WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration
is under renewed pressure to solve a mystery
that has perplexed previous administrations: Is an adversary using a microwave or radio wave weapon to attack
the brains of U.S. diplomats, spies, and military
The number of reported cases of possible attack is rapidly increasing, and lawmakers from both parties, as well as those believed to be affected, are demanding answers. However, scientists and government officials are unsure who might have been behind any attacks, whether the symptoms were caused inadvertently by surveillance equipment — or if the incidents were actually attacks.
Whatever the findings of an official investigation
are, they could have far-reaching consequences. Confirmation that a US adversary has been carrying out damaging attacks against US personnel would trigger calls for a strong US response.
For the time being, the administration is assuring that it is taking the matter seriously, that it is conducting an aggressive investigation, and that those affected will receive adequate medical care.
The problem has been dubbed “Havana Syndrome
,” after the first cases affected personnel at the US Embassy in Cuba
in 2016. At least 130 cases are now being investigated across the government, up from a few dozen last year, according to a US defense official who was not authorized to discuss details publicly. The National Security Council is leading the investigation.
who are thought to have been affected have reported headaches, dizziness, and symptoms consistent with concussions, with some requiring months of medical treatment, and some reporting hearing a loud noise before the sudden onset of symptoms.
Revelations of at least two possible incidents in the Washington area, including one near the White House
in November in which an official complained of dizziness, are particularly concerning.
The New York
Times broke the news
of the increased number of possible cases, while CNN
broke the news of a case near the White House and another incident in November.
Advocates for those affected accuse the United States government of failing to take the problem seriously or to provide the necessary medical care and benefits for a long time.
“The government has a much better understanding of it than it has let on,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who represents several people affected. Zaid obtained National Security Agency
documents indicating that the agency has information dating back to the late 1990s about an unidentified “hostile country” potentially possessing a microwave weapon “to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time.”
Chris Miller, the acting defense secretary during Trump
's final months in office, formed a Pentagon team to investigate the suspected attacks after meeting a soldier late last year who described hearing a "shrieking" sound and then experiencing a splitting headache while serving in a country Miller would not identify.
“He was well-trained, extremely well-trained, and he had been in combat before,” Miller told The Associated Press
. “This is an American, a member of the Department of Defense, and you can't ignore that at that point.”
Defense and intelligence officials have publicly promised to press for answers and better care for those suffering from symptoms. According to Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Defense Department
spokesman, the causes of any incidents are “areas of active inquiry.” Officials have not identified a suspected country, though some people affected suspect Russian involvement.
CIA Director William Burns testified before Congress
that the investigation would be a “very high priority” to ensure that “my colleagues get the care that they deserve and that we get to the bottom of what caused these incidents and who was responsible.”
Burns receives daily updates on the investigation, which includes employees who have reported cases this year, and he has met with those who have reported injuries, as have other top CIA officials. The agency has worked to reduce the wait time for its employees to receive outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The CIA also replaced its chief medical officer with a doctor who was thought to be more sympathetic to potential cases within the agency.
“We were treated so horribly in the past,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year CIA veteran who was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after a trip to Russia in 2017. “Now they’re putting people in place who not only believe us, but will advocate for our health care
The National Academy of Sciences published a report in December that said a radio frequency attack could alter brain function without causing “gross structural damage.” However, the panel could not make a definitive finding on how U.S. personnel may have been hit.
In response to the Havana cases, a declassified 2018 State Department report cited “a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communications, and systemic disorganization,” with the cause of the injuries “currently unknown.” The document was published by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
According to the report, the CIA eventually closed its Havana station, resulting in a victory for a potential adversary.
Dr. James Giordano, a neurology professor at Georgetown University, consulted with the State Department on the Havana cases and has been briefed on more recent incidents in the United States and abroad. In reviewing records of people affected in Havana, Giordano noted neurological injuries in several people, suggesting they were hit with radio waves.
He identified two possible culprits: a device used to intentionally target potential victims or a tool that used directed energy
waves to conduct surveillance, which may have unintentionally harmed the people targeted. One of the November attacks outside the White House had "substantial similarities" to the Havana cases, Giordano said, adding that he was not authorized by the government to be more scathing.
“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to fake or misrepresent certain findings to objective clinical evaluations,” Giordano said, “because there are some things you can’t make your nerves do or not do.”
Other scientists are skeptical, including Dr. Robert Baloh of the University of California
, Los Angeles
, who claims that scans of healthy people's brains occasionally show mini-strokes and that any possible weapon would be too large or require too much power to be deployed without detection.
According to Baloh, the growing number of cases thought to be directed energy attacks is actually linked to "mass psychogenic illness," in which people who learn of others suffering from symptoms begin to feel ill themselves.
“A lot of people are hearing about it, and that is how it spreads,” Baloh explained.
Lawmakers from both parties are urging the Biden administration to take this issue seriously, with a bill introduced in both the House and Senate
on Wednesday that would increase the payment of disability
benefits for traumatic brain injuries sustained in the incidents.
“There’s no greater priority than ensuring our people’s health and safety, and the anomalous health incidents that have afflicted our personnel around the world are of grave concern,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement. Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican
, said the people reporting symptoms “were apparently stricken.”
The former CIA officer, Polymeropoulos, said he believed the US would eventually figure out what was behind the incidents and who was to blame.
“The actual intelligence will lead us to the truth on this,” he said, adding that if we discover that a specific adversary did this, there will be difficult decisions to make about what to do.