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The ‘Havana Syndrome’ mystery and its impact aren’t over

CIA Director William Burns was quick to address the agency’s workforce, annuitants and extended community after the Intelligence Community’s Updated Assessment of Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs) — what became known as “Havana Syndrome” — concluded it is “very unlikely” a foreign adversary was responsible. Burns emphasized that the findings did not call into question those officers and their family members who reported health issues while serving, but he did express confidence in the findings and the CIA’s response.

While this story’s end likely is yet to be written, certainly for those suffering from debilitating health issues attributed to the phenomenon, the reality is that the findings largely will curtail U.S. Intelligence Community resources available for further investigation. And despite Burns’s sincerity, the epitaph will be marred by the agency’s initial dismissal of the issue and former CIA Director Gina Haspel’s perceived insensitivity.

While I might not be qualified scientifically to debate the technical tools used in solving this riddle, operationally it’s clear the U.S. Intelligence Community was playing catch-up. Collection resources to develop insights were not applied until long after the health anomalies were reported, thereby complicating the acquisition of evidence and information that was transpiring at the time.

Absent a smoking gun — which could be discovered contemporaneously or thereafter through human sources and technical collection — collectors and analysts would seek anecdotal evidence or reflections of the potential adversary’s subsequent counterintelligence and political response to public suspicions and exposure. Any such programs would require organization, structure, people and budgets, even if concealed within ostensible umbrella cover offices.

People communicate, travel, have personal lives, get paid and expend resources, all of which offer trails. State spy services and transnational terrorist and criminal groups are not immune from fundamental bureaucratic realities. Yet the Intelligence Community’s conclusions suggest that all such avenues were explored — and knowing the senior officer who led the initiative, I don’t doubt as much.

I expect that no one was more disappointed than the victims and their families of these health issues as the officers charged to root out the existence of any unnatural causes owing to our adversaries. The study acknowledged the “critical assumptions surrounding the initial AHIs reported in Cuba from 2016 to 2018, which framed the Intelligence Community’s understanding of this phenomenon, but were not borne out by subsequent medical and technical analysis.” The investigators, collectors and analysts checked their personal biases, as good professionals must, but no doubt operated with sympathies for their colleagues and innate suspicion of the usual suspects who might be behind any such attacks.

U.S. adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea routinely apply lethal tactics in the shadows. With the exception of China, all have been regularly implicated in assassinations and sabotage efforts — but predominantly against their own dissidents, defectors and oppositionists. Russia, however, specifically a GRU military intelligence unit known as 29155, has been linked to attacks against U.S. service members in Afghanistan, assassinations of foreigners, and explosions at arms manufacturers in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. The known and suspected Iranian assassinations, kidnappings and bombings are too long to list here.

American officials in Russia and Cuba long have operated under physical threat from their hosts. In the 1980s, the KGB routinely used a powder called nitrophenyl pentadien (NPPD), referred to as “spy dust,” to track suspected moles, dissidents and their foreign intelligence and diplomatic interlocutors. The Russians employed the suspected carcinogenic substance at home, abroad, and were thought to be sharing it with their allies.

Further, it is not unusual for American officials in these countries to be subjected to harassment and physical assault, their homes vandalized, pets poisoned, cars tampered with, and the occasional violent encounter to occur. And that’s apart from the bombardment of microwave energy our adversaries routinely use against our facilities in efforts to collect intelligence that I just can’t imagine is good for you.

As was the case with spy dust, the ultimate answer eventually might come from an agent recruited within the inner sanctum of our adversaries’ intelligence services or political leadership. In 1984, it was Sergei Vorontsoz, a CIA agent within the KGB’s unit responsible for tracking foreign intelligence officers, who provided a sample — only to be betrayed later by CIA traitor Aldrich Ames.

If there are positive takeaways from this exercise and my colleagues’ ordeals, it would be greater CIA and Intelligence Community recognition and attention to the physical and mental health challenges endured by those who serve. But CIA and State Department officers operating in various conflict zones, austere locations, and physically dangerous or health-challenged environments are not entitled to the various disability benefits that U.S. service members can claim for conditions from which they later might suffer chronic ailments. This is something that needs to change.

The CIA’s creation of the new Center for Global Health Services (CGHS), naming of its first chief wellbeing officer, and greater sensitivity to physical and mental health challenges faced by its workforce and their families is a good start. Such progress acknowledges the vocation’s innate hazards and ideally will evolve for the better. The “suck it up, stop whining, and do your job” attitude hopefully has passed. Still, I can’t help but harbor nagging suspicions for the number of colleagues and their family members who come down with curiously suspect, rare — and in some cases, terminal — diseases in numbers that exceed the norms.

In the end, providing news that people don’t want to hear is a reality intelligence officers regularly face; it goes with the territory. But if there are more secrets to be found regarding this issue, we must count on the expectation that the Intelligence Community’s experience results in continued openness and vigilance. And let’s hope that the service, sacrifice and risks endured by our civilian Foreign Service employees and their families will continue to be properly recognized and supported.

Douglas London (@douglaslondon5) is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station and as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia.

Tags CIA Gina Haspel havana syndrome intelligence community State Department William Burns

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