‘Havana Syndrome’ and holding Russia accountable

In the spring of 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Combined Joint Task Force 101 at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Emphasizing it was he who signed deployment orders, Mr. Gates said he felt personally responsible for the soldiers’ safety and security. The service member who asked Mr. Gates what “kept him up at night” probably expected the secretary to discuss weapons of mass destruction or some other national security threat, but Mr. Gates responded that it was his concern for the troops, which was always at the forefront of his mind.

Mr. Gates was demonstrating the kind of enlightened leadership which my former CIA colleague Marc Polymeropolous eloquently describes in his new book “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA.” Mr. Polymeropolous learned first-hand the paramount importance of taking care of your people, based on 26 years of service at the CIA that included a war-zone tour of duty in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

Having spent so much of his career leading with distinction in some of the agency’s most wickedly challenging assignments, Mr. Polymeropolous was forced to retire from CIA in 2018 after experiencing debilitating brain trauma sometimes referred to as “Havana Syndrome.”

Havana Syndrome was detected as early as 2016, when officials serving at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba fell ill with vertigo, headaches, fatigue and hearing loss. Since then, U.S. officials serving in China, Asia and Europe have also reported suffering similar trauma. In the past two years two national security officials, one of whom was targeted near the White House, reported Havana Syndrome symptoms. The U.S. government has not formally assigned blame for the attacks, But even if multiple state and non-state actors are suspects, Russia is a most likely culprit. Mr. Polymeropolous, who is currently receiving treatment at Walter Reed Hospital, was in Moscow on an official trip in December 2017, when he awoke in his hotel room with nausea and vertigo so severe he could barely move.

The Soviet KGB and its Russian successor intelligence services have extensive experience using microwave technology against foreign embassies and officials. The National Academies of Sciences concluded in a December 2020 report that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” was the most “plausible mechanism” to explain the Havana Syndrome.

Having served his formative years in the KGB and as director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian President Vladimir Putin is a sophisticated practitioner of asymmetric cloak-and-dagger espionage. A signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Kremlin nevertheless used the banned chemical weapon Novichok to target both former military intelligence officer and defector Sergey Skripal and leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Mr. Putin has every reason to deploy a not-so-plausibly deniable attack of this sort on Russia’s “Main Enemy” — the U.S. — for the same reason Russia is holding American businessman Paul Whelan in prison without due process. With a GDP the size of Italy’s, Russia is no match for the U.S. economically, but by engaging in malicious cyber sabotage and espionage, Mr. Putin believes he is leveling the playing field. His goal is to constrain U.S. policy so that Russia, a revisionist power seeking to overturn the international rules-based order, is not held accountable with sanctions and other punitive measures.

Mr. Putin wants to be able to invade other countries, interfere in foreign elections and trample on human rights without facing retribution from the international community. Portraying Russia as the victim, Mr. Putin argued at the recent St. Petersburg economic summit that the U.S. was seeking to hold back Russia’s economic development when in fact the Kremlin is the aggressor.

New CIA Director William Burns is rightly focused on fulfilling his confirmation promise to “ensure that my colleagues get the care that they deserve and that we get to the bottom of what caused these incidents and who was responsible.” Mr. Burns receives daily updates on the investigation, has reportedly met personally with current and former agency employees who were subjected to the attacks, and ensured those experiencing illness receive outpatient treatment at Walter Reed.

During the summit, although Mr. Biden and Putin reportedly spoke about the “Havana Syndrome” issue in private, neither mentioned it in their separate press briefings afterward. But they should have.

The Biden administration needs to mount a publicly accountable, full-throttled effort to bring the perpetrators of “Havana Syndrome” to justice.

The Biden administration needs to mount a public, full-throttled effort to bring the perpetrators of “Havana Syndrome” to justice.

Secretary Gates was right. It’s our brave patriots, who routinely put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country, who matter most.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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