WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency has set up a task force bringing together experts to advance the investigation into a series of mysterious attacks on Americans in Havana, a source familiar with the matter told McClatchy.
The task force was launched late last year and involves doctors, human resources professionals and counterintelligence agents working jointly in a centralized probe into the events that became a major stumbling block in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Diplomats stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana first began reporting strange symptoms in 2017, including dizziness, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo and cognitive difficulties. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Miami found evidence of brain injury and damage to the inner ear’s vestibular system in diplomats and their family members. Similar events were reported in China.
Alongside the establishment of a distinct CIA office, President Joe Biden’s new national security team has also made the investigation a top priority, a senior administration official said Friday. The Biden administration is currently reviewing Cuba policy, but the incidents in Havana are a significant hurdle to further normalization of relations with the Cuban government.
“While we won’t address specifics at this time, the National Security Council has taken this very seriously since the beginning of this administration,” the official told McClatchy. “This concerns the health and well-being of American public servants from across the government, and we will continue to act with urgency to bring a whole-of-government response to these issues.”
The official who confirmed the task force’s existence spoke on condition of anonymity because it has not been publicly announced. The development was first reported by CNN Wednesday.
The State Department will also be devoting additional resources to the investigation, a spokesperson said. Secretary of State Tony Blinken plans to announce the appointment of a senior adviser devoted to the investigation “soon.”
“This adviser will be positioned in a senior role and report directly to the department’s senior leadership to ensure that we continue to make significant strides to address this issue and to ensure our people are receiving the treatment they need,” the spokesperson said.
The creation of the CIA task force comes after a study by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that directed microwave energy may have harmed U.S. officials in Cuba and China. Another investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to identify a cause for the injuries.
The Cuban government has denied that attacks ever happened in Havana and complained of lack of access to the medical information of those injured.
The State Department has publicly confirmed 26 cases in Cuba and one case in China, and has recently said it is still investigating. The U.S. government has not determined a cause for the ailments, now known as the Havana Syndrome.
A statement put out last December by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is the current vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and who has filed legislation to ensure victims receive proper health coverage, indicates the number of those affected could be higher, involving more than 40 diplomats and family members at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and at least a dozen diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China.
The statement sent by Rubio and other senators backing the bill was the first official acknowledgment that CIA agents were targeted too. Reports that the agency decided to withdraw its personnel from Havana in 2017 were confirmed by a redacted State Department internal review published by the National Security Archive.
Ever since, the CIA, FBI and State Department have been investigating the mysterious episodes.
A former CIA officer, Marc Polymeropoulos, also came forward and said he believed he suffered a similar attack in Moscow, increasing suspicion that Russia might be behind the mysterious events.
The new task force is mostly comprised of experts who were already involved in the response to the events in Havana. The purpose of the new office is to bring those experts together in a formal way, streamlining their work.
“CIA is working alongside other government agencies to double down on our efforts to find answers regarding the unexplained global health incidents that have impacted personnel,” CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said in a statement. “The Agency’s top priority has been and continues to be the well-being of all of our officers.”
Bill Burns, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director, told senators during his confirmation hearing Wednesday that getting to the bottom of the Havana attacks was a high priority for the agency under his leadership. Sen. Bob Menendez’s office said the legislator, who is the chairman of the foreign relations committee, has not been updated on the creation of the task force but was seeking more information.
The unexplained incidents have also affected thousands of Cuban American families hoping to reunite with relatives on the island, as the State Department suspended visa processing in Havana since 2017, when most personnel were evacuated from the island.
With the hashtag #FamiliesBelongTogether, hundreds of Cuban and Cuban American Twitter users have posted messages asking the Biden administration to resume the Cuban Family Reunification Program, also suspended after the withdrawal of embassy staff.
“It’s time to end the pain,” a Twitter user identified as Mayelin wrote. “It’s time for all those Cuban families to be together.”