CubaBrief: What role do Cuba & Russia play in the “Havana Syndrome,” plausibly caused by microwaves, harming diplomats? Why are diplomats told to stay silent?

There is concern that Russia has been targeting CIA spies with secret weapons and BBC News reported on this in a lengthy article on February 1, 2021. There is also hope that if these aggressive actions are proven that there will be “accountability.”

“The new Biden administration has announced a review of Russia’s “aggressive actions” and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed during his confirmation to sharing more information about “Havana syndrome”. He also promised “accountability” if a state actor was responsible. New CIA director Bill Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, may also take a close interest.If it is proven that Russia used a microwave weapon against US officials, the consequences could be explosive. But, even if it were true, finding sufficient evidence to be confident in making a public accusation may prove difficult, leaving the issue unresolved.”

However there is a narrative that needs debunking. According to the same article, “one theory is that, in Havana, Russia wanted to disrupt any improvement in relations between the US and Cuba.” The Castro regime’s spy service, the General Direction of Intelligence (DGI) is competitive with their Russian counterpart, Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR – RF), a successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB, and in some areas exceeds Moscow.

The underlying assumption by those making this argument “in good faith” is that the Castro regime did not know what was going on.

Mary O’Grady in her May 10, 2020 column in The Wall Street Journal, “How Cuba’s Spies Keep Winning“ reveals that “‘the Cubans were underestimated for more than a quarter of a century,’ former CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell wrote in his 2012 book, Castro’s Secrets. The U.S. thought it was dealing with ‘bush-league amateurs’ until Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, a highly decorated Cuban agent, defected in 1987. That’s when the U.S. began to understand that Castro’s Cuba had ‘developed a foreign intelligence service that quickly rose into the ranks of the half dozen best in the world.’ Moreover, ‘in some covert specialties, particularly in running double agents and counterintelligence,’ over decades, Mr. Latell wrote, ‘Cuba’s achievements have been unparalleled.'”

This also ignores that Cuban spies successfully outmaneuvered the KGB in recruiting the first CIA defector during the Cold War. This first American defector was Philip Agee who died in Cuba in 2008 at age 72. He defected to Cuba in 1973, after Russians failed to recruit him, and made public the identity of 250 alleged CIA officers and agents. It was the Cubans and not the KGB who successfully recruited him. Policymakers have a long history of underestimating the Castro brothers that has benefited the dictatorship in Havana.

Philipp Agee: CIA agent flipped by Castro in 1973

Philipp Agee: CIA agent flipped by Castro in 1973

The fact is that if Russians are harming U.S. diplomats in Havana the Dirección General De Inteligencia (DGI), the Castro regime’s spy agency, would know it, and most likely be collaborating with their decades long allies. This would be in violation of Havana’s duty to protect diplomats stationed in Cuba, but it would not be the first time they engaged in such actions.

CubaBrief has been following this story closely for some time, and on October 30, 2020 The Washington Post published a letter to the editor by the CFC executive director highlighting the Cuban dictatorship’s outlaw behavior against diplomats stationed in Havana. The Castro regime has a history, stretching back decades, of harassing American diplomats such as: killing their pets, trying to run them down or crash into their vehicle and switching out mouthwash with urine.

On November 13, 2020 José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador to the United States, responded to CFC’s October 30th letter with his own claiming that The Washington Post “should have alerted readers that there is no scientific evidence that can support the kind of sonic “attacks” alleged.” Since his argument on the merits was weak, the ambassador attacked the Center, but the substance of his claim regarding the Havana Syndrome does not hold up. Less than a month after the ambassador’s letter the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report on December 5, 2020 titled “An Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies (2020)” found “that among the mechanisms the committee considered, directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases, especially in individuals with the distinct early symptoms.”

Equally disturbing is an article in Canada’s Global News revealing that “the union representing Canadian diplomats says it still has not been able to get a meeting with Global Affairs Canada despite requests to discuss the troubling findings of a U.S. report on ‘Havana syndrome.’ At the same time, the government continues to dodge questions about why bureaucrats warned diplomats bound for Cuba in 2017 to stay silent about mysterious symptoms being reported among staff at the embassy in Havana — and what is being done to protect Canadian diplomats still abroad.

Remaining silent about these mysterious symptoms in light of the assessment of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the conclusions reached does a disservice to those public servants injured, and underestimates both the Cuban and Russian intelligence services and possible roles played in generating the “Havana Syndrome” and their hostility to diplomats and spies for Western nations, like Canada and the United States.

What role do Cuban and Russian spy services play in the “Havana Syndrome” (now linked to pulsed radio frequency energy) harming diplomats? Why are diplomats going to Cuba warned to stay silent about these attacks by some official channels?

BBC News, February 1, 2021

Is Russia targeting CIA spies with secret weapons?

