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Mysterious Havana syndrome attacks are now documented in the US

The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating events that are believed to have targeted US spies and diplomats.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) speaks at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a Friday hearing that cases of the mysterious “Havana syndrome” — instances of neurological harm to US personnel — continue to be a concern. Over the past two years, two such incidents have reportedly occurred in the US — including one in close proximity to the White House.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), the chair and vice chair of the committee, respectively, said in a statement that they plan to investigate the pattern of events, presumed to be attacks from an unknown source, and work with the CIA to identify who may be behind them.

Havana syndrome refers to a set of neurological problems such as insomnia and vertigo, affecting US personnel, that was first documented in 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Since then, about 40 government officials, mostly employed by the CIA or State Department, have reported cases of Havana syndrome, with sometimes debilitating symptoms, according to the Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch.

The majority of the reported attacks have been against officials stationed in other countries. But federal agencies are also investigating two neurological cases believed to have originated on US soil, including one from November of last year that occurred alarmingly close to the White House, according to CNN.

The other incident occurred in 2019, against a White House official in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, per CNN.

Warner and Rubio committed to work with the recently confirmed CIA director, William Burns, who they say has dedicated agency focus to investigating Havana syndrome. The senators also said they would work to provide medical and financial support for victims.

“For nearly five years, we have been aware of reports of mysterious attacks on United States Government personnel in Havana, Cuba and around the world,” they said in a statement. “This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing.”

“The Senate Intelligence Committee intends to get to the bottom of this,” the statement continued. “We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more.”

What is Havana syndrome?

A US government report from the National Academy of Sciences on the reported attacks found commonalities among the victims, including nausea, headaches, dizziness, and loss of hearing, occasionally severe enough to force some into early retirement. The report found that directed radio frequency energy, a form of radiation that also includes microwaves, as a likely source behind the attacks, giving credence to the theory that a foreign entity is behind them.

Some in the intelligence community believe Russia is the culprit, which Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem explained in December:

The timeline of the incidents, the plausible explanation of microwave weapons, and the specific locations in which they occurred have raised questions of whether Russia is behind them.

In 2018, US intelligence officials described Russia as the primary suspect behind what they believed to be attacks in Cuba and China. Russia has denied any involvement. NBC News reports that, now or then, no conclusive intelligence has pointed to that explanation. However, the Times notes a number of Russia experts at the CIA believe that all evidence points to the country being behind the illnesses.

In the past, both Russia and the former Soviet Union have used microwave weaponry, including against the US. In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR bombarded the American embassy with microwave beams.

In his confirmation hearing, Burns addressed the attacks, saying he planned to review evidence. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff also committed to using his committee to continue to investigate, according to CNN.

Additionally, the Hill reports, the CIA has launched a task force to provide support to victims of Havana syndrome.

Senate Intelligence leaders say they are committed to holding perpetrators accountable, while acknowledging the current focus is on gathering more information about how the presumed directed energy technology works.

“Ultimately, we will identify those responsible for these attacks on American personnel and will hold them accountable,” the statement said.