By Katie Bo Lillis, Jeremy Herb and Kylie Atwood, CNN
As many as three dozen current and former CIA officers have gone to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees over the past year to raise concerns that a CIA task force has been soft-pedaling its investigation into a mysterious illness impacting agency officers and diplomats known colloquially as “Havana Syndrome,” sources tell CNN.
The sheer scope of the outreach to Capitol Hill, which has not been previously reported, exposes a growing frustration among victims that the intelligence community still hasn’t gotten to the bottom of a mysterious illness that first surfaced six years ago when a cluster of US government personnel stationed in the Cuban capital city began reporting symptoms consistent with head trauma, including dizziness and extreme headaches.
Similar symptoms have since presented in US personnel stationed around the world.
In a January interim report, the CIA determined that a majority of reported cases could be explained by known means. But about two dozen cases remain unexplained, which the government vaguely refers to as “anomalous health incidents.”
“There’s just no answer,” said one House Intelligence Committee member briefed on the CIA task force’s work. “They’ve done an immense amount of work, literally spreadsheeting every catastrophic set of symptoms down to the headache and there’s just nothing. None.”
Among the complaints lodged by CIA officers over the past year is that the agency task force isn’t doing enough to run down legitimate leads that might expose who or what is causing these strange episodes.
Many of the those who have traveled to Capitol Hill to raise concerns identify themselves as Havana Syndrome victims — and while some have been referred to the Hill by the CIA, according to sources familiar with the matter, still others have come to the committees of their own accord.
At least some of the complainants have launched formal whistleblower proceedings, according to multiple sources, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
‘Significant, credible leads’
The influx of complaints comes as both the CIA and the State Department are beginning to compensate some victims for their injuries, some of which are severe. One victim has recently developed a rare form of cancer that can be associated with exposure to radiation or microwave energy, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
While there is no proven correlation between the cancer and the individual’s believed Havana syndrome incident, there are concerns among other victims that the two could be related. Earlier this year a separate intelligence community panel investigating the incidents found that some of the episodes could have been caused by “pulsed electromagnetic energy” emitted by an external source.
The maddening lack of progress is giving some victims uncomfortable flashbacks to the months and years following the appearance of the first cases, when former officials say they were treated with skepticism and in some cases outright dismissal by the Trump administration.
“From what I have seen, there are tons of significant, credible leads that to the best of our knowledge the agencies are not addressing,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney who is representing some of the complainants. “Leads that clients of mine put into the system — and they’re not doing it. To me, this is where they need to be held accountable to explain why.”
CIA officials dispute the notion that the task force isn’t conducting a rigorous and thorough investigation, with one agency official calling it “among the most full-scale and aggressive approaches to an investigation that CIA and other agencies have taken.”
CIA director William Burns in a statement to CNN also said the agency is fulfilling its “profound obligation” to conduct “the most rigorous investigation possible.”
“We have assembled a large team of some of our very best officers who are focused exclusively on this issue, and we are following every single lead,” Burns said. ”I have great confidence in the professionalism of the people, who come from both the CIA and the wider Intelligence Community, who are carrying out this mission, in their commitment to objectivity and in the findings they have reached to date.”
The probe remains an active intelligence investigation, the CIA official said, meaning the agency isn’t always able to share what it has learned on specific lines of inquiry.
A years’ long investigation
The CIA task force is only one of at least three US intelligence community investigations into the ”anomalous health incidents” — or AHIs.
These episodes have sickened dozens of spies, diplomats and service members in multiple countries overseas. The symptoms vary, ranging from headaches and vertigo to what some doctors have diagnosed as traumatic brain injury. Many victims have reported hearing a piercing directional noise at the onset of symptoms. Others have suffered inexplicable, debilitating injuries that have forced them to retire early.
One so-called experts panel — made up of scientific, medical, and engineering specialists who have access to classified information about the incidents — has examined possible mechanisms behind the episodes and is expected to deliver a classified report on its findings to Congress in the coming weeks, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
A declassified summary of the report released earlier this year found that the incidents could “plausibly” have been caused by “pulsed electromagnetic energy,” but stopped short of any definitive conclusions. That finding remains intact, but the full report is more than 200 pages and will provide much more detail to Congress, said one source familiar with the report.
