Congress is scrutinizing U.S. spy agency work on Havana Syndrome

The House Intelligence Committee is investigating how U.S. spy agencies investigated cases of Havana syndrome, a possible challenge by Congress to its conclusions on the mysterious illnesses.

Early in the Biden administration, intelligence agencies began investigating the causes of the unusual health events, what the government calls Havana Syndrome. As a result of this work, the intelligence community concluded that environmental factors, undiagnosed illnesses or stress, rather than a sustained global campaign by a foreign power, had caused most of the complaints.

But the House investigation will delve into the analysis of spy agencies and the integrity of their work. The investigation, depending on what it finds and concludes, could reignite the debate over the causes of Havana syndrome, which calmed after intelligence agencies said it was not the result of an enemy country.

Havana syndrome is the name given to a series of debilitating symptoms — including migraines, dizziness and other ailments — that were first observed in 2016 and 2017 in diplomats and spies working at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. The symptoms often occurred after people felt pressure in their head or heard strange noises.

Finally, there were hundreds of reports of possible cases, creating a sense of crisis. But in recent years, reports have declined to small numbers, officials said.

The House committee announced the investigation Thursday in a letter to Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence. In the letter, Rep. Rick Crawford, Republican of Arkansas, said the investigation would examine “allegations of improper suppression” of information related to the incidents between intelligence agencies and between the executive branch and Congress.

After the initial reports from Cuba, reports of diplomats, military personnel and CIA officers experiencing similar symptoms began to mount in the years that followed, first in China and then in other places around the world. Some former officials said they believed the complaints could have been caused by Russia or another enemy state using a listening device or even a weapon.

William J. Burns took over as head of the CIA in 2021 with a promise to find the cause of the suffering. He assembled an analysis team to examine the evidence. And the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assembled a panel of experts to examine the classified and unclassified evidence.

The CIA has compensated some former officers who suffered serious injuries and improved access to health care for those who reported symptoms. But first the CIA in 2022, and then Ms. Haines’ office the following year, concluded that it was very unlikely that an enemy state was behind the incidents.

Intelligence agencies found no wiretapping that implicated Russian or other spies. The lack of evidence was telling. American spy services had penetrated the Russian military and intelligence services so thoroughly that they knew many details of Russia’s invasion plan for Ukraine, but found no evidence of Russian involvement in Havana Syndrome episodes.

Timothy L. Barrett, deputy director of national intelligence, said the services would continue to work with Mr. Crawford and the committee.

Mr. Barrett said that even though most intelligence agencies concluded that it was very unlikely that a foreign adversary was responsible for all of the reported illnesses, “that doesn’t mean our job is done.”

“We continue to prioritize understanding such incidents, deploying resources and expertise across government, pursuing multiple lines of inquiry and seeking information to fill the gaps we have identified,” Mr Barrett said.

But many who have suffered from Havana syndrome say the analytical work and study of the episodes has been inadequate and has raised questions about it. They have pushed Congress for a more thorough review.

In the letter, Mr. Crawford referred to information provided to the committee by whistleblowers and intelligence officials. A spokeswoman for Mr. Crawford could not be reached for comment.

Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer who has represented some of the whistleblowers, said the new investigation shows Congress is pushing back against the executive branch’s claims that the syndrome “essentially doesn’t exist.”

He said the House committee still needs to hear more from the intelligence community about the unusual health incidents.

“Based on the years I have spent representing AHI victims, I have no doubt that the executive branch is covering up what it actually knows about these incidents, including the cause and foreign perpetrators,” Mr. Zaid said. “We look forward to the truth finally coming to light and both the perpetrators and the U.S. government’s deniers being held accountable.”


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Amanda Walker

Global events enthusiast. Reporting with a critical lens to offer readers a deeper perspective.

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