Havana Syndrome: Is it safe to serve?
Havana Syndrome. Microwave attacks. Directed-energy weapons. Anomalous health incidents (AHI). Whatever the term of the day is for the U.S. government, for me and others who are victims of these attacks, we know only one simple truth: We are hurting. Our heads pound. Vertigo is terrifying. Sleep is fleeting. Tinnitus is distracting. Work becomes an afterthought.
Our families are supportive, but secretly are terrified that we have suffered an insidious invisible wound whose actual effects may not be known for years. Will we develop cancers or Parkinson’s disease? Will our symptoms subside, become more tolerable, or perhaps get worse? And yet, as the weeks and months go by, with doctor visits and rehabilitation and the great unknown of whether we will ever recover, the attacks on government personnel, quite amazingly, keep occurring.
As reported this past week, U.S. diplomats in Austria experienced what I can define only as a slow-moving mass casualty event. Dozens reportedly have been struck, an extraordinary number in a European capital once thought as safe. The first “sonic attacks” were reported in Cuba in 2016 by U.S. officials at the embassy in Havana. One wonders, how can these incidents still occur, with (until recently) such little concerted effort expended by the government to determine who is perpetrating what I believe are acts of war against our dedicated public servants?
I worked for 26 years at the CIA, retiring in July 2019 because injuries suffered during a trip to Moscow in December 2017. As a senior intelligence service officer, I ran operations across the globe — Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa, East Africa, the Levant. I served with the clear understanding that my leadership would have my back and that, if I were injured or killed, both myself and my family would be cared for.
Unfortunately, I find the actions of several of the CIA’s senior leaders prior to January 2021 to respond to the attacks on our personnel to be a historic failure of leadership. From the victims in Havana to those of us who were injured in 2017 and beyond, the response from CIA seniors and the government as a whole was, at best mixed and, at worst, unethical and immoral. The ignominy we suffered was omnipresent. We were psychosomatic, the FBI concluded in a report for which they did not interview a single victim.
That the victims were faking health incidents to obtain workers compensation is an absurd and insulting claim. In my case, the CIA tried to explain away my diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence by insisting that I had a pre-existing injury — a terribly disappointing response and moral betrayal that akin to the government’s initial reactions to Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome.
Where do we go from here? First and foremost, there must be accountability for what occurred for the past six years. I leave it to the various oversight organs inside the national security agencies to thoroughly pursue investigations, as well as the intelligence oversight committees on Capitol Hill who now have an understanding of what occurred between 2016 and late 2020. This drive for accountability is a necessary but unpleasant evil.
Second, we must put together a health care paradigm in which injured officers are immediately provided care. No longer can there be the rejections from senior medical personnel that caused serious mental health issues among some of those injured. CIA Director William Burns deserves credit for making real and significant changes to medical protocols, insisting that officers are taken seriously and cared for. But more needs to be done. The Havana Act — which has passed in the Senate and soon should pass in the House — will allow for some financial relief for officers, particularly those in the junior ranks, who have spent thousands of dollars out of pocket for their own care.
Third, we must put the same level of resources, personnel as well as overall drive, on this issue the way that we did for the counterterrorism fight after 9/11. The counterterrorism paradigm that proved so successful — that we must detect, disrupt and deter terrorist attacks on Americans — must translate into how we protect our personnel now. I recall hundreds of officers working on even one terrorist threat during my time at the CIA. We moved mountains to protect the American people. That same ethos must be brought to bear on this issue of suspected directed-energy attacks. Director Burns is on the right track, but he likely will battle against pockets of narrow-minded, bureaucratic and litigious-thinking people who remain at the CIA and who allowed inaction for so long.
Public and congressional support for Burns’s efforts are key. As reported, the recent appointment to the AHI task force of a senior agency officer who worked on the hunt for Bin Laden is spot on.
Lastly, the national security establishment must start thinking about what happens when we do find out who is behind these attacks. They were and are acts of war. Many of my former colleagues overseas in various U.S. government agencies are increasingly worried when they see some of their colleagues going down, around the world. Some ask, “Is it safe to serve overseas?” They may wonder, “In the processing for my assignment, was I ever warned of this danger even as the attacks were occurring?” Some are scared and many are angry, both at whomever is doing this and at the U.S. government for not doing enough to push back.
The only right answer to these questions is to determine culpability and aggressively respond against adversaries who committed, and are committing, these attacks. Director Burns appears to be committed to this course of action and, as the attacks continue, that is the only option.
Marc Polymeropoulos retired from the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service in July 2019. He served seven tours for the CIA, as well as leadership and headquarters assignments. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the Intelligence Commendation Medal, and the Intelligence Medal of Merit. He is the author of “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA” (Harper Collins, June 2021).
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