A Cold War Saga in Biden’s Washington

Joe Biden meets his National Security team
Photo by The White House via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
October 20, 2021

In the summer of 2019, I met a newly retired C.I.A. officer named Marc Polymeropoulos for lunch at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. One of my sources was his friend, and he had brokered an introduction. As we sat in the echoing and empty restaurant, Polymeropoulos told me about what he had been doing in the clandestine service before he left Langley for good: he had overseen the Agency’s efforts to expose and push back against Russian active measures in Europe and Eurasia, areas that are of utmost geopolitical and symbolic significance to the Kremlin. 

As we talked, I couldn’t square two things: Marc’s retirement and his age. He had just turned 50, and, by his own account, he had been on the up-and-up at the C.I.A. Why had he left so soon? I asked him. Donald Trump was still president, and, given Marc’s work foiling the Russian security apparatus, I expected to hear something about the White House’s interference, given the president’s affinity for Vladimir Putin. After all, it was a constant during the Trump years: U.S. government apparatchiks resigning in protest over such meddling—or reaching out in private to journalists to warn them about it. But Marc’s answer surprised me: Havana Syndrome. He told me, off the record, that he had been “hit” while visiting Moscow and that the attack had undermined his health so badly that he physically couldn’t work anymore. A promising career in an organization he loved, and had come of age in, was over.

I had been hearing and reading about Havana Syndrome since late 2016, when American diplomats stationed in Cuba as part of President Obama’s detente with the Castro regime started falling ill. Many of them reported hearing a loud, piercing sound and then suffering from vertigo, nausea, tinnitus, headaches, insomnia, cognitive difficulties, vision and hearing problems. A couple dozen U.S. diplomats and spies (as well as some Canadian embassy workers) had been affected, and no one could understand what was happening to these people. Was it chemical exposure? A virus? Mass psychosis? Was it some kind of attack? And if it was, who could have perpetrated it and how? 

Soon, stories like this had started popping up at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China. One woman, who represented the Commerce Department, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell something that really stuck with me: Not only did this woman become so ill that she had to be evacuated from China, but her dogs also felt the effects of whatever this thing was. They started vomiting blood and avoiding the room where this woman had heard that paralyzing sound. If people could be accused of faking it, surely the dogs couldn’t be. I always suspected that these illnesses were the product of deliberate attacks and that the Russian government was behind them—it was exactly the kind of weird thing they’d be both into and capable of—but it was early days, and no one seemed to know much of anything. 

The fact that Marc had been hit while in Russia, while doing a job that countered the work of Russian intelligence services, seemed like a tantalizing clue. I told him that, if he ever decided to tell his story publicly, I would love to help him. He thanked me and agreed, but I sensed it was the standard and polite way to brush off a nosy reporter. I was surprised when, a year later Marc called again: he wanted to go public. 

Exactly a year ago, I published the story, The Mystery of the Immaculate Concussion, in GQ, where I was working at the time. In the course of reporting about what happened to Marc and other U.S. government officials, I learned several disturbing things. The attacks were spreading, including to friendly countries—Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Australia, the U.K.—and were hitting ever more senior people in the C.I.A. There had even been attacks on U.S. soil, in Philadelphia and in Arlington, Virginia. Worse, C.I.A. investigators had placed agents from the F.S.B., the Russian security services, at the location of at least one attack. But Gina Haspel, then the head of the C.I.A., refused to take the concerns seriously—or brief the president on them. As one government official explained it to me, “In the world of Trump, you don’t say anything bad about Russia.” 

In the year since, the attacks have only escalated. A couple dozen U.S. diplomats and spies stationed in Vienna were hit this spring. A National Security Council staffer reported having been hit on the Ellipse, just outside the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris’s arrival in Vietnam was delayed by an attack, and a member of C.I.A. chief William Burns’s entourage was apparently targeted during Burns’s trip to Delhi. Meanwhile, the number of government employees suffering from Havana Syndrome has jumped from a couple dozen to a couple hundred. Some reports place the figure of affected government employees as high as 300. I’ve heard from several sources that the Walter Reed Military Medical Center, where some of those affected have been going for treatment, is overwhelmed to the point of no longer being able to take new patients. The government is now outsourcing these victims to non-government hospitals.

