Diplomats affected by mysterious symptoms express concerns about vulnerability of American staff posted overseas
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Bojan Pancevski
Aug. 18, 2021
BERLIN—At least two U.S. officials stationed in Germany sought medical treatment after developing symptoms of the mysterious health complaint known as Havana Syndrome, according to U.S. diplomats.
The symptoms, which included nausea, severe headaches, ear pain, fatigue, insomnia and sluggishness, began to emerge in recent months and some victims were left unable to work, according to the diplomats. They are the first cases to be reported in a NATO country that hosts U.S. troops and nuclear weapons.
U.S. diplomats said that similar incidents had been registered among American officials stationed in other European nations but declined to provide any detail.
Some victims were intelligence officers or diplomats working on Russia-related issues such as gas exports, cybersecurity and political interference, according to U.S. diplomats and people familiar with an investigation into the illness.
The set of symptoms first surfaced in 2016 among U.S. diplomats in Cuba and have since been observed in China, Russia and, more recently, in Austria, a neutral nation. There have been unconfirmed cases in Poland, Taiwan, Georgia and even in Washington, D.C. Some U.S. officials have said the complaints could be caused by attacks using radio-frequency energy such as microwave radiation.
The CIA has tapped a veteran of the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden to head a task force aimed at finding the cause of the symptoms, current and former officials familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal last month.
One patient who recently transferred from a posting in a European capital to be treated at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland said doctors there had diagnosed a brain injury of the type seen in people exposed to shock waves from explosions.
This person told the Journal the symptoms were preceded by piercing ear pain, high-pitched electronic noise and pressure in the ears. These occurred while the person was at home at night or early in the morning in March.
The patient initially believed the symptoms were related to a Covid-19 vaccine received earlier. After the condition persisted, the embassy flew the worker back to Washington, embassy officials said.
“There is no evidence about what happened to us, but it is striking that some of us had worked on Russia-related issues,” said the worker, who declined to be named.
This patient and others employed by the State Department have set up an informal self-help group, according to three diplomats, one of whom is a member, because those believed to be affected say that the government, while providing care and other support, hasn’t recognized their condition nor taken adequate measures to protect government officials posted abroad.
The victim expressed concern that the apartments where patients believed they had been targeted were in some cases still part of the embassies’ housing pools and would be used to house other officials.
“Whatever it is, it is a form of terrorism—it has caused serious injuries that have been life-altering for some of us,” the person said.
A spokesman for the State Department didn’t respond to a detailed query about the incidents, citing a sensitive ongoing investigation, but said the matter was top priority for Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Any employees who reported unexplained health incidents received immediate and appropriate attention and care, the spokesman said, adding that a major interagency effort is investigating what is causing the incidents and how staff can be protected.
“Despite this extensive investigation, the interagency community has been unable to determine the cause or whether these injuries are the result of the involvement of any specific actors,” the spokesman said.
One U.S. official working abroad who is familiar with the situation said that when an incident happens, victims are typically relocated from their apartments. In some cases, the symptoms have persisted after the relocation, leading security services to believe that the people targeted have been tracked down to their new residence.
The situation has led to concern among diplomats stationed in the countries where this has happened, as well as among those about to be posted there, officials said.
In Germany, the U.S. Embassy hasn’t notified the German government because the embassy was still conducting an internal investigation, a U.S. diplomat said.
Hostile Russian activities in Germany, from disinformation campaigns to spying and hacking, have risen to levels unseen since the Cold War, according to Thomas Haldenwang, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
“The methods are getting ever harsher and the means more brutal,” Mr. Haldenwang told reporters earlier this year.
Asked for comment, the Russian Embassy in Berlin pointed to remarks made earlier this month by a senior official who dismissed allegations of Russian involvement after U.S. Embassy staff fell ill in Vienna.
“By and large, the Russophobic propaganda machine continues to churn out fake stories,” said Alexander Bikantov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press department.
Some 20 American officials in Austria have reported the mysterious symptoms—the largest number since Cuba—and authorities there have launched an investigation, according to Austrian and U.S. officials. Many if not most of the Americans affected were intelligence officers, according to an Austrian official familiar with the investigation.
An Austrian counterintelligence agency first handled the probe, which was then passed on to the local equivalent of the FBI and is now being conducted with the help of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, this person said.
Austria, a nonaligned country that has been the playground of spies since World War II, has an official policy of tolerating espionage as long as it isn’t directed against its own institutions and doesn’t pose a threat to internal security.
“We take this extremely seriously, we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of diplomats and this poses a challenge to our reputation as an international center of dialogue,” the Austrian official said. The official added that the investigation was complicated by the U.S. decision to keep important aspects of the incidents confidential, including medical data.
Investigators approached known Russian intelligence workers in the country, including some working for the GRU military intelligence service, but all of them denied any knowledge of the incidents, said the Austrian official. Some GRU officers are so settled in the country that they own property there and are well-known to their Austrian counterparts, yet no leads have emerged from the probe so far, the official said.
“It could be that the attacks were outsourced to organized crime, but it is very difficult to understand why the Russians or anyone else would do this,” the official said. “It seems like a campaign to hurt people for no apparent reason.”
Write to Bojan Pancevski at email@example.com