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told CNN they’re urging the Biden administration to declassify as much of the report as possible in order to get more information into the public eye, even without definitive conclusions.
The CIA inspector general is also continuing work on an investigation into the agency’s handling of early cases, a report that some victims expect will dredge up a damning litany of how the CIA initially treated victims.
No evidence of ‘weapon’ behind incidents
Then there’s the CIA’s task force, which for three years has been investigating whether a foreign nation might be carrying out attacks on US personnel. Their work — which has taken data from several government agencies — is ongoing.
According to current agency officials and other sources briefed on the intelligence, the task force has found little evidence to support the theory that Russia or another country might be behind the episodes – or even whether all of the episodes are caused by the same thing.
As part of its investigation, the CIA and the State Department last year began urging employees around the world to report any symptoms that might be associated with Havana syndrome. It led to an explosion of reports from across the globe, many made out of an abundance of caution, intelligence officials say.
But the CIA task force determined that the vast majority of these reports were able to be explained by other, known causes. And the number of reports across so many dispersed places with no likely actors known in the area wound up providing support to the conclusion that there is no foreign actor behind the incidents, according to another CIA officer — especially given that there is still no evidence of a “weapon” used by a nation-state actor, this person said.
“We have solicited and received many potential leads from AHI-affected officers as well as other members of our workforce,” the first CIA official said. “We have followed up rigorously on each of those.”
The investigation remains ongoing, the CIA official said. “It’s global in reach, every lead is followed up on, and we continue to take aggressive steps to uncover and validate new information.”
Decrease in reported cases
There has been a marked decrease in reported incidents over the last year, officials say. The monthly reports of incidents this year have been “significantly less” than the number of the cases reported on a monthly basis last year, they noted.
Last year, when the intelligence community was urging officials to report symptoms, there were reports of clusters of potential incidents in multiple cities, including Bogota and Vienna. Victims of these incidents last year — many of whom are in close contact with one another for the sake of support — say they have not heard of any large clusters of reported incidents so far this year.
The House Intelligence Committee member insisted there was no “reduction in the commitment to doing the work,” but acknowledged, “These are people. You can imagine after years and years of no leads, it starts to get really frustrating for all of us.”
To date, victims have broadly praised Burns’ handling of the issue, and the Biden administration has been careful to avoid any suggestion that it is not taking victims’ accounts seriously — or that their injuries are not real and worthy of attention.
“As director, I have no more profound obligation than to take care of our people,” Burns said in the statement to CNN. “We have expanded access to care and resources significantly over the past year and a half.”
There has been no recent internal CIA communication on the matter to employees, a separate CIA officer said.
Compensation payments are beginning
The CIA began disbursing payments for some victims earlier this year, sources say, after Congress in 2021 passed legislation mandating compensation for CIA and government victims.
In recent days some of the State Department victims have received confirmation that they have been approved for compensation payments, according to other sources familiar with the mater. The State Department has received about a dozen requests for compensation payments from diplomats or their family members and expects to approve the first tranche in the coming days, a senior State Department official said.
The process for receiving compensation involves a patient’s doctor filling out a two-page form that is mostly comprised of yes-or-no questions. Candidates must have received at least a year of medical assistance, among other requirements.
But the process has not been without headaches.
Some victims have tried to provide additional information, only to be rejected. In one incident, a victim’s physician provided a summary of the patient’s medical condition in addition to the binary form. The State Department rejected the submission, requesting that it be re-submitted without any additional descriptions, according to a source familiar with the matter — frustrating both the patient and the doctor.
The senior State Department official explained that bureaucrats without medical training are not in a position to evaluate colleagues’ medical information or retain it.
“I respect the fact that people were trying to be thorough and comprehensive,” the official said, explaining that the department’s personnel are not in a position to evaluate colleagues’ medical information or retain it.
The victim has since been approved for compensation and is now focused on pushing to get treatment for more victims and flexibility for those who have been impacted — worrying, according to a source familiar with this person’s thinking, that the US government may begin to forget about victims’ needs once they are financially compensated.
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Natasha Bertrand contributed to this story