Havana and the Global Hunt for U.S. Officers

EXPERT OPINION — More than 200 U.S. officers have been hunted around the globe and targeted by an adversary using a mysterious weapon that causes permanent brain injury. It’s time to get serious about fighting back.

The Authors:

Paul Kolbe served for 25 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. He is currently Director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Marc Polymeropoulos worked for the CIA for 26 years. He is author of “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA.

John Sipher worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for 28 years. He is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

Prior to 9/11, al Qaida declared war on the United States, bombed the USS Cole, and blew up U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam. Despite heavy casualties, America viewed successive al Qaida terrorist attacks as somehow unique, not representative of a larger threat or state of war. We went about our business and failed to take hard action against al Qaida despite clear warning. Our failure to respond forcefully led to 9/11 and the two decades of war that followed.

Fast forward to today.  Since 2016, more than 200 U.S. officials have reportedly suffered from a mysterious series of symptoms which have caused long-lasting, debilitating injuries. Suffering from searing headaches, vertigo, vision impairment, and nausea, many victims have been formally diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other leading hospitals. Family members and young children have suffered as well. Some medical tests can now confirm the markers of brain injury, similar to those suffered by victims of concussive injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These injuries began with a cluster of reports from Cuba in 2016 and have become commonly referred to as Havana Syndrome. Moscow, Vienna, Belgrade, and Hanoi are among more than a dozen cities where U.S. officials reportedly have been attacked and injured. In residences, on the street, in vehicles, and even at secure U.S. facilities, U.S. officers are being hunted. Stunningly, even a close aide to CIA Director Bill Burns was reportedly attacked on a trip to India just this past August.

The CIA, after a period of confusion, delay, and even denial at times, now appears to take these threats very seriously. CIA Director Burns and Deputy Director David Cohen have publicly stated that U.S. officials are being “attacked.” They have improved health care for CIA officers who are hurt. And an agency task force is hard at work trying to obtain additional intelligence on those responsible. We credit Director Burns for his solid leadership.

The cause of these injuries? The National Academy of Sciences has pointed to Directed Energy Weapons – devices which emit microwave pulses which can inflict pain and damage tissue. The United States, Russia, China, and others have all developed Directed Energy Weapons to destroy equipment, counter drones, and control crowds. This is not science fiction.

Directed energy weapons would account for the highly directional and locational nature of these incidents. When victims can “move off the x,” the signature sounds, sensations, and pain that goes with the attacks often stop, though damage has already occurred. The amount of exposure seems to affect the degree of injury. Other technologies could be at play and are being investigated, but microwaves appear to be the most likely vector. Russia has used them before, flooding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation for decades.

Regardless of form, the weapons being used in these attacks are nothing less than weapons of terror, designed to cause injury to non-combatants. Who would use such a weapon to attack U.S. intelligence officers, diplomats, and military personnel, and to what conceivable end?


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CIA Deputy Director Cohen stated at a recent intelligence summit, that the U.S. was closer to identifying the culprit, and Politico has reported that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are increasingly convinced that Russia or another hostile adversary is behind the attack, although reportedly, no smoking gun has been found.

As former CIA operations officers with extensive experience dealing with both counterterrorism and counterintelligence issues, we have few doubts about who will be named as the culprit. For at least a decade, Russia has conducted itself as in a state of conflict with the West in general and the United States in particular. Russia has launched cyberattacks impacting critical infrastructure and supply chains, assassinated opponents with nuclear poisons and chemical weapons, gunned down people in the streets using criminal proxies, sabotaged a Czech ammunition depot, and mounted a violent coup attempt in Montenegro. It has also bombarded the U.S. embassy in Moscow with microwave radiation and used carcinogenic “spy dust” without regard to health effects. The attacks on U.S. officials would fit this pattern of behavior.

We recognize that it is important to let the intelligence community do its job and its findings must inform policy action. Though Congress and the administration must work together to formulating a range of possible responses. As Senator Collins and others have stated, these attacks are “an act of war,” and as such, preparation for a future attribution call by the national security establishment is in order. So how could the U.S. respond?