This is a drastic change from where we were a year ago. One of the reasons Marc wanted to go public was because the C.I.A. was refusing to take his health concerns seriously and to refer him to the traumatic brain injury specialists at Walter Reed. This was a problem not just at the C.I.A., but at State, where medical personnel pooh-poohed the affected diplomats. (Some journalists have been highly skeptical of the phenomenon, too.) This dovetailed with the Trump administration’s vilification of the “deep state,” but it also found echoes on the Hill, where, initially, some of the Havana victims were privately dismissed as mentally unstable. Some members muttered, “If they weren’t crazy before, they’re certainly crazy now.” 

But then something changed. Marc, who was seen as more credible and psychologically steady than some of the previous complainants, went public. A month later, a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which had been commissioned by the State Department to investigate Havana Syndrome, concluded that the syndrome was real and “unlike any disorder reported in the neurological or general medical literature.” It also said that mass psychosis was an unlikely cause and pointed to directed energy, specifically pulsed microwaves, as the most plausible cause of the symptoms. 

And, of course, a new administration arrived in Washington, one that believed the spies and diplomats and quickly kicked the system into high gear in an attempt to help them. (As one Democratic Hill staffer wondered to me in private, Why would we question the sanity of people who are highly trained to handle some of the government’s most sensitive information and negotiations?) Burns spoke in his confirmation hearing about taking these attacks seriously and finding the culprits, and Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, has taken an active interest in the problem. Under Burns, the C.I.A. has tripled the number of Agency doctors who can work with affected officers. Blinken appointed a point person, a retired ambassador, to coordinate the department’s response to the issue—and fired her after just six months when victims complained that she had entertained the idea that this was all a mass hallucination. (When I asked a State Department spokesperson about this, he stuck with the line that Ambassador Pamela Spratlen had simply used up the number of days that she, as a foreign service officer brought out of retirement, was allowed to work under current State guidelines.) 

Although there is still some frustration that the State Department’s medical office is bureaucratically slow-rolling Blinken’s efforts, there’s a different attitude in Washington now toward victims of Havana Syndrome or Anomalous Health Incidents (A.H.I.s). “I think we’re beyond the point of anyone being able to question whether it’s a real thing,” a senior administration official told me. And, unlike in the previous administration, Joe Biden has been briefed several times on the issue and is said to be fully up to speed. (A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed this to be the case.) Two weeks ago, the president signed the HAVANA Act into law, which provides health care and compensation for victims. “Addressing these incidents has been a top priority for my administration,” Biden said. “Protecting Americans and all those who serve our country is our first duty, and we will do everything we can to care for our personnel and their families.

Part of the reason that the Biden administration is taking Havana Syndrome seriously is that it is beginning to have a palpable effect on recruitment and retention. Both at State and C.I.A., people are turning down assignments abroad, especially those with families. (As I reported last year, children were also being hit and suffering long-term consequences, much like their parents.) To address this, both the C.I.A. and State say they are training their diplomats and spies on how to respond to these attacks, and training their doctors on how to diagnose and treat them if they do occur. State is even having people undergo a battery of tests before taking up an international post, in order to establish a baseline against which to compare a victim’s M.R.I.s and bloodwork if they get hit. (Many of the medical studies performed on A.H.I. victims have been hampered by not having an original point of comparison pre-attack.) 

Burns has also convened a panel of intelligence officials to try to find whoever is behind these attacks. A spokesperson for the Agency told me that the C.I.A. is “bringing an intensity and expertise to this issue akin to our efforts to find Bin Laden.” She added, “We will keep doing everything we can to protect our officers.” People familiar with the inquiry tell me that the political will behind this is palpable. As one source told me, “Whereas before you might have said that the folks working on the issue spent half their time trying to convince people that something happened, that kind of distraction has dissipated to a large degree, which is very helpful.” 

