Havana and the Global Chase for U.S. Officers

EXPERT OPINION – More than 200 U.S. officers were hunted around the globe and targeted by an opponent using a mysterious weapon that causes constant brain injury. It is time to seriously fight back.

The Authors:

Paul Kolbe served for 25 years as the CIA’s Director of Operations. He is currently Director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard Kennedy School.

Marc Polymeropoulos worked for the CIA for 26 years. He is the author of “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA.

John Sipher worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for 28 years. He is now a non-resident chief partner at the Atlantic Council and co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

By September 11, al-Qaeda had declared war on the United States, bombed the USS Cole, and blasted U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Despite severe casualties, America viewed successive al-Qaeda terrorist attacks as somehow unique, not representative of a greater threat or state of war. We have been busy with our affairs and failed to take difficult actions against Al Qaeda despite a clear warning. Our failure to respond strongly led to 9/11 and the two decades of war that followed.

Fast forward to today. Since 2016, more than 200 U.S. officials have reportedly suffered from a mysterious series of symptoms that have caused long-lasting, debilitating injuries. Suffering from severe headaches, dizziness, visual impairment and nausea, many victims were formally diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other major hospitals. Family members and young children also suffered. Some medical tests can now confirm the signs of brain injury, similar to those suffered by brain injury victims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These injuries began with a set of reports from Cuba in 2016 and became commonly referred to as Havana Syndrome. Moscow, Vienna, Belgrade and Hanoi are among more than a dozen cities where U.S. officials have reportedly been attacked and injured. In homes, on the street, in vehicles, and even at safe U.S. facilities, U.S. officers are hunted down. Surprisingly, even a close aide to CIA director Bill Burns was reportedly attacked during a trip to India just last August.

The CIA, after a period of confusion, delay, and even denial at times, now seems to take these threats very seriously. CIA Burns Director and Deputy Director David Cohen have publicly stated that U.S. officials are “under attack.” They have improved health care for CIA officers who are injured. And an agency task force is working hard trying to gain additional intelligence on those responsible. We credit Director Burns for his solid leadership.

The cause of these injuries? The National Academy of Sciences has pointed to Directed Energy Weapons – devices that emit microwave pulses that can cause pain and damage tissue. The United States, Russia, China and others have all developed Said Energy Weapons to destroy equipment, fight drones and control crowds. This is not science fiction.

Directed energy weapons would be responsible for the very direct and local nature of these events. When victims can “move from the x,” the signature sounds, sensations, and pain that go with the attacks often cease, even though damage has already occurred. The amount of exposure appears to affect the degree of injury. Other technologies could play a role and are being explored, but microwaves seem to be the most likely vector. Russia has used them before, flooding the U.S. embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation for decades.

Regardless of form, the weapons used in these attacks are nothing less than weapons of terror, designed to inflict injury to non-combatants. Who would use such a weapon to attack U.S. intelligence officers, diplomats, and military personnel, and for what conceivable purpose?


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CIA Deputy Director Cohen stated at a recent intelligence summit that the United States was closer to identifying the culprit, and Politics reported that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are increasingly convinced that Russia or another enemy opponent is behind the attack, although reportedly, no smoke gun was found.

As former CIA operations officers with extensive experience in both counterterrorism and counterintelligence matters, we have little doubt about who will be named as the culprit. For at least a decade, Russia has behaved as if in a state of conflict with the West in general and the United States in particular. Russia has launched cyberattacks affecting critical infrastructure and supply chains, assassinated opponents with nuclear poisons and chemical weapons, shot dead people on the street using criminal surrogates, sabotaged a Czech town hall, and staged a violent coup in Montenegro. It also bombed the U.S. embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation and used carcinogenic “spy dust” regardless of health effects. The attacks on U.S. officials would be appropriate for this behavior.

We recognize that it is important to let the intelligence community do its job and its results must inform political action. Congress and the administration must work together to formulate a range of possible responses and it is not too early to begin. As Senator Collins and others have stated, these attacks are a “military act,” and as such, preparation for a future allocation call by the national security establishment is in order. So how could the United States respond?

