Is Russia targeting CIA spies with secret weapons?
From alexander koryagin@2:5020/2140.2 to All on Tue Feb 2 09:23:40 2021
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Is Russia targeting CIA spies with secret weapons?
By Gordon Corera
Marc Polymeropoulos woke up in his hotel room with his head spinning and
ears ringing. "I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn't stand up. I
was falling over," he recalls. "I have been shot at numerous times and
this was the most terrifying experience in my life."
Polymeropoulos had spent years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as a
senior officer of the CIA fighting America's war on terrorism. But that
night in Moscow he believes he was targeted by a secret, microwave weapon.
After Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election, CIA leadership issued a "call to arms" and redeployed battle-hardened
officers like Polymeropoulos to push back.
He would eventually become acting chief of clandestine operations in
Europe and Eurasia, working with allies to expose Moscow's activity,
including the 2018 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
In December 2017 he visited Moscow, but not undercover. He wanted to use
a regular "liaison" meeting between Russian and US spies to see the
country for himself. He was not there, he insists, for any clandestine activity. The Russians had not been keen on him coming, but acquiesced.
It was early on during the trip that he fell ill. On his return to the
US the vertigo went, but other symptoms persisted to this day. "I've had
a migraine headache for three straight years. It has never gone away,"
he told the BBC. He was unable to work a full day and took months off, starting a long medical journey.
His suspicions arose because, from 2016, diplomats in Havana, Cuba,
reported similar symptoms - as did some Canadians.
Sometimes it was the sudden onset of a loud noise leading to intense
pain, while others felt pressure on the head leading to dizziness and
vertigo. The sensations seemed to come from a particular direction in a specific location. This became known as "Havana syndrome".
"What happened to US diplomats in Cuba, happened to me in Moscow," he believes.
But getting to the bottom of Havana syndrome has not been
straightforward. The symptoms presented themselves differently in
different people. Some speculated cases were unconnected or the result
of a psychological illness.
The first thorough assessment came from the US National Academies of
Sciences in December 2020. Even though the clinical information was
often fragmentary, a committee concluded symptoms were "consistent with
the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy", dismissing
other possibilities including poisoning or a psychological cause.
"We did find that a subset of individuals shared some very unusual and distinct clinical findings at the onset of their illnesses, and it was
these findings that led us to our judgment," said Prof David A Relman of Stanford University, who chaired the panel. It did not conclude whether
the pulse was deployed as a weapon or who was behind the attacks, he
told the BBC, because that was beyond the committee's remit.
When Polymeropoulos was initially screened by CIA medical officials he
was told his symptoms were slightly different from those in Havana and
they dismissed any link, leaving him feeling let down. He attributes differences to evidence that people are affected in different ways, and
the possibility that what was used on people evolved. A spokesperson for
the agency told the BBC the "CIA's first priority has been and continues
to be the welfare of all of our officers".
Other incidents reported beyond Cuba
After being forced to retire due to ill health in 2019, Polymeropoulos
decided to go public, to bring attention to the issue and try to secure treatment at a specialist hospital, which was eventually agreed.
He says the operational side of the CIA took the issue more seriously
once it became clear he was not the only potential victim.
Reports have pointed to up to half a dozen other officials being
affected and cases continuing. "It's happening to several other senior
agency officials," Polymeropoulos says. "And some of the officers who
have been subsequently affected seem to have been involved in some way
in this pushback against the Russians. You have officers who are
suffering in silence."
Some incidents are reported to have taken place in countries other than
Cuba or Russia, including China. GQ magazine, which first reported on
the Polymeropoulos case, said a senior CIA official was affected on a
2019 visit to Australia (later confirmed by Australian media). Others
were affected in Poland and Georgia.
A White House official is also reported as feeling symptoms, including pressure in the head, while in a London hotel room in August 2019 - an
event that British security officials are aware of, although it is
unclear what exactly took place. There has been contact between London
and Washington on the issue, although the UK Foreign and Development
Office told the BBC it was not aware of any of its own staff being affected.
One former UK intelligence official says any proof of Russian intent
would be a "game changer".
Is there evidence of Russian involvement?
Media reports in the wake of the initial Havana incidents suggested
classified evidence - including intercepted communications - pointing to Russia. More recently, it has been reported that the US intelligence
community used mobile phone data to locate Russian intelligence officers
in proximity to CIA officers affected in some locations.
"That of course is a very interesting circumstantial case that certainly warrants additional attention," Polymeropoulos says, adding that his allegations are based on public information rather than knowledge of classified investigations after he left.
None of that has proved conclusive enough for the US government to make
a formal accusation.
One possibility is that the damage to individuals was a side-effect of
some kind of tool used to collect intelligence by bombarding electronic devices with microwaves to elicit information - a practice that began in
the Cold War.
"The Russian security services used to flood the US embassy in Moscow
with concentrated microwaves and electronic pulses," says John Sipher, a former CIA officer who worked on Russia. He says Russia even had vans
that could drive around a city to target individuals.
He believes Moscow was responsible for the recent harm to CIA officers, although he is unsure of the exact motive. Another former CIA officer
who served in Moscow also said he believed the Russians had used a
directed energy attack, but could not be sure whether it was designed to
cause harm, or whether the Russians simply did not care that harm was
caused as a by-product of whatever else they were doing.
Polymeropoulos says his original presumption was of some kind of
intelligence collection. But the evidence, which he accepts is often circumstantial, has left him believing that the Russians used an
"offensive weapon" to deliberately hurt people.
Is it plausible?
One theory is that, in Havana, Russia wanted to disrupt any improvement
in relations between the US and Cuba - traditionally a close ally of
Moscow - and then expanded its use to go after intelligence officers identified as working against them, like Polymeropoulos. This would take
them out of action, eat up resources and make it harder for the CIA to operate.
But this would go against an unspoken agreement that spy services do not target opposing personnel for physical harm. However, former CIA and MI6 officers point to the fact that the Russians have used a form of
radioactive spy dust to track their movements in Russia, which posed
risks to health.
Polymeropoulos also argues Russia under President Vladimir Putin has
been willing to push boundaries - for instance using nerve agent in
Salisbury. "It's certainly an escalation, but it's not out of the norm
for how the Russians really messed with our personnel," he says.
In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry referred the BBC to comments
in the wake of the US National Academies of Sciences report, which said:
"We don't have any information about Russia having 'directed microwave weapons' or of incidences of the use of such a weapon. Such provocative, baseless speculation and fanciful hypotheses can't really be considered
a serious matter for comment."
Polymeropoulos wants Congressional committees to investigate. Some
senators have taken up the issue.
The scientist who led the official inquiry also wants more monitoring.
"Not nearly enough has been done," Prof Relman told the BBC, saying
previous efforts had been hindered by the complexity of the illness, the challenge of identifying a cause, as well as geopolitics.
The new Biden administration has announced a review of Russia's
"aggressive actions" and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken
committed during his confirmation to sharing more information about
"Havana syndrome". He also promised "accountability" if a state actor
was responsible. New CIA director Bill Burns, a former ambassador to
Russia, may also take a close interest.
If it is proven that Russia used a microwave weapon against US
officials, the consequences could be explosive. But, even if it were
true, finding sufficient evidence to be confident in making a public accusation may prove difficult, leaving the issue unresolved.
For Polymeropoulos, the truth is important even if it will not stop what
he has to live with every day.
"I'd rather I was shot. I'd rather there was an overt hole in my body
that I knew that we could try to fix, as opposed to what's happening now."