An undercover Central Intelligence Agency officer who helped hunt down Osama bin Laden will now lead the agency task force charged with investigating the mysterious health incidents that continue to plague US personnel, according to a report Wednesday from The Wall Street Journal.
The incidents, first reported in 2016 among US diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba, tend to involve bizarre episodes of sonic and sensory experiences that are often described as directional. Afflicted diplomats develop symptoms including headaches, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), nosebleeds, difficulty concentrating and recalling words, permanent hearing loss, and speech problems. Medical experts examining some of the cases have found evidence of “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” That is, sufferers appear to a have a concussion without a blow to the head.
Despite years of alarming reports and investigations into the cases, the cause of the incidents and who may be behind them remain a mystery—and cases continue to mount. News of the new task-force chief comes on the heels of a report from NBC News that the latest case count may be as high as 200. And though the incidents tend to be linked to Cuba—the condition is often referred to as “Havana Syndrome”—they have now been reported from every continent except Antarctica.
Last week, The New Yorker first reported that, in the months since President Joe Biden took office, there have been about two dozen cases reported from Vienna, Austria. The reports were from US intelligence officers, diplomats, and other government officials. If the cases are confirmed, Vienna would have more cases than any other city so far, except for Havana.
But previously, cases had also been reported from Guangzhou, China, elsewhere in Asia, various places in Europe, Russia, and even the US. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that at least two US government officials reported incidents around the District of Columbia. One instance was reported to have occurred last November involving a National Security Council official who reported being sickened while near the Ellipse, the White House’s large, oval-shaped southern lawn.
One striking case, noted in a report in The New York Times in May, was reported by a military officer while he was driving in an unnamed Asian capital. According to the Times, the officer:
pulled his vehicle into an intersection, then was overcome by nausea and headaches, according to four current and former officials briefed on the events. His 2-year-old son, sitting in the back seat, began crying. After the officer pulled away from the intersection, his nausea stopped, and the child stopped crying.
Both received medical attention from the government, though it is not clear whether they suffered long-term debilitating effects.
A leading hypothesis among intelligence officials continues to be that the incidents are attacks, potentially carried out by Russian operatives and potentially involving some sort of covert microwave-energy device.
Late last year, a panel of experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that the “most plausible mechanism” that explains the diplomats’ experiences and symptoms is directed pulsed radiofrequency energy. Though some scientists are skeptical of the hypothesis, the expert panel and the doctors who have examined the cases say they’ve ruled out other leading suggestions, including a mass psychogenic illness (MPI), chemical agents, and infectious diseases.
As for the Russians being behind the attacks, that, too, still remains conjecture. Intelligence officials have said they have geolocation data that indicates Russian operatives were in the area at the time of some of the incidents. However, Russian operatives are known to keep track of US operatives, and their presence alone does not prove they were involved. The New Yorker article points out that the recent cases in Vienna may also point to Russia. The article called the city a “den of spies” and “a nexus of US and Russian espionage.” In addition, the experts with the National Academies of Sciences noted that there was “significant research” in Russia on pulsed radiofrequency energy’s effects on people.
Though nothing is conclusive, NBC News uncovered information that the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service “helped develop and deploy small physical detection devices in Cuba and a handful of other posts” aimed at detecting pulsed microwaves. Three people with knowledge of the devices spoke to the outlet, but they declined to provide further detail, saying that it was classified.
For now, the Biden administration has said it is intensifying its efforts to understand and prevent the incidents. The new chief of the CIA’s task force is reportedly a veteran of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and has spent more than a decade on intelligence analysis and targeting, according to The Wall Street Journal. The rest of the task force includes a range of CIA specialists, such as intelligence analysts, clandestine officers who collect human intelligence, clinicians, and human resource specialists, the Journal reported.