WASHINGTON — For months the CIA and government scientists have been working to find a cause for the chronic conditions reported by intelligence officers and diplomats — but the health incidents, known as Havana syndrome, remain as mysterious today as they were a year ago.
Intelligence officials have found no hard evidence pointing to a cause. There are no interceptions of intelligence indicating a hostile espionage agency. No one has detected microwaves, other measurements of energy pulses or other weapons that could be to blame.
Some officials say they remain convinced that Russia is involved. And CIA director William J. Burns warned during his trip to Moscow this month: If Russia were found responsible, there would be consequences.
The effort to develop evidence demonstrates the difficulty of the problem, suggesting that without a major breakthrough—evidence that someone is using a device or an informant telling the CIA what’s going on—getting answers can be a slow, frustrating, and potentially controversial process, especially for those affected.
Some outside experts have raised the possibility that the symptoms — chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea, and others — are a type of psychosomatic response to stress called a “functional illness” — a suggestion rejected by victims and many government officials.
Some scientists believe that sensory discomfort, such as the strange noises, heat, or pressure associated with cases of Havana syndrome, combined with anxiety, can cause real symptoms and illness.
There are now 750 official reports of possible anomalous health incidents, according to people who have been briefed about the cases, but about three-quarters are no longer under investigation as probable cases of Havana syndrome. Some reports lacked the required sensory experience, such as heat, pressure, or sound, before symptoms started, and others were found to have separate environmental or medical explanations. Of those cases, some may turn out to be psychosomatic, according to intelligence-informed people.
But of the 200 or so mysterious incidents still under active investigation, the Biden administration doesn’t believe they were caused by functional illness or other psychosomatic reactions. In those cases, a US official said, multiple explanations remain possible, including directed energy, sonic devices or other medical explanations.
Directed energy, such as microwaves, remains one of the theories, perhaps the leading theory, according to US officials. But so far, the CIA has been unable to gather hard evidence to show that one of the people suffering from Havana syndrome symptoms was hit with some kind of energy pulse.
Agencies across government are looking for clues they may have missed that could help unravel the mystery, according to officials familiar with the effort. The investigation, including the FBI, NSA and CIA, involves reviewing forensic evidence, including surveillance tapes from US embassies. The government is also taking steps to track down any targeted energy targeting American diplomats and spies abroad.
An official said the work showed the various agencies’ determination to get to the bottom of what is happening. But, the official warned, the work could take some time. The government had to find “the right answer”, not “the easy answer,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because much of the government’s work to determine the cause of the incidents is secret.
US officials have repeatedly said the symptoms people are suffering are real, and the CIA, the Biden administration and Congress have taken steps to improve access to medical care and improve compensation for victims who can no longer work.
“What I know, after speaking to dozens and dozens of my colleagues who have been victimized, is that real people are being harmed,” Burns told a congressional hearing last month.
In a report last year, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that a microwave weapon, a form of pulsed focused energy, was the most likely cause. Recent studies have shown that focused energy or microwaves can cause brain injury and symptoms like those of Havana syndrome.
Others who inquired about the intelligence said the lack of evidence is mind-boggling because the types of focused energy known to cause injuries must be detectable. The lack of evidence could mean that a hostile power is using technology unknown and undetectable to the United States.
It could also mean that the theory that directed energy is used is wrong.
Some government officials believe Russia is responsible for at least some of the incidents, and have deliberately targeted US military personnel and CIA agents. During a trip to Moscow this month, Mr. Burns told Russian officials that any type of surgery that caused serious brain damage to American personnel was banned by Russian spy services, and that there would be consequences if Russia were held responsible, according to people talking about the talks. are informed. The Washington Post previously reported Mr Burns’ warning to Russian officials.
It was the second time senior US officials have raised the issue with their Russian counterparts, who have consistently denied any involvement. President Biden raised the issue with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia earlier this year at their summit in Geneva.
US intelligence agencies have also failed to intercept communications about rival foreign services using a device on US diplomats or spies. Finding an informant who can shed light on some foreign intelligence or intercept communications from rival spies is a top intelligence agency priority, according to people briefed on the investigation.
In addition, the medical personnel working with the intelligence community have also failed to develop a concrete diagnosis or test that can determine who has been the victim and who has other types of medical conditions.
The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome
What is Havana Syndrome? The mysterious illness, which has affected military officers, CIA personnel and diplomats around the world, manifests itself in numerous ailments such as chronic headaches, dizziness and nausea.
Individual victims have said their doctors have found blood markers consistent with concussions and brain scans showing injury or nerve damage. But researchers looking at the broad group of victims who have reported symptoms have been unable to find a pattern, such as a diagnostic test result common to the victims.
Mark Lenzi, a foreign ministry official who was injured in Guangzhou, China, said cognitive tests show similar deficits in many people with Havana syndrome, especially in exercises involving three-dimensional shape rotations. Such tests are given to fighter pilots, and both the Air Force and Navy have tested Mr Lenzi earlier in his career, results that can be compared with more recent evaluations.
The government, Mr Lenzi also said, has measurements showing the presence of dangerous levels of microwave energy in China. In an unclassified worker compensation report he filed with the Labor Department, Mr. Lenzi how his neighbor in China used a commercial detector to capture high levels of microwave energy in the apartment next door to his.
But follow-up government tests used a classified device that is widely known not to be as reliable at detecting focused energy, Mr. Lenzi, whose work includes countering foreign wiretapping, including by using focused energy. If the government says that directed energy is a theory but there is no evidence, “That is simply not true,” Mr Lenzi said
“They have lectures, especially in Guangzhou,” he said.
To lead the search for the cause of the incidents and to improve medical care for the injured, the CIA established the Global Health Incident Cell, a group that has reviewed all reports.
A senior US official said the intelligence community “wants a breakthrough because we want to know what or the things that are causing damage.” Finding an answer, whatever it is, can not only help the government stop the cause, but also help doctors treat the ailments.
Some former government officials say the episodes go back decades. Listening devices used by the Russian government in the 1990s targeting CIA agents working in the US embassy are believed by some to have caused nausea and other symptoms.
But the most recent spate of incidents began in Cuba in late 2016, where 40 CIA agents and diplomats said they heard strange noises and then reported headaches and nausea in episodes through May 2018. Those longest exposed have chronic disabilities. reported.
Since then, American diplomats have been injured in Guangzhou and other cities in China. More than two dozen US officials have reported symptoms in Vienna. There are other reports around the world involving military officers, CIA personnel and diplomats.