By Gordon Corera
Security correspondent

Marc Polymeropoulos dates his illness back to his Moscow visit (L)

Marc Polymeropoulos dates his illness back to his Moscow visit (L)

Marc Polymeropoulos woke up in his hotel room with his head spinning and ears ringing. “I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn’t stand up. I was falling over,” he recalls. “I have been shot at numerous times and this was the most terrifying experience in my life.”

Polymeropoulos had spent years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as a senior officer of the CIA fighting America’s war on terrorism. But that night in Moscow he believes he was targeted by a secret, microwave weapon.

After Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, CIA leadership issued a “call to arms” and redeployed battle-hardened officers like Polymeropoulos to push back.

He would eventually become acting chief of clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia, working with allies to expose Moscow’s activity, including the 2018 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.

In December 2017 he visited Moscow, but not undercover. He wanted to use a regular “liaison” meeting between Russian and US spies to see the country for himself. He was not there, he insists, for any clandestine activity. The Russians had not been keen on him coming, but acquiesced.

It was early on during the trip that he fell ill. On his return to the US the vertigo went, but other symptoms persisted to this day. “I’ve had a migraine headache for three straight years. It has never gone away,” he told the BBC. He was unable to work a full day and took months off, starting a long medical journey.

His suspicions arose because, from 2016, diplomats in Havana, Cuba, reported similar symptoms – as did some Canadians.

Sometimes it was the sudden onset of a loud noise leading to intense pain, while others felt pressure on the head leading to dizziness and vertigo. The sensations seemed to come from a particular direction in a specific location. This became known as “Havana syndrome”.

What caused ‘Havana syndrome’?

The US initially suspected “sonic attacks” had been launched against its embassy in Havana

“What happened to US diplomats in Cuba, happened to me in Moscow,” he believes.

But getting to the bottom of Havana syndrome has not been straightforward. The symptoms presented themselves differently in different people. Some speculated cases were unconnected or the result of a psychological illness.

The first thorough assessment came from the US National Academies of Sciences in December 2020. Even though the clinical information was often fragmentary, a committee concluded symptoms were “consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy”, dismissing other possibilities including poisoning or a psychological cause.

“We did find that a subset of individuals shared some very unusual and distinct clinical findings at the onset of their illnesses, and it was these findings that led us to our judgment,” said Prof David A Relman of Stanford University, who chaired the panel. It did not conclude whether the pulse was deployed as a weapon or who was behind the attacks, he told the BBC, because that was beyond the committee’s remit.

When Polymeropoulos was initially screened by CIA medical officials he was told his symptoms were slightly different from those in Havana and they dismissed any link, leaving him feeling let down. He attributes differences to evidence that people are affected in different ways, and the possibility that what was used on people evolved. A spokesperson for the agency told the BBC the “CIA’s first priority has been and continues to be the welfare of all of our officers”.

Other incidents reported beyond Cuba

After being forced to retire due to ill health in 2019, Polymeropoulos decided to go public, to bring attention to the issue and try to secure treatment at a specialist hospital, which was eventually agreed.

He says the operational side of the CIA took the issue more seriously once it became clear he was not the only potential victim.

Reports have pointed to up to half a dozen other officials being affected and cases continuing. “It’s happening to several other senior agency officials,” Polymeropoulos says. “And some of the officers who have been subsequently affected seem to have been involved in some way in this pushback against the Russians. You have officers who are suffering in silence.”

Some incidents are reported to have taken place in countries other than Cuba or Russia, including China. GQ magazine, which first reported on the Polymeropoulos case, said a senior CIA official was affected on a 2019 visit to Australia (later confirmed by Australian media). Others were affected in Poland and Georgia.

A White House official is also reported as feeling symptoms, including pressure in the head, while in a London hotel room in August 2019 – an event that British security officials are aware of, although it is unclear what exactly took place. There has been contact between London and Washington on the issue, although the UK Foreign and Development Office told the BBC it was not aware of any of its own staff being affected.

One former UK intelligence official says any proof of Russian intent would be a “game changer”.

Is there evidence of Russian involvement?

Media reports in the wake of the initial Havana incidents suggested classified evidence – including intercepted communications – pointing to Russia. More recently, it has been reported that the US intelligence community used mobile phone data to locate Russian intelligence officers in proximity to CIA officers affected in some locations.

“That of course is a very interesting circumstantial case that certainly warrants additional attention,” Polymeropoulos says, adding that his allegations are based on public information rather than knowledge of classified investigations after he left.

None of that has proved conclusive enough for the US government to make a formal accusation.

One possibility is that the damage to individuals was a side-effect of some kind of tool used to collect intelligence by bombarding electronic devices with microwaves to elicit information – a practice that began in the Cold War.

“The Russian security services used to flood the US embassy in Moscow with concentrated microwaves and electronic pulses,” says John Sipher, a former CIA officer who worked on Russia. He says Russia even had vans that could drive around a city to target individuals.