Let’s start with what doesn’t work – sanctions. Sanctions feel good and satisfy an action imperative but they are reckless. Sanctions did not prevent Russia from killing dissidents, halted the Nordstream II pipeline, forced withdrawal from occupied territories, reduced support for tyrants or hindered oil and gas production. Sanctions simply forced Russia to develop more creative money laundering and sanctioning mechanisms.

So, what would work? To begin with, we must understand that the Putin regime considers itself in a state of conflict with the United States, in the absence of war, yet deadly real. We are dealing with a state sponsor of terror that is conducting operations across the globe to weaken the United States abroad, divide it from its allies, and sow discord at home. Our policy must be calibrated to win this conflict, without starting a war of war, but at the risk of such a one.

Russia understands reciprocity and strength. When four Russian diplomats were kidnapped by extremists in Beirut in 1985, and one of them was killed, Russia reportedly responded by kidnapping and horribly killing a relative of the group’s leader. The surviving diplomats were immediately released. The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the Russian approach. No matter how tempting the United States to counter a quote for a state, we need not mirror Russia’s actions. Instead, we should play to our greater economic, diplomatic, and military advantages.

We propose five elements to frame a response: recruiting U.S. allies, increasing forward deterrence, limiting the opponent’s reach, stifling money, and bringing those responsible to justice.

NATO: With proof of the attacks on U.S. officials, we should activate NATO’s Article Five collective defense clause. The only other time this was achieved was after 9/11. As justification, in addition to the Havana Syndrome attacks, (which also caused Canadian casualties), we would include murderous GRU and FSB operations across Europe, deadly sabotage in the Czech Republic, a coup in Montenegro, constant cyber attacks and a litany of other actions that may be only described as irregular warfare directed against NATO members.


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Previous Presence: A crystal clear signal that we understand the nature of Russian hybrid warfare and respond would be to strengthen our deployed military presence in Poland, the Baltic States and in the Black Sea region. These troops would not pose an offensive threat to Russia, but would be a clear signal that the United States is ready to counter any Russian jokes. We should also significantly expand our lethal assistance and training to Ukraine, where the nature of Russian aggression is well known. Weakness in Eastern Europe is an invitation to conflict.

Travel and Presence: We must drastically limit Russian business and tourist travel, which is used as a cover for FSB and GRU operations. We would reduce Russia’s diplomatic presence in each capital to the bare minimum – a handful not hundreds. U.S. and European counterintelligence experts believe there are more Russian intelligence officers operating from embassies than during the Cold War. Limiting the size of Russia’s intelligence infrastructure will make it difficult to plan and carry out all its intelligence operations.

Finance: An essential tool in counterterrorism operations is the ability to target sources of funding that constitute material support to terrorism. In this case, we would apply that principle to the Russian government, state-owned enterprises, and individuals who provide cover, tools, and sources of funding to Russia’s campaign to undermine the West through violence, terror, and media manipulation. Russia’s dirty money has been used to undermine the West and poison our politics. We should limit the easy access of shadow money to western banks.

Criminal Cases: We must bring military criminal cases to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. After a decade of conflict in the Balkans, the ICJ has brought to justice 161 accused Serb, Croatian, and Bosnian war criminals. This was an astonishing success – a manhunt that included American and European police and intelligence services. As in Nuremberg after World War II, these actions to hold war criminals accountable drew a line in the sand.

This is a start. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations have pursued Russian policies that represent the triumph of hope over experience. We treated the symptoms of malignant Russian actions rather than the underlying pathology. Now is the time to finally acknowledge that we are in a long-term hybrid conflict and forget the fantasy of changing Putin’s behavior. Only a new regime in the Kremlin would have the hope of causing a change in actions. Eventually, the Putin regime will wither or collapse, but until it does, we and our allies must do a better job of defending ourselves.

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