March 29, 2023

CIA director “fuming” after Havana syndrome strikes team member in India

CIA director “fuming” after Havana syndrome strikes team member in India
CIA director “fuming” after Havana syndrome strikes team member in IndiaCIA director “fuming” after Havana syndrome strikes team member in India
William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), arrives for a closed hearing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.
Enlarge / William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), arrives for a closed hearing at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

A US intelligence officer traveling in India earlier this month with CIA director William Burns reported experiencing a mysterious health incident and symptoms consistent with so-called Havana syndrome, according to a report by CNN. The officer received immediate medical care upon returning to the US.

The case raises fears that such incidents are not only increasing, but potentially escalating, unnamed officials told CNN and The New York Times. The new incident within Burns’ own team reportedly left the CIA chief “fuming” with anger.

The director’s schedule is tightly guarded, and officials do not know if the affected intelligence officer was targeted because the officer was traveling with the director. If the health incident was an attack carried out by an adversarial intelligence agency—as feared—it’s unclear how the adversarial agency learned of the trip and was able to prepare an attack. It’s also possible, however, that the officer was targeted for other reasons and without knowledge that the officer was traveling with the director.

A CIA spokesperson told CNN only, “We don’t comment on specific incidents or officers. We have protocols in place for when individuals report possible anomalous health incidents that include receiving appropriate medical treatment. We will keep doing everything we can to protect our officers.”

The incident is the second high-profile case in less than a month. On August 24, another so-called “anomalous health incident” affecting US embassy staff in Hanoi, Vietnam, came to light. It is still unclear how many staff members were affected in that incident, but NBC News reported that two US personnel were medevaced out of the country.

The initial report of that incident came just as Vice President Kamala Harris was set to fly to Hanoi from Singapore as part of a planned weeklong visit. News of the incident kept Harris grounded at Singapore’s Paya Lebar Air Base aboard Air Force Two for more than three hours until officials determined it was safe to proceed.

At the time, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Hanoi, Rachael Chen, confirmed in a statement that “the Vice President’s traveling delegation was delayed from departing Singapore because the Vice President’s office was made aware of a report of a recent possible anomalous health incident in Hanoi, Vietnam. After careful assessment, the decision was made to continue with the Vice President’s trip.”

Cases and questions

Overall, there are now more than 300 possible cases among US personnel from around the globe and stretching back years, according to reporting by CNN.

The incidents first came to light in late 2016 among US and Canadian diplomats and their families stationed in Havana, Cuba, giving the cases their current moniker of Havana syndrome. A series of similar cases were later widely reported among US personnel serving in a US consulate in Guangzhou, China. Since then, cases have been reported elsewhere in Asia, Europe, Russia, and even a few in the US. At least two US officials have reported incidents in the Washington, DC, area in the past few years, including one near the White House grounds.

Though the Biden administration has stepped up efforts to investigate the incidents and provide medical care and support for those affected, much about the cases remains a mystery. It is still not definitively known if the incidents are even intentional attacks.

Generally, the incidents involve people experiencing directional sounds and/or sensations that cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, ringing in the ears, balance problems, and/or other symptoms that are largely consistent with mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions. Comprehensive medical evaluations of some of the US personnel affected in Havana concluded they had sustained “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” US personnel who experience anything like these incidents are advised to leave the area they are in immediately.

But who and/or what is causing the incidents and injuries are still weighty unknowns. Medical and scientific experts have speculated that the cause may be anything from pesticide exposures to malfunctioning surveillance equipment, a collective delusion (mass psychogenic illness), or even simply the irritating sounds of randy crickets.

A leading hypothesis, however, continues to be that the incidents are indeed attacks, which are carried out by Russian operatives using a covert microwave-energy device. A panel of experts with the National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that directed pulsed radiofrequency energy was the “most plausible” cause of the incidents and injuries. Russian scientists have a long history of researching related technology and its effects on people. Russian authorities have reportedly denied any involvement in the incidents.