CIA probe of 'Havana syndrome' to be led by Osama search veteran: Source

The United States Embassy in Havana on May 20, 2021.
The United States Embassy in Havana on May 20, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A CIA official who was involved in the search for Osama bin Laden has been chosen to head an agency task force investigating cases of an ailment known as "Havana Syndrome" among US spies and diplomats, a government source said on Wednesday (July 21).

CIA director William Burns named a career undercover spy, who was part of the search for the Al Qaeda leader that ended with him being killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011, the source said. The Wall Street Journal first reported the appointment.

Dozens of US diplomats and other officials, including CIA officers, have been afflicted by "Havana Syndrome", so named because it first was reported by officials assigned to the US embassy in Cuba.

The Journal said that a panel organised by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported last December that some type of "directed energy" beams were strongly suspected as causing the ailment, which includes dizziness, headaches and nausea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in June that a government-wide review was underway into who or what caused suspected radio frequency attacks "directed" at diplomats.

Austria has been working with US authorities to investigate a spate of suspected cases among US diplomats in Vienna, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

Since US President Joe Biden took office in January, roughly two dozen intelligence officers, diplomats and other officials in Vienna have reported symptoms similar to those of Havana syndrome, making it the second-biggest hot spot after Havana, the New Yorker magazine reported on Friday.

The National Security Agency (NSA) said in a 2014 memo to one intelligence officer who said he had suffered possible symptoms that an unnamed "hostile country" to which the official travelled in the late 1990s had a "high powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence".

The memo, which was read by Reuters, said intelligence indicated that such a weapon was "designed to bathe a target's living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system".