Several sources familiar with the matter tell CNN that while the Pentagon and other authorities investigating the matter have not drawn clear conclusions about what happened, the fact that such an attack may have taken place so close to the White House is particularly alarming .
Defense officials briefed lawmakers on the Senate and House Forces committees earlier this month on the matter, including the incident near the White House. This incident, which occurred near the Ellipse, the large oval lawn on the south side of the White House, made a National Security Council official sick, according to several current and former U.S. officials and sources familiar with the matter.
In Washington, there have long been rumors of similar incidents in the United States. While the recent episodes in Washington resemble the earlier overt attacks on diplomats, CIA officials, and other U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, Russia, and China, investigators have failed to determine whether or who might be the mysterious incidents domestically related to those abroad be behind them, sources tell CNN.
Defense officials briefing lawmakers said it was possible Russia was behind the attacks, but they didn’t have enough information to say for sure. Another former US official who was involved in the investigation at the time said China was also among the suspects.
The U.S. has been struggling to understand these attacks since 2016 and 2017, when diplomatic and intelligence officials in Cuba first reported alarming symptoms that seemed to appear out of the blue. Intelligence and defense officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about the strange incidents, and some have publicly complained that the CIA did not take the matter seriously enough, at least initially.
A “bureaucratic power game”
Another mystery surrounding “Havana Syndrome” is how the US government approaches the problem. Among those investigating the mysterious pattern of possible attacks are the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense.
Towards the end of the Trump administration, the Pentagon tried to take the lead out of perceived frustration that other agencies were not doing enough to address the problem.
“I knew the CIA and State Department were not taking this seriously, and we wanted to shame them by setting up our task force,” Chris Miller, who served as Secretary of Defense at the time, told CNN last week.
Pentagon leaders set up the task force to follow up on reports of such symptoms hit Department of Defense staff overseas. Miller said this was intended in part as a “bureaucratic power game” to force the CIA and the state to take the problem seriously in their own staff.
Miller said he began prioritizing reports of these mysterious symptoms in December after interviewing a suspected victim with extensive combat experience.
“When this officer walked in and I knew his background and he explained in an extraordinarily detailed but more military style that I could understand, I thought this was actually real,” Miller said. “This boy was a bunch in the fight and he knew it.”
The Department of Defense efforts are believed to be some of the most robust and may explain why a defense official, rather than the intelligence services or the FBI, informed lawmakers of the Ellipse incident even though it occurred on US soil.
Miller tapped Griffin Decker, a U.S. Special Operations Command officer, to lead the effort. Decker tracked and verified reports in the military about what had been known informally as “Havana Syndrome”. Miller says Griffin would report a new case to him “every few weeks” despite warning that they are looking out for false reports, psychosomatic episodes, or hypochondria. Some of the cases they tracked included the children and family members of the Department of Defense staff overseas, Miller said.
National Intelligence Director Avril Haines was asked about CNN’s coverage by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing Thursday. Haines did not discuss the details, but called the problem of the mysterious attacks “critically important” and added, “Throughout the intelligence community, leaders are frankly focused on this problem.”
Haines also defended the classification of information related to the attacks, but said members of Congress “should definitely have access to classified information”.
A White House spokesman said in a statement: “The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unresolved health incidents and to ensure the safety of Americans serving around the world. Given that we are still reporting incidents evaluate and that we need them. ” To protect the privacy of those who report incidents, we are currently unable to provide or confirm specific details. “
Difficult to determine cause of symptoms
In one investigated incident, Marines at a remote base in Syria developed flu-like symptoms shortly after flying over a Russian helicopter, raising immediate concerns that it might be one of these strange attacks. But “it was quickly established where they had bad food and where no one else on the base had the same symptoms,” said a former US official, aware of the incident. A defense doctor also found that symptoms had started before the Russia patrol, a defense official told CNN.
The Syria episode highlights the difficulties US officials face when trying to figure out what is an attack and what is not. Symptoms often vary, and officials still have no clear idea of how the unknown adversary is doing what he is doing. At least one former US official with knowledge of the matter said investigators still haven’t fully ruled out the possibility that the symptoms are caused by a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a weapon.
Another US defense official confirmed that the Pentagon’s investigation is still ongoing. The official wouldn’t offer details but said, “We still wouldn’t be looking at this if we didn’t have stocks in it.”
“There is nothing the Secretary of Defense takes more seriously than the safety, health and well-being of our employees who serve to defend our values and freedoms around the world,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement. “Any concerns about issues that question this will be carefully considered and appropriate measures will be taken to reduce the risks to our personnel.”
A March report from the National Academy of Sciences found that “directional, pulsed radio frequency energy” was the most likely cause of the strange symptoms. Though carefully drafted so as not to overstate its findings, the report provided some of the clearest public evidence to date that the incidents may have been attacks, with afflictions attributed to “pulsed” or “directional” energy.
This story has been updated with comments from the White House and the Director of National Intelligence.