He believes Moscow was responsible for the recent harm to CIA officers, although he is unsure of the exact motive. Another former CIA officer who served in Moscow also said he believed the Russians had used a directed energy attack, but could not be sure whether it was designed to cause harm, or whether the Russians simply did not care that harm was caused as a by-product of whatever else they were doing.

Polymeropoulos says his original presumption was of some kind of intelligence collection. But the evidence, which he accepts is often circumstantial, has left him believing that the Russians used an “offensive weapon” to deliberately hurt people.

Is it plausible?

One theory is that, in Havana, Russia wanted to disrupt any improvement in relations between the US and Cuba – traditionally a close ally of Moscow – and then expanded its use to go after intelligence officers identified as working against them, like Polymeropoulos. This would take them out of action, eat up resources and make it harder for the CIA to operate.

But this would go against an unspoken agreement that spy services do not target opposing personnel for physical harm. However, former CIA and MI6 officers point to the fact that the Russians have used a form of radioactive spy dust to track their movements in Russia, which posed risks to health.

Polymeropoulos also argues Russia under President Vladimir Putin has been willing to push boundaries – for instance using nerve agent in Salisbury. “It’s certainly an escalation, but it’s not out of the norm for how the Russians really messed with our personnel,” he says.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred the BBC to comments in the wake of the US National Academies of Sciences report, which said: “We don’t have any information about Russia having ‘directed microwave weapons’ or of incidences of the use of such a weapon. Such provocative, baseless speculation and fanciful hypotheses can’t really be considered a serious matter for comment.”

Polymeropoulos wants Congressional committees to investigate. Some senators have taken up the issue.

The scientist who led the official inquiry also wants more monitoring. “Not nearly enough has been done,” Prof Relman told the BBC, saying previous efforts had been hindered by the complexity of the illness, the challenge of identifying a cause, as well as geopolitics.

The new Biden administration has announced a review of Russia’s “aggressive actions” and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed during his confirmation to sharing more information about “Havana syndrome”. He also promised “accountability” if a state actor was responsible. New CIA director Bill Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, may also take a close interest.

If it is proven that Russia used a microwave weapon against US officials, the consequences could be explosive. But, even if it were true, finding sufficient evidence to be confident in making a public accusation may prove difficult, leaving the issue unresolved.

For Polymeropoulos, the truth is important even if it will not stop what he has to live with every day.

“I’d rather I was shot. I’d rather there was an overt hole in my body that I knew that we could try to fix, as opposed to what’s happening now.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55854458

Global News, January 28, 2021

Canada

Ottawa keeps diplomat union hanging in push to meet over ‘Havana syndrome’ risks

By Amanda Connolly Global News

The union representing Canadian diplomats says it still has not been able to get a meeting with Global Affairs Canada despite requests to discuss the troubling findings of a U.S. report on ‘Havana syndrome.’

At the same time, the government continues to dodge questions about why bureaucrats warned diplomats bound for Cuba in 2017 to stay silent about mysterious symptoms being reported among staff at the embassy in Havana — and what is being done to protect Canadian diplomats still abroad.

Read more: Foreign minister raised troubling U.S. report on ‘Havana syndrome’ with Cuban counterpart

Last month, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences released a report that said directed, pulsed microwave energy is the most probable cause of the strange array of serious and lasting symptoms reported by dozens of American and Canadian diplomats who served at the embassies in Havana.

That came after Global News reported in October how federal officials with Global Affairs Canada warned diplomats bound for Cuba in 2017 not to say a word about briefings those diplomats received about symptoms reported by their colleagues on the ground.

However, those briefings appeared to leave out key details such as the fact Canadian children of diplomats stationed in Havana were among those suffering from symptoms.

Read more: ‘They need to take this seriously’: Diplomats urge action after Havana syndrome report

In response to the U.S. report issued in December 2020, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers requested a meeting with Global Affairs Canada to discuss the potential implications of the findings for Canadian diplomats continuing to serve abroad.

A spokesperson for PAFSO confirmed that meeting request to Global News on Dec. 7, 2020.

As of Jan. 27, 2021, the spokesperson said the union has still not been able to get any answers.

“Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to have that meeting with GAC yet and have no further information on this file,” said Eric Schallenberg, spokesperson for PAFSO, in an email.

“We have contacted them late last week and they indicated they were hoping something could be set up ‘soon.’”

Schallenberg said in December that the union wanted to ensure Global Affairs Canada is “doing everything they can, based on the latest information, to make sure no one else is at risk.”

“From our point of view, the core issues here lie in the ongoing health and safety of our members — some of whom continue to suffer the after-effects of what they experienced in Havana, and others who remain posted there,” he said at the time.

“We have asked to meet with Global Affairs to get their assessment of the analysis and conclusions in the report, along with their plans for follow up and mitigation measures based on them.”

