Pentagon still probing if a weapon caused ‘Havana Syndrome,’ even after spy agencies found no smoking gun
The Pentagon’s research arm, including the Army and Air Force research laboratories, are testing weapon systems to try to determine what could cause the symptoms, according to two former intelligence officials with knowledge of the efforts. The people, like others interviewed for this story, were granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.
Meanwhile, a “cross-functional team” in the Pentagon mandated by Congress “remains focused” on addressing the incidents, DoD spokesperson Lt. Col. Devin Robinson said in a statement. This includes “the causation, attribution, mitigation, identification and treatment for such incidents,” Robinson said.
The DoD team primarily deals with helping those affected by the incidents and “is not focused on creating weapons,” Robinson said.
But the Pentagon is working on developing “defenses” against the syndrome and is investigating to see if it is possible that a weapon could be responsible, an intelligence official told reporters in a briefing on the findings last week.
An email from a Pentagon official sent out after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence-led report released on Wednesday reassured victims that the DoD team is “keeping the course.” The official urged victims to continue to “report any incidents you may have experienced and encourage those around you to do the same.”
A State Department task force is also continuing to collect reports of possible incidents, and coordinating care for those affected, according to a senior State Department official, who said the department supports the intelligence community’s assessment.
DoD treats government employees who have suffered brain injuries, including some related to the Havana Syndrome incidents, at Walter Reed National Medical Center.
The news that the Pentagon is continuing to study the issue comes after most intelligence agencies concluded in a comprehensive investigation led by the ODNI released Wednesday that it is “very unlikely” a foreign adversary using a weapon was responsible for the incidents. But the seven agencies that participated had varying levels of confidence in the final determination.
Two of the agencies, which intelligence officials would not name, had low confidence in the assessment, because they still believe “radiofrequency (RF) energy is a plausible cause,” according to a statement from Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
Several lawmakers have expressed frustration in recent days over the official findings from the intelligence community.
“I am concerned that the Intelligence Community effectively concluded that U.S. personnel … were simply experiencing symptoms caused by environmental factors, illness, or preexisting conditions,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “As I have said before, something happened here and just because you don’t have all the answers, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”
The search continues
The Pentagon’s main line of effort, the cross-functional team, was established by the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to address the national security challenges posed by the incidents and to ensure the victims receive adequate care. Senior department leaders are focused on the effort: DoD policy chief Colin Kahl is leading the effort, with Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gregory Masiello as the military deputy, Robinson said. Melissa Dalton, assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs, is the interagency coordination lead.
Griffin Decker, a career civil servant, led DoD’s efforts related to the incidents until recently. He left DoD in the last few weeks to lead the effort for the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee Republicans, according to two people familiar with the move. Decker was one of several DoD officials to brief lawmakers in 2021 that U.S. troops were increasingly vulnerable to the attacks, POLITICO reported at the time.
The Pentagon has long studied the possible military applications of directed energy, including lasers and high-power microwaves, and today spends roughly $1.5 billion a year looking into this technology. A number of programs have emerged from this effort, including the Navy’s Laser Weapons System, which was mounted on an amphibious transport ship in the Persian Gulf, Boeing’s “CHAMP,” a high-power microwave source mounted in a missile, and “THOR,” which was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to counter drone swarms.
Directed energy weapons convert energy from a power source into radiated electromagnetic energy and focus it on a target, wrote Edl Schamiloglu, a professor at the University of New Mexico who has worked with DoD on high power microwave sources, in a 2020 piece for Defense One. While they are generally designed to disable and damage electronic equipment, they can harm people as well.
A wide body of research indicates a device that harnesses energy could be responsible for the Havana Syndrome incidents. A 2020 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report commissioned by the State Department to look into the initial cluster of incidents in Havana found that the symptoms were consistent with the effects of “directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.” A panel of outside experts also found that this was “the most plausible mechanism” to explain the illness.
But the medical community’s thinking has “evolved” since then, the intelligence official said Wednesday when rolling out the new report’s findings. While initial studies concluded the incidents represented a consistent pattern of injuries similar to traumatic brain injury, more recent studies have not shown a consistent set of symptoms.
Another reason the intelligence community’s assessment determined it was unlikely a weapon caused the illness was that such a weapon would create heat and a racing pulse with victims, neither of which were consistent with what the victims experienced, the intelligence official said. Further, the intelligence community does not have any evidence that potential adversaries have such a weapon, the person added.
But some scientists dispute both these points. A continuous, low-power electromagnetic wave, such as in a standard microwave oven, would cause the victim to feel heat. But a high-power, rapidly pulsed source could have a detrimental effect on the victim’s brain while imparting much less energy, and thus there would be no heating effect, explained James Giordano, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown and the federally-funded think tank the Institute for Biodefense Research.
For example, “If you take a match, and if you put that match out very quickly on your finger and then remove the match, you would not feel heat,” he said.
Giordano was one of the experts brought in to investigate the original cluster of incidents, which occurred among U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. The group did not find a smoking gun, but ruled out environmental or ecological causes, such as toxins or pesticides, as well as drug exposure and psychogenic causes, he said. The group concluded that the individuals most likely were exposed to “some form of energy” that led to the effects, such as an acoustic or ultrasonic device, or a rapidly pulsed, scalable microwave.
China, Russia and the United States have developed devices that harness targeted energy in these forms, he said.
“We’re not very happy with the report because [it] categorically dismisses the existing evidence as regards those cases in Havana,” Giordano said. “It is important to not categorically classify all of the subsequent reports of which there has been over 1,000 to those very prototypic cases in Havana. That really is a question of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Intelligence officials said they’d welcome additional research on this topic.
“All agencies acknowledge the value of additional research on potential adversary capabilities in the RF field, in part because there continues to be a scientific debate on whether this could result in a weapon that could produce the symptoms seen in some of the reported AHI cases,” the ODNI statement says.