Is Someone Brain-Zapping American Operatives?

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S1: Back in September, a memo started making the rounds at the Pentagon. It was about something Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called anomalous health incidents. This memo? It’s both incredibly vague and weirdly specific. It defines an anomalous health incident as a series of troubling and sudden sensory events. An H.I, as it’s called, could involve headaches. It could make you feel hot. It could be accompanied by sounds or make you feel pressure.

S2: This is what they should be looking out of for.

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S1: This memorandum offers advice to anyone who thinks they may be experiencing an HHI

S2: if they have sudden vertigo. If they feel a sudden heat sound or pressure in the head, they should be moving away from their immediate area with anyone who they are with as quickly as possible.

S1: It sounds kind of scary.

S2: Absolutely is scary to a lot of people.

S1: Micahel Wilner is a reporter over at McClatchy. He’s been following up with people who got this memo. He agreed to translate it for me. Micahel says the first thing to know is that H.I is Pentagon. Speak for something you may already know about, but you’re probably calling it the Havana syndrome.

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S3: There are at least one hundred and thirty suspected cases of so-called Havana syndrome first reported in Cuba. Some officials now suspect the so-called Havana syndrome could have been an unintended consequence of electronic intelligence gathering, which was then weaponized to intentionally cause harm.

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S1: Havana Syndrome got its name because of where it first emerged Cuba in late 2016. But since then, one incident after another has piled up in other countries China, Russia, Austria diplomats and CIA officers, even White House employees have been struck. This Department of Defense memo was essentially an acknowledgement. If you work for us, you could be at risk. Officials followed it up with a staple of modern office culture. A series of brown bag lunches.

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S2: There are a lot of brown bag lunches at the Pentagon, and there are a lot of folks who just who never go. And these, I understand, were quite well attended because there is interest in finding out what you know, what is actually known.

S1: The list of things that are actually known about Havana Syndrome. It’s pretty short. But Micahel says if you look closely, the way the Biden administration is, reorienting its priorities right now tells you all you need to know.

S2: This intelligence community has seen enough to take this so seriously that they’ve set up a large scale investigation. The lead of that investigation, having formally spearheaded the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that sort of concentration of resources, I think tells us something. What is very clear is for the first time, the government has come to a consensus view. This is an intentional and deliberate phenomenon.

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S1: Today on the show, how Havana syndrome is becoming a national security crisis far beyond Cuba’s borders. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Havana syndrome started and got its name because of these incidents that happened in Cuba in late 2016, early 2017. Can you explain what happened?

S2: Right. So about 26 or so U.S. government officials who were stationed in Havana. Intelligence officials and diplomats felt a sudden onset of several concerning symptoms hearing loss, vertigo, sudden pressure in the head.

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S1: And this was when they were in their homes,

S2: somewhere in their home, somewhere around the embassy. And because of the large cluster, it became a significant event.

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S1: I know you’ve spoken to people who’ve had symptoms. How do they describe what it feels like?

S2: The problem with this is that the physiological symptoms are different for every person. But one person I spoke with collapsed with pain in the head said that they were they were very nauseous and it was really the sudden onset of it, with no clear explanation for it that flags for them, that this was an unusual phenomenon.

S1: The mystery of these Havana syndrome cases, it’s now spanned five years and three presidential administrations. It’s been tough for the intelligence community to get its arms around because the symptoms are just so amorphous. Back in 2017, when the Trump administration was dealing with the fallout of the original attacks, there was some doubt that the ailment was even real. Seems to me like doubt was baked in to the response to what was happening with these State Department and CIA employees in Cuba. Like at some point, the University of Pennsylvania was looped in on brain injury center there, and State Department employees started going there to be evaluated. And you know, at least one reporter noted that before folks came, some significant contingent of the doctors who are about to see them said, Oh, this is probably psychosomatic. This isn’t necessarily a real thing.

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S2: The FBI doubted it. You know, there were elements of the intelligence community that have their doubts. And what this led to was a period of of stasis you had. You had government officials who were just reticent to come forward. There was a lot of concern at the time that this was mass hysteria or a psychogenic event, as some scientists refer to it. It wasn’t really until cases started popping up elsewhere that the debate was sort of resurfaced over what might be causing these events.

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S1: I wonder a little bit if the turning point was when people who worked in the White House started experiencing something that sounded very much like what had happened in Cuba.

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S2: I absolutely think that if there were a single turning point, it was when White House officials came down with with symptoms and within the White House that couldn’t really avoid the topic. One national security official was walking to his car out of the White House compound alone. It’s called the ellipse, which is a big grassy area outside the White House grounds, and collapse due to the sudden onset of heat and pressure in the head and had to get care immediately. And then there was also another case in the suburbs of Washington with an individual U.S. government official who was walking their dog. And both the dog and the official had a sudden pressure symptoms in the head.

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S1: These two incidents happened in quick succession. And the Trump administration commissioned a report about them from the National Academy of Sciences. Their best hypothesis as to what was going on here was that microwave energy was being directed right at American officials. This idea is still the leading theory, even as more attacks happen and more information comes to light.

S2: We’ve seen cases in in Vietnam, a hotspot for espionage activity.

S3: Back now, with the surprising hours long delay of Vice President Kamala Harris, this flight to Vietnam.

S2: We’ve seen cases in Vietnam, so concerning that they delayed the vice president’s trip from Singapore. She was on the tarmac for three hours. Is her security detail trying to figure out if it was safe to proceed? We’ve seen cases in London, in Serbia,

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S1: in Georgia, Poland, Australia, now Taiwan. So far more widespread than initially thought.

S2: You know, the accumulation of these cases is, on the one hand, concerning, but also an accumulation of evidence. And that has bolstered the confidence in this administration that this is a real pattern.

