At least two possible incidents on US soil, including one near the White House in November of last year, are being investigated by federal agencies as being related to unexplained, invisible attacks that have left thousands of US workers abroad with crippling symptoms.
While the Pentagon and other agencies investigating the incident have come to no definitive conclusions about what happened, several sources familiar with the situation tell CNN that the fact that such an attack may have occurred so close to the White House is especially concerning.
Defense officials briefed senators on the matter earlier this month, including on the incident near the White House, on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. According to several current and former US officials and sources familiar with the matter, the incident, which happened near the Ellipse, the vast oval lawn on the south side of the White House, sickened one National Security Council official.
A White House official confirmed a similar assault while walking her dog in a Virginia suburb just outside of Washington in a separate 2019 episode, according to GQ last year.
Many who were sickened reported symptoms that were similar to those experienced by CIA and State Department staff who had been affected overseas, prompting officials to investigate the incident as a potential “Havana syndrome” attack. The name refers to a slew of mysterious symptoms that US staff in Cuba started experiencing in late 2016: ear ringing, vertigo, pounding headaches, nausea, and an elusive “piercing directional noise,” among other things.
Similar cases within the United States have long been rumored in Washington. Although the recent incidents in and around Washington tend to be identical to previous alleged attacks targeting diplomats, CIA officers, and other US personnel stationed in Cuba, Russia, and China, sources tell CNN that investigators have yet to ascertain if the strange incidents at home are linked to those abroad or who could be behind them.
Defense officials briefing lawmakers said it was likely that Russia was responsible for the attacks, but they didn’t have enough details to tell for sure. China, according to another former US official involved in the investigation at the time, was also one of the suspects.
Since 2016, when diplomatic and intelligence staff in Cuba first started experiencing suspicious symptoms that seemed to come out of nowhere, the US has struggled to understand these attacks. Intelligence and defense officials have been unable to talk openly about the strange events, and some of those who have been affected have publicly argued that the CIA did not take the matter seriously enough, at least at first.
Under Trump’s leadership, the attacks resulted in a significant reduction in personnel at the outpost in Havana. Related, unexplained incidents were registered by personnel in Russia and China. While no one knows for sure what causes the symptoms, one State Department-sponsored study concluded that they are most likely caused by microwave energy attacks.
Another enigma surrounding “Havana syndrome” is how the US government is dealing with it. The CIA, the State Department, and the Defense Department are among those looking into the enigmatic series of potential attacks.
Due to perceived anger that other agencies were not doing enough to resolve the problem at the end of the Trump administration, the Pentagon sought to take the lead.
“I knew the CIA and the Department of State weren’t taking this seriously, and we decided to shame them into it by forming our task force,” Chris Miller, the acting defense secretary at the time, told CNN last week.
Pentagon leaders set up the task force to track reports of such symptoms hitting Defense Department personnel overseas, an effort that Miller said was intended in part as a “bureaucratic power play” to force CIA and State to take the problem more seriously in their own personnel.
After questioning an alleged survivor with considerable fighting experience in December, Miller said he started to see accounts of these unexplained symptoms as a higher priority.
“When this officer came in and I knew his background and he explained in an extraordinarily detailed but more military style that I could understand, I was like this is actually for real,” Miller said. “This kid had been in combat a bunch and he knew.”
The CIA launched its task force in December 2020, and it has since expanded its efforts under new Director William Burns, who pledged during his confirmation hearings to look into the facts surrounding the long-publicized suspected attacks on CIA staff overseas.
In March, the State Department named a senior official to lead the response to the “Havana syndrome” attacks.
The Pentagon’s initiative is considered to be one of the most thorough, which may explain why a defense official, rather than the intelligence community or the FBI, briefed lawmakers on the Ellipse incident, despite the fact that it occurred on US soil.
Griffin Decker, a career civil servant from the US Special Operations Command, was chosen by Miller to lead the initiative. Decker would monitor and check accounts of “Havana syndrome” in the military, which had become a slang term by then. Griffin would “every couple of weeks” report a new case to Miller, but he warned that they were on the lookout for false reporting, psychosomatic episodes, or hypochondria. Miller said that some of the cases they were following included the children and dependents of Defense Department staff stationed abroad.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, questioned Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines about CNN’s reporting at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. “Across the intelligence community, frankly, leaders are focused on this issue,” Haines said. Haines did not go into detail about the attacks, but called them “critically important.”
Haines also justified the secrecy surrounding the attacks, saying that members of Congress “should definitely have access to the classified information.”
A White House spokesperson said in a statement, “The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unexplained health incidents and ensure the safety and security of Americans serving around the world. Given that we are still evaluating reported incidents and that we need to protect the privacy of individuals reporting incidents, we cannot provide or confirm specific details at this time.”
Over the last two weeks, Decker and Jennifer Walsh, the acting under secretary of defense for strategy, briefed House and Senate lawmakers on the potential attacks, according to two sources familiar with the briefings. The committee briefings were first recorded by Politico.
Marines on a remote base in Syria experienced flu-like symptoms shortly after a Russian helicopter flew over the base, raising immediate fears that it might be one of these strange attacks, according to one investigation. But “it was quickly traced, where they had bad food and where no one else on the base had the same symptoms,” said one former US official with knowledge of the incident. A defense physician also determined that the symptoms began prior to the Russia patrol, according to a defense official.
The Syrian incident exemplifies the challenges that US officials face in determining what is and isn’t a terrorist threat. Officials really don’t know how the unknown enemy is doing what it’s doing because the signs differ too much. Investigators haven’t fully ruled out the possibility that the symptoms are triggered by a naturally occurring occurrence rather than a firearm, according to at least one former US official with knowledge of the situation.
The Pentagon’s investigation is still pending, according to another US defense official. The official would offer no details, but said, “We would not still be looking at this if we didn’t have equities in it.”
“There is nothing that the Secretary of Defense takes more seriously that the safety, health and welfare of our personnel serving around the globe in defense of our values and freedoms,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement. “Any concerns on issues that call that into question are thoroughly reviewed, and the appropriate actions are taken to mitigate risks to our personnel.”