Matt Katz: I'm Matt Katz in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Havana syndrome is the name for an illness that was first documented in 2016 after dozens of US officials in Havana, Cuba complained of a range of neurological symptoms including nausea, vertigo, ear pain, and even traumatic brain injury. Since then, more than 100 US diplomats and officials, including those working in Russia and China have been affected by this mysterious illness.
There’s no consensus from the US intelligence community about where the illness is coming from, and some of the victims believe they were targeted by the Russian government or another hostile power. Last fall, two cases were reported domestically, and as recently as March, there have been suspected cases of Havana syndrome overseas. Now, a bipartisan group in Congress has proposed legislation that would provide financial support to those affected. Here with us to explain what's going on with this strange and disturbing story is Olivia Gazis, intelligence and national security reporter at CBS News. Olivia, welcome to The Takeaway.
Olivia Gazis: Thanks, Matt. Thanks for having me.
Matt Katz: Olivia, what's the latest going on with Havana syndrome? What have you learned from your reporting about what this thing is?
Olivia Gazis: Matt, this is a really thorny issue. As you said, it's affected many dozens, scores of US personnel, principally those who have been serving overseas, but there have also been two cases reported here domestically, including one very much near the White House. It's affected personnel in multiple agencies and departments, including the State Department, the Defense Department, and intelligence officials, chiefly those working for the CIA, and they're continuing. They're continuing into this year.
We've reported recently that intelligence officers who fell ill this year in multiple instances felt so sick, so suddenly that they had to be medevaced from where they were serving in order to seek prompt medical attention here. We know that these cases are ongoing, and according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would be routinely briefed on these sorts of things, the number of cases is increasing.
Matt Katz: What are their theories about how this syndrome affects people, what's actually getting them sick?
Olivia Gazis: The most definitive study that we have on this came from the National Academies of Science late last year, in a study that was requested by the State Department, they took a look at all of the cases that they knew of to date, and they considered all of the possible causes. Of those causes, they concluded that directed pulsed radiofrequency energy, appear to be the most plausible explanation behind these cases. What does that mean? Does that mean that that's actually a weapon, or does that mean that it's a technology that is simply being used in a particular way, being misused? We don't know the answer to that question.
It's notable that lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee have consistently referred to these things as attacks and made reference to a weapon and bipartisan public statements, but not all lawmakers are there, and certainly, not all intelligence officials are there. As you mentioned, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently said that it's not at all at a consensus as to what this is or whether a foreign power is behind it, and the facts of that speculation about the origins of these attacks, the origins of these incidents was premature and irresponsible.
Matt Katz: In terms of picturing it, I picture like this weird gun that shoots across the street or something to attack somebody, but they don't have any idea if that's anything like what this is, right? They don't know what's actually firing this directed pulse to radiofrequency energy if, in fact, that's what's causing people to get sick.
Olivia Gazis: Right. One of the reasons that this is a concern is because it's still such a mystery and because it's still happening. These cases are still cropping up in 2021. Reported cases, I should say, because these are people who are coming forward and saying, "I have these symptoms, I think I'm a victim of the same thing that these other individuals going back to 2016 have also felt." Obviously, the idea that there's an invisible weapon being deployed by an unknown foe that can result in traumatic brain injury, is very worrisome. If you don't know what it is or where it's coming from, how can you protect yourself against it?
Again, we just don't know whether this is a weapon, whether this is a technology, or whether this is a health phenomenon that is cropping up for some other reason, among US officials. The vast majority of which we should say, Matt, have happened overseas, although yes, there have been at least two domestic incidents reported here near the White House and in Virginia, in the Metro Washington area.
Matt Katz: Wow. Near the White House, that's startling. If we look at the big picture here, what does Havana syndrome mean for national security?
Olivia Gazis: It's a real concern, Matt. Again, because of the mystery surrounding what it is and who it affects, part of the reason that intelligence analysts are really not coming to a consensus about this yet is because they're questioning among a variety of things, what would motivate a foreign government to employ a technique that has effects that are as traceable as these are on as wide a variety of people as have been affected, and as large number of targets as have been affected?
This has spanned people who serve in embassies overseas, who are for the State Department. It's targeted military personnel working for the Pentagon. It's targeted intelligence officials working principally for the CIA. It's a wide range of people, the domestic incidents seem to have targeted people who are working for the National Security Council.
Supposing it is Vladimir Putin. What is in it for Vladimir Putin to target somebody on White House grounds that brazenly? Of course, that's grounds for an international incident. Why would he want to do that? That's the thing that intelligence analysts who are weighing all of the intelligence and evidence they've gathered today are saying, "Okay, but why would this make sense from a motivational perspective for a foreign government?"
Matt Katz: Is one theory that a foreign adversary is testing a new technology, a new weapon, and these are just an indication of maybe what could be to come? Is that one fear out there?
Olivia Gazis: Again, without running into the realm of irresponsible speculation, there are theories that abound about this. One of them is that yes, potentially is this a foreign government that is trying to collect intelligence, potentially targeting the devices of somebody that they find to be of interest, and have they turned up that technology too high such that it ends up affecting somebody neurologically?
Again, we do not know that that is the case. That is one theory that has been thrown out there. The most definitive thing that we have, from a scientific perspective again, came from the National Academies of Science, who said that this radiofrequency energy may be to blame.
Matt Katz: Meanwhile, Congress is paying attention. Tell us about this proposed legislation, what it aims to do.
Olivia Gazis: This legislation was notable for how bipartisan it was. Last week, a group of bipartisan and bicameral lawmakers introducing legislation that would specifically allow the CIA and the State Department to provide more financial assistance to individuals who have confirmed to have been suffering brain injuries as a result of this syndrome. This is in part because lawmakers learned that with some of these employees who had been suffering these effects, struggled to access proper medical care, struggled in some cases to be taken seriously by their employers, saying they felt that they weren't believed when they showed up with what was effectively an invisible injury.
In the Senate, a group led by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, has introduced this legislation saying that these men and women stepped up to help protect the country and we need to make sure that if they're injured in the line of duty, that we're taking care of them here at home.
Matt Katz: Olivia Gazis is an intelligence and national security reporter at CBS News. Olivia, thanks for sharing your reporting with us. We appreciate it.
Olivia Gazis: It's my pleasure, Matt. Thanks for having me.
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