Stranger than fiction

Mysterious brain injuries at embassies in China and Cuba trigger CIA probe

Scores of US spies, diplomats and soldiers have reported unexplained health problems over past five years

The US government has ordered an investigation into a spate of mysterious brain injuries that have impacted up to 130 US personnel since 2016.

Reports of “long-term brain injuries including debilitating headaches” among staff from the US State Department, Defence Department and CIA who have served overseas have caused “broad concern” in the Joe Biden administration, The New York Times (NYT) reports. 

According to the National Security Council, the affected staff describe “experiencing ‘sensory phenomena’, such as sound, pressure or heat, along with or followed by physical symptoms, such as sudden-onset vertigo, nausea, and head or neck pain”, says the paper. 

Security headache

No conclusive explanation has been found for the sudden illnesses - widely known as “Havana syndrome”, because the first cases occurred in the US Embassy in Cuba. But as the tally of reported victims continues to climb, “there is growing pressure from Congress to figure out what has affected so many US diplomats, spies and other officials - and who or what is behind it”, says ABC News.

A National Security Council spokesperson confirmed to the broadcaster that President Biden has launched a review into whether there are further cases that have not been recorded and whether the mysterious illnesses fit into a “broader pattern”.

“At this point, at this moment, we don’t know the cause of these incidents, which are both limited in nature and the vast majority of which have been reported overseas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press briefing yesterday, amid reports that the CIA has formed a new “targeting cell” to investigate the outbreaks.

“The initial publicly confirmed cases were concentrated in China and Cuba and numbered about 60,” says the NYT. But current and former officials told the paper that a total of “more than 130 people” have been impacted, including “cases from Europe and elsewhere in Asia”.

Sources say that at least three CIA officers have reported serious health effects from episodes overseas since December 2020.  “One occurred within the past two weeks, and all have required the officers to undergo outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other facilities,” according to the NYT.

Indeed, while “the severity of the brain injuries has ranged widely” among all of the reported victims, the paper continues, some have suffered “chronic, potentially irreversible symptoms and pain, suggesting potentially permanent brain injury”.

Amid growing concern among lawmakers, senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio - the most senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee - issued a statement at the end of April warning that “this pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing”. 

“We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more,” pledged committee chair Warner and vice-chair Rubio.

All in the mind

US security officials have considered a series of possible explanations for the head injuries, with some experts even suggesting that outbreaks might even be down to “mass hysteria”.

However, a report released in December on the findings of a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) suggested that the true culprit may be a “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” - essentially, some form of targeted microwave weapon. The NYT says that some government officials agree that “a microwave or directed-energy device is the most likely cause”. 

However, the NAS experts also considered the possibility of “chemical exposures, infectious diseases such as Zika and psychological issues” - but failed to reach a definitive conclusion.

China has deployed microwave weapons during skirmishes with India on its Himalayan border, where a no-live-shots agreement is in place to avoid violent escalation.

In November last year, the Chinese military used “high-energy electromagnetic radiation” technology to effectively turn two strategically important hilltops that had been occupied by Indian soldiers “into a microwave oven”, as The Times reported at the time. The attack was said to have left Indian troops vomiting and unable to stand, allowing the People’s Liberation Army to retake the hilltops without firing a shot.

As the CIA investigates whether similar technology could have been used against embassy staff, US federal agencies are also probing “at least two possible incidents on US soil”, including one that took place “near the White House” in November 2020, CNN reports.

The broadcaster adds that the incidents “appear similar” to the “invisible attacks” on overseas US personnel - and points out that the possibility a similar offensive was launched so close to the White House “is particularly alarming”.

“Some Pentagon officials believe Russia’s military intelligence agency” may be behind the various attacks over the past five years, the NYT reports - an allegation that Moscow has denied.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration “is trying to strike a careful balance between showing officials that they are taking the issue seriously and trying to keep panic from spreading, either inside the government or among the public”, the paper adds.

As the investigation continues, National Security Council spokesperson Emily J. Horne promised that “we are bringing the US government’s resources to bear to get to the bottom of this”.

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