WASHINGTON — Officials across the U.S. government have grown concerned in recent weeks that suspected sensory attacks against American personnel are escalating as an intelligence probe into the phenomenon known as “Havana syndrome” gains steam.
A panel of experts and scientists has been examining what is causing the suspected attacks for several months, while the CIA is investigating who might be responsible by using resources similar to the spy agency’s hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.
At the State Department, the lead adviser overseeing its response to the phenomenon is leaving this week, officials told McClatchy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to name a replacement in the coming days for Pamela Spratlen, who is entering retirement.
Blinken considers choosing her replacement an important decision, a senior State Department official said.
“The secretary has been seized with this issue even before he became secretary,” the official said. “One of the meetings he proactively requested before the transition was on this issue.”
At the Pentagon, “recent cases” were reported within the military after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised personnel who believed they had symptoms to report their experiences immediately. A Defense Department spokesperson would not comment on the investigation or on reports of specific incidents.
The possible targeting of U.S. diplomats in Hanoi just before Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam in August and an intelligence officer traveling with CIA Director Bill Burns in India this month have stoked a sense of alarm across national security agencies that the suspected attacks are becoming increasingly brazen.
The latest high-profile incidents in Vietnam and India come as intelligence officials say they are getting closer to understanding what is causing the episodes that have affected more than 200 American personnel in recent years.
“In terms of have we gotten closer? I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make the analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said last week on a panel at the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit.
One official said the two recent incidents have “underscored the need to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”
“The message appears to be that ‘we can reach you anywhere,’” another government source said.
The reported cases in Vietnam and India are still being investigated. The U.S. government has not officially concluded that they were intentional attacks by a foreign power against American personnel.
But privately, Biden administration officials have become increasingly convinced that Havana syndrome cases are the result of targeted attacks. A report published by the National Academy of Sciences last year concluded that directed microwave energy was likely causing the incidents.
Three consecutive administrations have suspected that Russia is the most likely culprit, and administration officials referenced the matter with their Russian counterparts during President Joe Biden’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year.
“It shows I would think increasing boldness on the part of whoever’s doing it — Russia, if that’s the case — and a complete lack of concern about retaliation,” John Bolton, former national security adviser under President Donald Trump, said in an interview.
“When you go after the VP’s party, you’re getting pretty close to the top. And to do it in a foreign country, as opposed to trying to do it in the United States or something like that — that indicates they believe they’re effectively immune from retaliation,” he said.
In June, Biden directed the formation of two panels of experts to study the phenomenon. The one housed under the Director of National Intelligence is more focused on identifying the cause, while the other is focused on identifying ways to protect U.S. personnel.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has asked for a report from the first panel after 100 days. It is unclear how far along the panel of experts is within that time frame.
Administration officials said that the 100-day time frame is an internal goal, but there is not an official deadline on completing the report. “We want them to have all the time that they need, if they need more time,” a senior administration official said.
“We have seen a proliferation of these health incidents with our personnel around the world. It shows no sign of abatement — if anything, it shows indications of escalation,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told McClatchy.
“We still don’t have the answers. There’s a lot of work to be done. But we are, I think, moving in the right direction,” Schiff said, “both in terms of how we take care of our people but also in getting answers as to who and how — who’s responsible for these attacks, and how they’re being conducted.”
American diplomats stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana were among the first to report the series of strange symptoms in 2017, including dizziness, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo and cognitive difficulties. Since then, cases have been identified around the world and in the Washington, D.C., area.
Recent guidance from government agencies offer hints of a theory on how the suspected attacks are executed.
In a letter addressed to all service members and civilian staff at the Pentagon, Austin advised personnel who believed they were experiencing symptoms to “immediately remove yourself, co-workers, and/or family members from the area.”
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesman, said the letter was sent to employees last week because “given the size and scope of our workforce, it was important our internal reporting processes were standardized and synchronized with the governmentwide approach before communicating to our military, civil service, contractor, and dependent communities.”
“The secretary will continue to track the AHI issue and the department’s support efforts closely, and he is committed to keeping the workforce aware of the issue, informed on how to report potential incidents and, most importantly, helping our employees remain healthy and safe,” Semelroth said, referring to anomalous health incidents, which is the government’s term for these events.
Last month, Harris’ travel from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed over three hours while her staff conducted a “security review” of the recent incidents there. After that episode, a government source said that senior officials remaining in the interior rooms of buildings or outside lines of sight from cars provides protection from a potential device that is unlikely to be equipped to cast a wide net.