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As intelligence probe of 'Havana syndrome' gains momentum, fear grows of escalating attacks

Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Officials across the U.S. government have grown concerned in recent weeks that suspected sensory attacks against American personnel are escalating as an intelligence probe into the phenomenon known as “Havana syndrome” gains steam.

A panel of experts and scientists has been examining what is causing the suspected attacks for several months, while the CIA is investigating who might be responsible by using resources similar to the spy agency’s hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.

At the State Department, the lead adviser overseeing its response to the phenomenon is leaving this week, officials told McClatchy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to name a replacement in the coming days for Pamela Spratlen, who is entering retirement.

Blinken considers choosing her replacement an important decision, a senior State Department official said.

“The secretary has been seized with this issue even before he became secretary,” the official said. “One of the meetings he proactively requested before the transition was on this issue.”

At the Pentagon, “recent cases” were reported within the military after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin advised personnel who believed they had symptoms to report their experiences immediately. A Defense Department spokesperson would not comment on the investigation or on reports of specific incidents.

 

The possible targeting of U.S. diplomats in Hanoi just before Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam in August and an intelligence officer traveling with CIA Director Bill Burns in India this month have stoked a sense of alarm across national security agencies that the suspected attacks are becoming increasingly brazen.

The latest high-profile incidents in Vietnam and India come as intelligence officials say they are getting closer to understanding what is causing the episodes that have affected more than 200 American personnel in recent years.

“In terms of have we gotten closer? I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make the analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said last week on a panel at the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit.

One official said the two recent incidents have “underscored the need to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”

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