Still, if the process of treating injured diplomats and spies has been greatly improved, the search for the culprit has stalled. A year and a half ago, C.I.A. investigators were zeroing in on one unit in the F.S.B. by using geofencing, a technique that uses a phone’s location. But Google and Apple have since changed their privacy settings, and the number of phones sending out their locations has plunged from more than 80 percent to as low as four percent. “As a data source, it’s not viable anymore,” said one person familiar with the investigation. 

Moreover, after Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny used information bought on the black market to successfully find the F.S.B. officers who poisoned him, the Kremlin has cracked down on people in the Russian security services who sell call logs, travel records, and location data. This has all but shut down one avenue of inquiry as Russian officials are now too scared to sell data about government employees. The black market and the almost comical levels of corruption inside the Russian government were another avenue that investigators hoped would prove useful. One of the scientists who had access to these weapons—thought to be a small, portable device that pulsed microwaves at adjustable frequencies at a target—was apparently selling these on the black market. C.I.A. investigators had hoped to purchase one of these devices and analyze it, but that too went nowhere. 

The intelligence community is increasingly convinced that the Russian government is behind these attacks. Russia has extensively studied and invested in the technology, and, in the spring of 2017, just as the attacks in Havana were ramping up, Putin personally pinned a medal on the breast of a young scientist for his advances in using directed energy and microwaves on signals systems and living cells. Russia certainly has the motive: Putin still thinks America is Russia’s biggest enemy and poking the country in the eye is a worthy end in and of itself. Plus, there’s that location data, placing F.S.B. officers in the same Taiwanese hotel where a senior C.I.A. official was hit. 

But there still isn’t enough evidence to make a public declaration. “They believe the hypothesis more but don’t have a smoking gun,” said the person familiar with the investigation. Last week, I spoke to Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who chairs the Senate’s intelligence committee. “This is uncharted territory,” he told me, in part because the nature and scale of these attacks “so violate any of the norms that even existed in the peak of the Cold War.” 

Warner, who spoke slowly and precisely, trying to dance between what he could tell a reporter and what remained classified, said that the intelligence community was having an especially difficult time with this one. “One of the challenges, as you know, is people are definitely being hurt and getting sick,” Warner said. “There’s a pattern, but there’s no kind of physical evidence, and if you don’t know what created it, though I think we’re getting closer there as well, it was not like there’s a single telltale marker.” Warner wouldn’t comment on who he thought he was behind these attacks, but he didn’t dismiss the prevailing hypothesis that it was Russia. Instead, he emphasized how important it was to get this right, for the intelligence community to present a bulletproof case. “Getting the attribution right is really important,” Warner told me. “Because once you officially attribute, what are the next actions you take?” 

In other words, publicly accusing a foreign government of physically harming your diplomats and spies could obligate the U.S. to take some kind of punitive or retaliatory action, possibly setting off a vicious tit-for-tat cycle. Moreover, if it really is Russia, the U.S. is somewhat limited in what it can do to meaningfully punish the Kremlin. So many people have been kicked out of both countries that diplomatic presence in both Russia and the U.S. is at an all-time low—though the Russians have managed to have more of a presence here than America does in Russia. 

Moreover, Putin has clearly decided that throwing sand in American gears is worth whatever punishment Washington throws his way. He has managed to weather whatever pain Western sanctions have inflicted on the Russian economy, to the point that French president Emmanuel Macron recently wondered aloud what the point of anti-Kremlin sanctions even was anymore. 

But to even think about consequences, the intelligence community has to present a compelling enough case for America’s elected politicians to act on it without looking like they were duped by their own spies. So far, civilian leaders feel the evidence is circumstantial and the product of a process of elimination, and therefore not enough to assign blame publicly. But some in the intelligence community are getting restless, eager to see the people who wounded so many of their comrades punished. Even if the intelligence is “medium confidence,” one member of the community told me, that should be enough to go on. “We got bin Laden with medium confidence.”