Let’s start with what doesn’t work – sanctions. Sanctions feel good and satisfy an action imperative but they are feckless. Sanctions have not stopped Russia from killing dissidents, halted the Nordstream II pipeline, compelled a pull back from occupied territories, reduced support for tyrants, or hindered oil and gas production. Sanctions have simply forced Russia to develop more creative money laundering and sanction circumvention mechanisms.

So, what would work? For starters, we must understand that the Putin regime considers itself in a state of conflict with the U.S., short of war, but nonetheless deadly real. We are dealing with a state sponsor of terror which conducts operations across the globe to weaken the U.S. abroad, divide it from its allies, and sow discord at home. Our policy must be calibrated to win this conflict, without sparking a shooting war, but at risk of one.

Russia understands reciprocity and strength. When four Russian diplomats were kidnapped by extremists in Beirut in 1985, and one of them was killed, Russia reportedly responded by kidnapping and gruesomely killing a relative of the group’s leader. The surviving diplomats were released immediately. The story may be apocryphal, but it does illustrate the Russian approach. Tempting as it may be for America to retaliate tit for tat, we need not mirror Russia’s actions. Instead, we should play to our greater economic, diplomatic, and military advantages.

We offer five elements to frame a response: enlist U.S. allies, expand forward deterrence, limit the adversary’s reach, choke off money, and bring those accountable to justice.

NATO: With proof of the attacks on U.S. officials, we should activate NATO’s Article Five collective defense clause. The only other time this was enacted was after 9/11. As justification, in addition to the Havana Syndrome attacks, (which also caused Canadian casualties), we would include GRU and FSB assassination operations across Europe, deadly sabotage in the Czech Republic, a coup attempt in Montenegro, persistent cyberattacks, and a litany of other actions that can only be described as irregular warfare directed against NATO members.


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Forward Presence: A crystal clear signal that we understand the nature of Russian hybrid warfare and are responding would be to enhance our deployed military presence in Poland, the Baltic States, and in the Black Sea region. These units would pose no offensive threat to Russia but would be a clear signal that the U.S. is prepared to counter any Russian shenanigans. We should also significantly ramp up our lethal aid and training to the Ukraine, where the nature of Russian aggression is well known. Weakness in Eastern Europe is an invitation to conflict.

Travel and Presence: We should drastically limit Russian business and tourist travel which is being used as cover for FSB and GRU operations. We would reduce Russian diplomatic presence in each capital to the bare minimum – handfuls not hundreds. American and European counterintelligence experts believe there are more Russian intelligence officers operating from embassies than during the Cold War. Limiting the size of Russia’s espionage infrastructure will complicate the planning and execution of all of its intelligence operations.

Finance: A key tool in counterterrorism operations is the ability to target sources of finance which constitute material support to terrorism. In this case, we would apply that principle to the Russian government, state enterprises, and individuals who provide cover, tools, and sources of funding to Russia’s campaign to undermine the West with violence, terror, and media manipulation. Russia’s dirty money has been used to undermine the west and poison our politics. We should limit the easy access of shady money to western banks.

Criminal Cases: We need bring war crime cases to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. Following a decade of conflict in the Balkans, the ICJ brought to justice 161 indicted Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian war criminals. This was an astounding success – a manhunt which included American and European law enforcement and intelligence services. Just as in Nuremberg after World War II, these actions to hold war criminals accountable drew a line in the sand.

This is a start.  Successive Democratic and Republican administrations have pursued Russia policies which represent the triumph of hope over experience. We have treated the symptoms of malign Russian actions rather than the underlying pathology. It is now time to finally acknowledge that we are in a long-term hybrid conflict and forget the fantasy of changing Putin’s behavior. Only a new regime in the Kremlin would hold the hope of bringing about a change in actions. Eventually, the Putin regime will wither or collapse, but until it does, we and our allies must do a better job of defending ourselves.

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