CIA Backtracks on Havana Syndrome After Director Issued Warning to Russian Spies

A CIA interim report is sparking controversy after concluding that "Havana Syndrome"—an unexplained group of symptoms experienced by hundreds of Western spies and diplomats—is not the result of a sustained global campaign by a hostile power.

Two months ago, The Washington Post reported that the agency's director, William J. Burns, had delivered a confidential warning to leading figures in Russian intelligence, saying if the U.S. found out they were intentionally causing the mysterious illness, there would be "consequences."

But it was reported on Thursday that a CIA interim assessment had ruled out the idea that a hostile foreign power was behind the syndrome, which is characterized by symptoms including migraines, nausea, memory lapses, vertigo and dizziness.

The agency's investigation into the incidents is continuing.

In hundreds of cases, the agency had found plausible alternative explanations for the symptoms, according to CIA sources who briefed outlets including NBC News, The New York Times and Politico about the interim assessment.

However, it has also been reported that the assessment could not rule out foreign involvement in about two dozen cases. These included many of the incidents that originated at the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 2016—which gave the ailment its name.

Officials in the Cuban capital were the first to report symptoms, saying they were suddenly hearing loud noises, losing their balance, and suffering intense head pressure and impaired vision. Many of these were long-lasting, they said. They also described tinnitus-like symptoms and brain fog.

The illness has been reported by dozens of diplomats and spies in other countries, including China, Austria and Germany.

One theory offered is that a hostile power used a directed microwave energy device to target diplomats and spies. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported in 2020 that some of the brain injuries caused by Havana Syndrome were consistent with the effects of directed microwave energy. The National Academies also said Russia had long studied this technology.

The CIA has long considered Moscow a leading suspect among foreign powers that might be causing the syndrome intentionally. The Kremlin has consistently denied involvement.

The U.S. has also accused Cuba of carrying out "sonic attacks," which the Latin American country has strongly denied.

Some 200 U.S. officials, including CIA officers and their family members, have been affected, Director Burns said last July.

NBC asked the CIA for comment on its report, which was based on information from six sources, but the agency declined.

Newsweek has also contacted the CIA for comment.

Advocates for some of the reported Havana Syndrome victims have condemned the agency's interim assessment.

"The decision to release the report now and with this particular set of 'findings' seems a breach of faith, and an undermining of the intent of Congress and the president to stand with us and reach a government-wide consensus as to what is behind this," they said in a statement issued to Politico.

"This report was neither cleared nor coordinated through the interagency and must stand as the assessment of one agency (CIA) alone.

"We have reason to believe the interim report does not even represent the consensus of the full CIA, instead reflecting the views of a subset of officials most interested in resolution and closure."

Counterterrorism experts and commentators have been discussing the assessment on social media, with some criticizing the CIA for previous attempts to blame Russia.

Max Abrahms, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy think tank, tweeted: "Havana Syndrome was part of Russiagate. Like many other aspects, it's getting walked back as empirically unsupported. But it served its anti-Trump goal."

Bryan MacDonald, a journalist with the Russian state-funded RT, said the idea that an illness had been intentionally caused by the Kremlin was a fantasy.

He tweeted: "After a couple of years of Western media speculation, much of which outright blamed 'the Russians' for a mysterious illness known as 'Havana Syndrome,' the CIA walks back the allegation. Moscow is not using microwave weapons against US diplomats. Star Trek isn't real either."

Todd Hagopian, a Libertarian Party official from Oklahoma, posted: "The CIA manufactured Havana Syndrome the same way they manufactured WMDs in Iraq the same way as they manufactured wars in dozens of countries around the world the same way as they manufactured a dozen assassinations in foreign countries and here at home #DefundTheCIA."

Last October, President Joe Biden signed into law the Havana Act, "to ensure we are doing our utmost to provide for U.S. Government personnel who have experienced anomalous health incidents." His statement did not refer to the cases as "attacks."

Havana Cuba
Picture of the Yara theater in Havana taken on December 2, 2021. The first cases of the group of symptoms known as Havana Syndrome were reported in the Cuban capital in 2016. AFP/STR/Getty

Update 01/20/22 8:20 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add extra information and comments on Havana Syndrome.