Read more: Canadian officials warned staff bound for Cuba to stay silent on ‘Havana syndrome’

Global News reached out to Global Affairs Canada, asking why officials there have not yet met with the union representing Canadian diplomats, particularly in light of the fact the U.S. report highlighted the possibility of an ongoing threat to diplomats posted abroad.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the department is still reviewing the report.

“Global Affairs Canada holds regular meetings with bargaining agents to discuss the health and safety of staff abroad,” said John Babcock in an email.

“The Government of Canada continues to investigate the potential causes of the unusual health symptoms … while we are exploring all avenues, no definitive cause of the health incidents has been identified to date.”

The department has repeatedly refused to provide clear answers about its handling of the situation or why it continues to prohibit diplomats posted to Cuba from bringing their families with them — a risk level shared with embassies in places like South Sudan and Iraq.

Even as it maintains that risk rating, the government is fighting diplomats in court who are suing over allegations that Global Affairs Canada failed to take the risks seriously and failed to protect staff.

Documents obtained by Global News show bureaucrats initially suggested Canadian diplomats reporting symptoms in spring 2017 were imagining their symptoms or simply suffering from stress related to American diplomats stationed in Havana who had begun reporting symptoms in the fall of 2016.

In an order paper question submitted to the government last month, Conservative MP John Nater asked, “Why did the government warn diplomats in 2017 not to say anything about the symptoms experienced by those stationed in Havana?”

It was one of several questions posed by the MP for Perth–Wellington related to the government’s handling of the matter — none of which were answered in the government response.

“Since the beginning of the health incidents, the health, safety and security of diplomatic staff and their families has been the top priority,” said Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. “Canada’s diplomatic staff and their families have Global Affairs Canada’s full support.”

“This has been a very distressing experience for these diplomats and their families, and the department will continue to take the necessary steps to help them,” he continued.

“While we are exploring all avenues, no definitive cause of the health incidents has been identified to date. For privacy and security reasons, we cannot comment on the specifics of the ongoing investigations, individual cases, nor on specific security and briefing measures.”

The report said there had been an “early failure” to detect and investigate the cases, which have spurred a range of theories ranging from pesticide poisoning to the malicious use of directed energy weapons by a hostile foreign actor.

While the report’s authors noted they cannot say conclusively whether the pulsed energy came from a weapon or another source, “the mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others.”

https://globalnews.ca/news/7603072/canada-havana-syndrome-diplomat-response/


From the archives

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, December 5, 2020

New Report Assesses Illnesses Among U.S. Government Personnel and Their Families at Overseas Embassies

News Release | December 5, 2020

WASHINGTON — Government personnel and their families at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, in late 2016, and later at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, began suffering from a range of unusual — and in some cases suddenly occurring — symptoms such as a perceived loud noise, ear pain, intense head pressure or vibration, dizziness, visual problems, and cognitive difficulties, and many still continue to experience these or other health problems.  As part of its effort to ascertain potential causes of the illnesses, inform government employees more effectively about health risks at posts abroad, and determine best medical practices for screening, prevention, and treatment for both short- and long-term health problems, the U.S. Department of State asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to provide advice.  After undergoing a security review, the National Academies’ report is now available.

In examining plausible causes of these illnesses, the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report considered the possibilities of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy, chemical exposures, infectious diseases such as Zika, and psychological issues.  An Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies says that among the mechanisms the committee considered, directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases, especially in individuals with the distinct early symptoms.  Persistent postural-perceptual dizziness (PPPD) — a functional (not psychiatric) vestibular disorder that may be triggered by vestibular, neurologic, or other medical and psychological conditions — is a secondary reinforcing mechanism, as well as the possible additive effects of psychological conditions.  

The committee could not rule out other possible mechanisms and found it is likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others.  In particular, it could not be certain that the individuals with only the chronic set of signs and symptoms suffered from the same causes and mechanisms as those who reported the initial, sudden onset set of signs and symptoms.  The committee noted that it faced several challenges in its assessment, related to the extreme variability in the clinical cases as well as lack of access to specific health or personal information on the affected individuals.

“The committee found these cases quite concerning, in part because of the plausible role of directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy as a mechanism, but also because of the significant suffering and debility that has occurred in some of these individuals,” said committee chair David Relman, Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor in Medicine, professor of microbiology and immunology, and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.  “We as a nation need to address these specific cases as well as the possibility of future cases with a concerted, coordinated, and comprehensive approach.”

The report includes a number of recommendations for rehabilitation and actions the State Department should take to enhance responses to future threats to the well-being of its personnel and their families.

The study — undertaken by the Standing Committee to Advise the U.S. Department of State on Unexplained Health Effects on U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies — was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2020/12/new-report-assesses-illnesses-among-us-government-personnel-and-their-families-at-overseas-embassies