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Foreign rivals didn't cause Havana Syndrome, U.S. intelligence concludes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Back in 2016, CIA officers at the American Embassy in Cuba began reporting the sudden onset of symptoms that included dizziness, headaches, balance problems.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And then cases spread to other U.S. officials in other locations overseas. Suspicions grew that a U.S. adversary was responsible.

FADEL: But that's not what the U.S. intelligence community found in a new report. NPR's Greg Myre is here to explain. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So U.S. intelligence officials briefed a small number of journalists on the report yesterday, including you. What did they say?

MYRE: They said they did not find evidence linking any foreign country, like Cuba or Russia or China, to any of these episodes. Now, seven different intelligence agencies took part - five said it was highly unlikely a foreign country was to blame, one said it was unlikely, and one didn't take a position. Now, the intel officials went further, saying this report found no credible evidence that a foreign adversary even had a weapon that could have inflicted this kind of harm.

FADEL: OK, so if this was not an attack by an adversary of foreign government and there's no evidence a weapon was used, then what was causing this mystery illness?

MYRE: Well, exactly. No, that's the big question. Now, the two intelligence officials said that the individual cases vary. There was a range of symptoms, and this suggested there was no single cause for these health problems. Now, the report found the ailments are most probably related to preexisting medical conditions, conventional illnesses or environmental factors. And they acknowledge this won't be persuasive to those who have suffered and are still suffering very real health issues. The officials said the report put the intel community in a position where it feels it knows much more about what didn't happen, but they still don't have all the answers to what did happen.

FADEL: Now, I know we've been hearing about the so-called Havana Syndrome for years, but if you could remind us how serious, how long-lasting some of these ailments have been.

MYRE: Right. Many of these U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats recalled the exact moment when they suffered sharp, piercing pain in their head, often accompanied by a loud noise or ringing. Many remain convinced this was a targeted attack and they were hit with some sort of energy weapon, perhaps a microwave device. Many say they were healthy. But since that day, they've suffered just years of physical problems that include migraines and vision trouble, memory loss. A number of them have had to retire. I've been in contact with two of them. They didn't want to speak on the record, but I did speak with attorney Mark Zaid. He's representing about 25 clients. He says he's had access to some classified information and believes that more information will emerge.

MARK ZAID: I can at least say the U.S. government has a lot more information than what it is publicly revealing today. And that is where a lot of the unanswered questions arise from.

FADEL: Unanswered questions - so will there be answers? Is this essentially settled now?

MYRE: Well, not entirely, Leila. More cases are being reported, including some this year, though the numbers have slowed. There's about 1,500 cases reported since 2016, though the cases with the most serious unexplained illnesses appear to be around two dozen or so. People who suffered these ailments are receiving medical treatment and, in some cases, have been receiving financial compensation.

FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.