Top senators are downplaying and criticizing a new interim CIA assessment on the mysterious illness known as Havana Syndrome, the latest salvo in a years-long battle for transparency between Capitol Hill and the intelligence agencies.
The interim report, detailed to POLITICO on Wednesday by three intelligence officials, assesses that the health incidents aren’t the result of a sustained global campaign by a U.S. foe to harm hundreds of American diplomats posted overseas. But it did not rule out the possibility that a foreign actor or sophisticated weapon is behind the phenomenon in a smaller number of cases that remain unresolved.
Senators from both parties questioned the interim assessment’s timing and inconclusive nature, along with the fact that the report was not coordinated with other intelligence agencies ahead of its release. Others noted that it appeared to contradict previous information shared with the congressional intelligence committees, which pointed toward the use of a directed-energy weapon as the source.
“I’m anxious to hear what CIA’s response is going to be. I’m anxious to hear other affected departments [too],” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a brief interview.
Warner revealed that the intelligence community’s expert panel on Havana Syndrome is expected to wrap up its work “in about 10 days,” and he questioned why the CIA would get ahead of that group’s work.
“It might have been better to have this simultaneously released,” Warner said.
Victims of Havana Syndrome — a group that mostly includes American diplomats and intelligence officials — have experienced a wide range of debilitating symptoms including piercing headaches, intense pressure and ringing in the ears, and documented traumatic brain injuries that medical experts have said can be associated with pulsed microwave energy. Suspected cases have been detected in major cities in Europe, Asia, South America and even in and around Washington, D.C.
The interim assessment found that a majority of reported cases can be explained by a variety of medical, environmental or technical factors, and it was primarily a “narrowing-down” effort by the agency. But an intelligence community source said the report “does not reflect the unanimous consensus of the intelligence community,” and a senior CIA official said there are “varying levels of confidence within different agencies.”
The double-digit number of unresolved cases continues to stump investigators, who have long struggled to understand the phenomenon since it was first detected among U.S. diplomats serving in Havana, Cuba, in 2016.
Officials from across the government have told lawmakers repeatedly in classified briefings over the past year that U.S. investigators believe the incidents, especially those that have caused traumatic brain injuries, are the result of directed-energy attacks, most likely at the hands of a hostile foreign government such as Russia.
While the interim CIA report does not completely undercut that assessment, it pushes back on the idea that the hundreds of reported cases can all be attributed to the same source. It leaves open the possibility that a U.S. adversary could be deliberately harming those whose cases have not been resolved.
“Everything we’ve been told up to now is different. All of a sudden we come up with a different conclusion?” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a brief interview. His panel has jurisdiction over the State Department, where most of the reported cases have originated.
“If you have an inconclusive determination, which isn’t a determination, why do you feel compelled to issue an interim report that is inconclusive?” Menendez said. “So the timing, I don’t quite get it.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a “robust session” behind closed doors on the subject on Wednesday, Warner said, and “I’ve still got questions that need to be answered.”
“Some of our working assumptions that we’ve had for some time — am I surprised they didn’t pan out? Yes, but I’ve got to also go where the facts lie,” he said, adding that he has “huge confidence” in CIA Director William Burns, who has placed a renewed emphasis on the issue.
Susan Buikema-Miller, a CIA spokesperson, said in a statement: “We are deeply committed to the care and wellbeing of our officers and we will continue to investigate this important matter. We appreciate our partnership with our intelligence oversight committees.”
Lawmakers’ criticisms align with those publicized by several Havana Syndrome victims, who released a statement Wednesday night calling the CIA product “a breach of faith, and an undermining of the intent of Congress and the president to stand with us and reach a government wide consensus as to what is behind this.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an Intelligence Committee member who has met with Havana Syndrome victims, said she was “surprised at many of the findings, which seemed to contradict other testimony that we have had." She added that she’s "reassured that the CIA is committed to taking care of people" who have suffered medical problems.
Collins, along with other senators from both parties, co-authored legislation last year to assist victims with medical costs and other bureaucratic hurdles. The House and Senate passed the measure unanimously, and President Joe Biden signed it into law.
The legislative push came after POLITICO first reported that the Biden administration was raising concerns to lawmakers in classified briefings about what officials described as the increasing threat to U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials. In the last year alone, dozens of suspected Havana Syndrome cases have been reported on nearly every continent.
Last year, lawmakers began referring to the incidents as suspected “directed-energy attacks,” which was consistent with the briefings being provided to them by top Biden administration officials.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who has personally assisted victims through her office, continued to refer to the incidents as “suspected directed-energy attacks” in a statement, and said she was “undeterred” in her efforts to assist victims.
In statements issued Thursday, senators also emphasized that the CIA’s interim assessment was only the work of one part of one intelligence agency.
“It’s important to note that the CIA’s current assessment on what and who may be behind [anomalous health incidents] that have affected U.S. intelligence and diplomatic personnel reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. He added that the CIA must continue its work on whether a “core group of cases” resulted from a hostile foreign government or a weapon.
And House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) called the CIA’s findings “a first step toward answering the many questions that we have about these incidents, but it is far from the last.”
Read more: politico.com