S1: When we come back, why it is so hard to hold anyone responsible for these attacks. For Micahel Wilner, the difficult part of reporting this Havana Syndrome story is that it is such a moving target, even high level officials are going back and forth about how to characterize these incidents. Publicly, President Biden and his administration, they’re using that anomalous health incidents language. But there are signs that some high ranking officials want to be more explicit. Earlier this year, during his confirmation hearing, CIA director Bill Burns called them attacks.

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S4: And I do commit to you that if I’m confirmed, I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks that you just described and

S2: to ensure up until that point, there really was no official in a senior capacity, much less someone from the intelligence community coming forward and and describing these as attacks. And that is essentially where we are. They haven’t said this is a government, a state actor that’s behind it, but it is widely, you know, privately held within both the government and the. I see that the technology that would be required, the reach and the motive is unique to a select number of state actors.

S1: It sounds like you’re saying to understand what’s happening with the Havana syndrome, you need to look at the subtext as much as the text, which is President Biden is not saying out loud. This was a series of state sanctioned attacks on American people. But at the same time, he’s putting people in charge of investigating Havana Syndrome, who are so serious and have been so trusted within government that it implies that that’s the case, that that is what we think is happening.

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S2: There is a lot of implication in this story and not a lot that’s explicit, and obviously that makes it hard to report on. But you know, their careful wording of really everything they say on this is due to a lack of confidence in what they know. We’re talking about, you know, intelligence officers being affected in the field. We’re talking about privacy concerns for diplomats. I mean, there are a lot of reasons why they can’t talk about the specifics in each and every case. Three consecutive administrations have suspected that Russia is behind this phenomenon for several reasons. One, Russia is known to have microwave energy technologies that they’ve deployed as a surveillance tool to, you know, they have the reach, especially in the countries that we’ve seen reported cases, whether it be Vietnam or Austria or the U.K., it’s really the Washington area and of course, Cuba. They have the motive. The Russians are known to operate and thrive in the gray. They deploy poison and cyber weapons that give them plausible deniability. And this fits within that pattern. And so it has long been suspected that Russia is the most likely culprit. President Biden, in his first in-person meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June. His team brought this up with the Russians, and that is not an insignificant thing.

S1: Do we know what happened once he brought this up?

S2: We were told before the meeting that this would not likely come up because they wouldn’t bring it up if they didn’t have the confidence that Russia had something to say. And so it was quite surprising to us when we discovered that in fact, it had come up and tell it to us as well that

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S1: there was confidence

S2: that there was some else that there’s something to talk about with the Russians and that they have something to contribute here. And I would say the other big revelation in the past couple weeks or months has been again in this workforce guidance that’s gone across the national security space. The direction to U.S. government personnel is move away from the immediate area with everyone, with you if you feel sudden symptoms. And to us, that is a clear clue as to the theory that the government has is to what is causing this. They clearly are of the working theory that this is a directed energy attack of some kind, and they’re operating based on that theory, even if they don’t have it fully proven yet.

S1: It’s interesting to hear you explain what a big deal it was for President Biden to bring up to Vladimir Putin, these attacks, if you want to call them that. And the reason I say that is because what can we do? Like, let’s say it is Russia that’s doing whatever is happening here. Let’s say it is microwaves. It opens this whole other question. Of how the U.S. responds,

S2: it has always been a challenge for the United States to come up with options to respond to it, let’s say it is Russia. Russian activities, whether it be meddling in U.S. elections, whether it be the use of cyber weapons against private businesses

S1: or I mean, some might say this kind of attack on American citizens is an act of war.

S2: You know, the question is, does this cross a line? I think is the point you’re making into, you know, actual physical harm? And what are the consequences for that? But it’s a tough question to answer because the United States has never successfully deterred, you know, Russian activity like this again on the presumption that it is Russia, which is not proven.

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S1: It strikes me these Havana syndrome attacks. They’re occurring at a very difficult time for American intelligence more generally, like just in the last few weeks, there’s been this memo that went out basically saying American informants are at risk. How do you, as an intelligence reporter, think about these two things together? Or do you? Is intelligence doing intelligence work becoming more dangerous? Do you see this as a sign of something bigger?

S2: I don’t see this. Is it becoming more dangerous for the intelligence community because it has? I don’t need to tell you, always been an extraordinarily dangerous job. I will say, though, that one parallel that has struck me is this investigation with the inquiry into the origins of of COVID. Because at the heart of both of these is the question of whether this is an intelligence question, an intelligence challenge to be solved, or is it a scientific question that you know only scientists can can really come to a firm conclusion on it? It’s somewhere in between is where I come down on it. The intelligence community is relying on the country’s best scientists and academics to to help them get to a clear understanding of the truth in both cases. I mean,

S1: right now, if you’re. Is there like a scientific division of the intelligence services or is that something that’s really lacking?

S2: It is lacking. And in fact, when when President Biden went to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to address the intelligence community, his emphasis was on how the intelligence community needs to recruit scientists. There’s a lot of

S4: research going on. You’re going to find you’re going to have to increase your ranks with people with significant scientific capacity relative to pathogens.

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S2: The traditional skill sets of folks in the CIA and other intelligence agencies are not adequate for us to answer some of these questions. And in in that speech, which was not, you know, widely covered in the media, but it was broadcast for all of the intelligence agencies across the government. He talked about, you know, the next pandemic and he talked about these anomalous health incidents and how important it is for us to have, you know, better expertise.

S1: Micahel, thank you so much for walking me through all this.

S2: It’s my pleasure.

S1: Micahel Wilner is a senior national security and White House correspondent for McClatchy. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land, Kamal Dilshad and Elinor Schwartz. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thank you for listening. I’ll catch you back here on Thursday.