taking claims seriously enough, among other criticisms.
Also that year, the State Department’s top official overseeing cases, Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, left her position after six months amid calls for her resignation. Spratlen had held a teleconference with sufferers who asked about the FBI study that determined that the symptoms were psychogenic. Spratlen declined to say whether she believed the FBI study was accurate, angering diplomats who say their symptoms are the result of an attack, said people familiar with the matter.