U.S. suspicions are rising that a Russian GRU-led attack cell is conducting pulsed radio frequency or microwave attacks against U.S. personnel, which is resulting in the so-called Havana Syndrome.
Contemporary reports of the syndrome were first reported by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. Many more U.S. personnel across the globe have since reported Havana Syndrome symptoms, which include aural distortions, severe headaches, loss of balance, and nose bleeds. Numerous affected CIA, State Department, and U.S. military attaches have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries as a result of their exposure.
While the intelligence community has yet to reach an attribution assessment on Havana Syndrome, active and former government sources have told the Washington Examiner that the indications of Russian state culpability are rising. Others, and the intelligence community in particular, say it is too soon to attribute the cause and culprit of the incidents.
A National Security Council spokesperson told the Washington Examiner: "The intelligence community has launched a large-scale investigation into the potential causes of anomalous health events. The IC is actively examining a range of hypotheses but has made no determination about the cause of these incidents or who is responsible."
The Biden administration has formalized and expanded ad hoc investigative efforts under the Trump administration. Speaking last Friday, President Joe Biden emphasized: "Some [victims] are struggling with debilitating brain injuries that have curtailed their careers of service to our nation. Addressing these incidents has been a top priority for my administration." Biden pledged "to determine the cause and who is responsible." Multiple sources have praised CIA Director Bill Burns for being at the forefront of this effort.
That said, sources told the Washington Examiner that there are increasing indications Russia is involved. First, there are stronger indications of radio frequency and microwave-related injuries being suffered by U.S. government personnel. Second, there are indications of the same Russian intelligence personnel operating in locations where Havana Syndrome incidents have been reported. Third, there are new hints of a Havana Syndrome connection point with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's national security council.
While the CIA has better than commonly understood agent coverage within the Russian security apparatus, it does not have high-quality reporting as to who is responsible for the incidents. Some sources say the relevant cell is likely to be a small "air gapped" unit operating outside of the GRU's control structure. This would fit with a unit concealment tactic sometimes applied by Russian intelligence, such as with its SVR "Cozy Bear" cyber group.
More recent assessments of suspected Havana Syndrome victims show clearer injuries to the nervous system. The intelligence community possesses evidence of sustained RF/MW weapons development by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the GRU's supervisory ministry, and RF measurement evidence in at least one Havana Syndrome incident. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported recent incidents in Colombia have affected some children of U.S. diplomats.
Second, one source who worked with the relevant intelligence material told the Washington Examiner that the National Security Agency has, on occasion, identified the presence of the same Russian intelligence personnel in different Havana Syndrome incident locations globally. Although compelling, it is possible that these people may be conducting espionage activities unrelated to RF/MW weapons. Multiple sources told the Washington Examiner that a program employed by Britain's NSA sister agency, GCHQ, has played an important role in tracking Russian threat actors. Withholding some details, the program allows for the monitoring of GRU officers even where they take steps to reduce their visibility to detection, such as by using specially forged documents and one-use burner phones. A key note is that the geolocation data are sometimes only available post-presence.
Havana Syndrome's links with the Kremlin have also been boosted. In the weeks immediately preceding incidents affecting Burns's delegation to New Delhi and a CIA officer in Belgrade, Patrushev met in Moscow with delegations from India and Serbia. The Indian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment as to whether it had informed Patrushev of Burns's impending visit. The Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond to a request for comment as to whether Minister Aleksandar Vulin had discussed U.S. personnel in Serbia with Patrushev. But a number of sources told the Washington Examiner that they believe Patrushev's activities may be designed to send a deniable message to the United States that Russia is responsible for Havana Syndrome. A Havana Syndrome event affecting two U.S. Embassy staffers in Vietnam, just prior to Vice President Kamala Harris's arrival in late August, might also be seen as a message.
Patrushev is the gatekeeper and control authority for the most sensitive Russian covert operations. He is also the de facto leader of Putin's old-guard KGB "siloviki" security faction. And deniable messaging is a pedigree of KGB intelligence culture, mixing plausible denial with indications of culpability. It is designed to aggravate and degrade an adversary's morale.
However, the most familiar Havana Syndrome problem sustains. Namely, that the unconventional nature of its associated injuries fosters doubts by some as to whether it is even real. Incidental or not, that would make Havana Syndrome a pitch-perfect KGB-form operation: attacking the main enemy, demoralizing and hampering U.S. personnel and operations abroad, and cultivating confusion in Washington.
It may be working. For example, a State Department study previously suggested that Havana Syndrome was a result of loud crickets. One source singled out John Fitzsimmons, the deputy assistant secretary of state for countermeasures, for failing to adopt RF/MW weapons precautions earlier. The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit conducted another study, widely criticized in the intelligence community, that involved no witness interviews. Today, a possible interest in deflection explains why some U.S. officials suggest that Havana Syndrome might simply be a result of attempts to hack U.S. electronic devices.
Numerous sources pushed back against that idea. While remote access hacking of cellphones and computers is possible with RF devices, it rests heavily on the device user being unaware of the intrusion. Moreover, RF forms of the kind necessary to cause Havana Syndrome injuries are unlikely to be useful in remote access generation and would likely cause malfunctions on the devices in question. Most important, remote access generation via RF systems can be accomplished in ways that avoid ill-health effects on the owner. Finally, if the injuries are incidental to collection efforts, those responsible would be expected to apply the same tactic more broadly. Considering their closeness to U.S. counterparts, the British intelligence services would very likely have also been affected. But trans-Atlantic sources tell the Washington Examiner that there is no evidence of British intelligence officers suffering from Havana Syndrome.
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Original Author: Tom Rogan