'Havana Syndrome' and other escalations mark a sinister turn in the spy game

'Havana Syndrome' and other escalations mark a sinister turn in the spy game
© Getty Images

Attacks on our diplomats and intelligence professionals overseas, and, potentially, here at home, mark a sinister and alarming escalation of our conflict with Moscow — a conflict that we have yet to fully appreciate — and one that risks spiraling out of control unless clear lines are established and enforced, as they once were. We cannot wait for investigations to pan out and the governmental bureaucracy to churn its gears. We must make it clear now that a return to the rules of espionage is necessary and anything less is unacceptable. 

During the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union had an understanding, of sorts, a gentleman’s agreement on the conduct of espionage. These were known as “Moscow Rules” under which the services of both countries agreed to not target each other’s intelligence officers or diplomats with physical attacks, to leave the families of each other’s officers alone, and to refrain from other practices that could well lead to reprisals and escalation. If we started killing their spies, our spies would be fair game and, potentially, vice versa. 

That understanding held, for the most part, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it seems to be fraying in recent years. In 2016, a FSB guard outside of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attacked an American diplomat, who suffered a broken shoulder. The incident led to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats in response and, not surprisingly, two American diplomats were expelled from Moscow, in turn — the tit-for-tat expulsions of international diplomacy. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The recent unexplained illnesses and injuries among America’s intelligence officers and diplomats — the so-called “Havana Syndrome”— are extremely concerning. If proven to be true, and proven to be the result of nation-state attacks, quite possibly from Russia, this marks a significant and alarming escalation in Washington’s conflict with Moscow. 

This latest development, which some attribute to either directed-energy weapon attacks or the byproduct of aggressive attempts to intercept electromagnetic communications such as from cell phones, is particularly worrying. This is no longer a function of spy versus spy, but a sinister escalation resulting in covert physical damage to the health and well-being of our intelligence professionals and diplomats. Were the reverse the case, the United States to be injuring foreign diplomats or intelligence officers directly or on accident, the uproar would be staggering, even if suspected or alleged. 

The simple reality is that Moscow or other foreign intelligence services feel emboldened to act. In the case of Russia, in particular, President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussian court sentences Navalny ally to 18 months of supervision Russia says 24 diplomats asked by US to leave by September Is Ukraine Putin's Taiwan? MORE and the Kremlin have had little if any incentive to refrain from acting aggressively on the international stage. At every turn their violation of international norms, their annexation of foreign territory, their conduct of what could be termed acts of war on European soil have met with perfunctory condemnation, sanctions and the occasional diplomatic expulsion. 

As a first step, we must investigate fully the suspected cases of “Havana Syndrome” to identify the cause and source of the illness and work to prevent it from happening again. At the same time, we must provide our diplomats and intelligence officers affected by this illness with the best medical care and support possible. 

We cannot, however, wait for the wheels of government to turn and then act. At the same time, we must make it abundantly clear that such attacks on our personnel are unacceptable and any such violation of the rules of international diplomacy and gentleman’s agreement on espionage will not be tolerated. While President Joseph Biden meets with President Putin on Wednesday, Director of Central Intelligence William BurnsWilliam BurnsGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory Havana Syndrome: Is it safe to serve? CIA watchdog to review handling of 'Havana syndrome' cases MORE should meet with Sergei Naryshkin, his counterpart in the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, or the SVR, and make it abundantly clear that any attacks on our personnel are unacceptable and risks unwanted escalation if they do not stop or occur again in the future. 

ADVERTISEMENT

No one wants to see diplomats or intelligence officers accosted physically or assaulted remotely for doing the work of their country. That is just as true in Moscow as it is here in Washington. The reality is, however, that while we’ve been playing by the rules, Russia has not. They have been on a war footing for some time, but we haven’t appreciated that fact. Their attacks in Ukraine and Bulgaria, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal — a former Russian spy — and his daughter, their cyberattacks against Kiev, and more all smack of a country that believes it is at war and willing to do whatever is necessary to wage that war, however misguided and ill-informed it may be. 

Dissuading Moscow of that notion requires diplomacy, to be sure, but when it comes to the safety of our diplomats and intelligence professionals, a strongly worded demarche is insufficient. Director to director conversations must happen, and senior intelligence officer to senior intelligence officer dialogues must take place as they did in the Cold War. If we can’t reach an understanding, the risk of escalation will be high, and that will benefit no one and only result in more injuries and potentially death. 

Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersThe US has a Nord Stream 2 agreement, but still lacks direction on Russia Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill Pentagon punches back against GOP culture wars MORE is a former Republican representative in Congress who was chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Follow him on Twitter: @repmikerogers