In a sharp reversal, U.S. intelligence agencies now say none of the hundreds of mysterious illnesses that afflicted and in some cases incapacitated U.S. personnel around the globe can be linked to the use of a weapon by a U.S. adversary.
An assessment released Wednesday, based on what intelligence officials said was an exhaustive and detailed investigation, concluded it was “very unlikely” a foreign adversary was behind the anomalous health incidents (AHIs) plaguing U.S. workers both overseas and at home.
“Symptoms reported by U.S. personnel were probably the result of factors that did not involve a foreign adversary, such as preexisting conditions, conventional illnesses and environmental factors,” said the National Intelligence Council assessment.
“Confidence in this explanation is bolstered by the fact that we identified medical, environmental and social factors that plausibly explain many AHIs reported by U.S. officials,” the report added.
AHIs, also commonly known as Havana Syndrome, were first reported in 2016 among diplomats and other employees at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.
Since then, hundreds of cases have been reported in Russia, China, Poland, Austria and the United States, with symptoms ranging from nausea and dizziness to debilitating headaches and memory problems.
U.S. intelligence agencies had previously ruled out the likelihood that the mystery illnesses were the result of any sustained campaign by any of America’s adversaries, with the CIA saying last year that it appeared most of the cases “can be reasonably explained” by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors.
But a February 2022 report by a panel of experts had warned that the core symptoms in a small number of cases were “distinctly unusual and unreported elsewhere in the medical literature” and suggested some sort of device must be responsible.
“Pulsed electromagnetic energy, particularly in the radiofrequency range, plausibly explains the core characteristics,” the 2022 report said.
But in releasing the latest assessment, U.S. intelligence officials argued that despite extensive research and intelligence gathering, there was no evidence to indicate that such a weapon was in use or even existed.
“There’s no credible evidence that a foreign adversary has a weapon or a collection system that caused AHIs,” said a U.S. intelligence official who was familiar with the assessment’s findings.
Instead, the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said all the intelligence and the data gathered during the investigation “point against the involvement of a foreign adversary.”
“We have a lot of evidence that points the other way,” the official said. “There were leads, but every time we followed them, they dissipated.”
Some of the countries initially suspected of being behind the health incidents appeared to be caught off guard by the assessment.
“What you tend to see among key adversaries is confusion. Many of them thought this is a U.S. plot,” the official added.
A second official, who also briefed on the condition of anonymity, said the intelligence officers investigating the reported cases tracked down multiple possible causes of the symptoms and searched for evidence that a foreign adversary was inflicting damage with some sort of device.
But in the end, the investigators were forced to reevaluate the notion of a device.
“We weren’t finding what we expected to find,” the official said. “We weren’t finding anything that was validating those assumptions.”
Instead, the hundreds of intelligence officials tracking down the approximately 1,500 reported cases of Havana Syndrome found multiple other factors that could have affected those who came down with symptoms or reported not feeling well.
Officials told reporters that in some cases, a malfunctioning heating, ventilation or air-conditioning system might have been causing a perceptible change to the air pressure.
Investigators also had to track down and rule out other potential causes, such as optical sensors on computer mice that were emitting signals that “looked very suspicious.”
Ultimately, they said, the answer is complex.
“There are many, many explanations,” the second official said, adding one key takeaway: “We need a greater attention to resourcing the health and well-being of our workforce.”
U.S. intelligence officials also said that the report should not be seen as an attempt to minimize or dismiss the impact the incidents have had or are still having on the health of U.S. personnel.
“These findings do not call into question the very real experiences and symptoms that our colleagues and their family members have reported,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement.
“Officers did exactly what we asked them to do: to take our guidance seriously and report suspicious experiences and symptoms,” she said. “We are sincerely grateful to those who came forward as it helped to not only shape our response, but identify areas where we need to improve our medical and counterintelligence protocols, which remains an ongoing process.”
CIA Director William Burns likewise promised to continue to address the health concerns “with honesty and compassion.”
“We will continue to remain alert to any risks to the health and well-being of agency officers, to ensure access to care, and to provide officers the compassion and respect they deserve,” he said in a statement.
Separately, the State Department on Wednesday said its personnel would continue to be given access to timely medical care and receive compensation as part of the HAVANA Act, signed into law in 2021.
Such assurances, however, are doing little to allay the concerns of some affected by Havana Syndrome.
“The new report does not track with our lived experiences, nor does it account for what many medical professionals across multiple institutions have found in working with us,” said Robyn Garfield, an advocate who suffered Havana Syndrome symptoms while working for the Commerce Department in Shanghai, China, in 2018.
“Our doctors have determined that environmental or preexisting medical issues did not cause the symptoms and traumatic injuries to our neurological systems that many of us have been diagnosed with,” he said, alleging the latest assessment reflected the views “of a subset of officials interested in deflection and closure.”
The assessment acknowledged there was still a degree of disagreement among the seven intelligence agencies regarding the conclusion that Havana Syndrome is not caused by U.S. adversaries.
Two of the seven agencies expressed moderate to high confidence in the findings, while three had only moderate confidence.
The final two intelligence agencies called the involvement of a U.S. adversary unlikely but expressed low confidence in the conclusion based on what they described as collection gaps.
U.S. intelligence officials Wednesday acknowledged that the latest findings would likely disappoint some.
“I understand it won’t be persuasive to any number of officers,” said one of the officials briefing reporters, adding that they would continue to investigate as cases trickled in.
The official also said they would continue to investigate whether someone, somehow had overcome technical obstacles to develop a weapon that could cause many of the symptoms.
“We’re pursuing it because there are a lot of implications if a foreign adversary has a weapon like this,” the official said.
The officials, however, emphasized that such a scenario was unlikely, not just because of the technological hurdles but because no U.S. allies or partners have seen any indications of such a weapon being used to inflict Havana Syndrome symptoms on their personnel, even in conflict zones.
Patsy Widakuswara and Nike Ching contributed to this report.