CIA briefing to lawmakers on suspected energy attacks turned contentious
(CNN) -- A briefing on suspected energy attacks on US intelligence officers turned contentious last week, two sources told CNN, as senators demanded more information about the mysterious incidents from the CIA and accountability for how the agency has handled them.
Senators on the Intelligence Committee were baffled that they were just learning about significant developments for the first-time and they were also frustrated that they were not given more details. The classified briefing was one of the most contentious in the committee's recent memory, according to the two sources familiar with the briefing.
The briefers made clear that they believe the attacks on intelligence officials overseas are ongoing and they discussed previously unreported suspected cases that emerged in a European country this year, according to two sources familiar with the cases.
CNN first reported last week that federal agencies are also investigating a possible incident near the White House where a National Security Council staffer developed similar conditions to those who have reported suffered the debilitating constellation of symptoms known as "Havana syndrome," which often includes severe headaches, fatigue and loss of hearing.
US officials believe the symptoms affecting US personnel overseas could be the result of attack by some type of weapon that aims pulsed radiofrequency energy at its victims.
President Joe Biden's new CIA director, Bill Burns, has committed to prioritizing an investigation into the attacks but the extraordinary briefing revealed that a lot of work needs to be done on this complex and disturbing issue -- particularly in terms of accountability for how the agency initially mishandled cases, including failing to properly provide medical care to officials affected and coordinating the investigation across government, according to the sources familiar with the briefing.
The briefers -- who were members of the CIA task force looking into the attacks -- did not provide a clear timeline of when certain information had been discovered and why it was only being shared with the senators then, which led some members to believe that the agency had previously been hiding that information from Congress, the sources said.
The tense briefing underscores the frustration that lawmakers have expressed over the mysterious suspected energy attacks on US personnel across the globe over the last several years, which the US government has struggled to address.
The Senate Intelligence Committee said in a bipartisan statement on Friday that the "pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing." The statement also said that the committee is committed to "get to the bottom of this" and welcomed Burns' "renewed focus" on these attacks.
"Our committee will continue to work with him, and the rest of the Intelligence Community, to better understand the technology behind the weapon responsible for these attacks," said Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the panel's top Republican. "We will focus on ensuring we protect our personnel and provide the medical and financial support the victims deserve. Ultimately we will identify those responsible for these attacks on American personnel and will hold them accountable."
A Senate Intelligence Committee spokeswoman declined to comment on the briefing, pointing to the committee's Friday statement.
Senators made clear those who mishandled response should be held accountable
Senators made it clear during the briefing that agency officials who mishandled the agency's response to the attacks from the get-go must be held accountable, one of the sources said. The briefers said they would take those sentiments back to the agency, the source said.
Some senators directed criticism specifically towards officials in the CIA medical office, which initially doubted intelligence officials who said they had been subject to the mysterious attacks.
Burns told the House intelligence committee last month that he had appointed a senior officer to report directly to him on the matter. He has also said that he met with individuals who have been affected by the alleged attacks.
"I've met with three different groups over several hours with my colleagues going back to Havana who have been affected by these incidents simply to make clear to them not only my personal priority, but that we take very seriously what they've experienced and have enormous respect for their sacrifice and their dedication and that we will get to the bottom of this," Burns told the committee.
The CIA pointed to Burns' testimony on this issue but declined to provide anything further.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday it was "outrageous" that officials have struggled to obtain medical care.
"There's a mysterious, direct energy weapon that is being used. And it is causing, in some cases, permanent traumatic brain injury. And yet the personnel involved -- there have been other attacks around the world -- have had a difficult time getting both the medical care and the financial help that they need from the CIA. And that is outrageous," Collins said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pressed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines about the possible attacks at a hearing last week, urging Haines to declassify information about the incidents and "share it with members of Congress in a way that allows us to better respond."
"Our concern obviously with the classification is because we believe that either it's protecting sources and methods, and it's critical to our national security, and we'll have to figure that out with you," Haines responded. "But you should certainly have access to the classified information. And we should figure out if there's a way to help you address these issues more generally."
A House Intelligence Committee spokesperson declined to comment on specific briefings, but said that the committee has been "working quietly and persistently behind closed doors on this critical issue since the first reports."
"The committee will continue to hold events and briefings on this subject and we will follow the evidence wherever it may lead and ensure anyone responsible is held to account," the spokesperson said.
Symptoms first emerged in Cuba
The US has struggled to understand these attacks since 2016 and 2017, when diplomatic and intelligence personnel in Cuba first began reporting alarming symptoms that seemed to appear out of the blue. That is when the attacks became known as the "Havana syndrome."
The perpetrator of the attacks has not been identified by the US government, which is still investigating the incidents, but many current and former US officials believe Russia is to blame.
One State Department-sponsored study found the attacks were likely carried out using directed microwave energy. But US officials continue to stress that they have more questions than answers surrounding these incidents.
Intelligence and defense officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about the mysterious incidents and some who were impacted have publicly said that the CIA did not take the matter seriously enough from the onset.
The Biden administration has said that it will adopt a whole of government approach to getting to the bottom of the incidents. That commitment comes as a recently declassified 2018 State Department Accountability Review Board report, obtained by the National Security Archive, said there had been a delayed response to the attacks in 2018 during the Trump administration caused by "excessive secrecy" and "serious deficiencies in the Department's response in areas of accountability, interagency coordination, and communication, at all levels" in Washington and Havana.
The State Department named a senior official to lead the department's response to the "Havana syndrome" attacks in March and the CIA task force was setup late last year as part of this push. The CIA task force will draw on a wide range of resources at the agency and ensures a team and process exists to address any future incidents, CNN previously reported.
But questions remain about how effective the task force has or will be, how much interagency sharing of information is actually happening and how the Biden administration is providing all of that information to the oversight committees.
The Senate and House Armed Services Committees both received briefings on the Pentagon's efforts to track and investigate these mysterious incidents in recent weeks. Then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller who served as acting defense secretary in the final weeks of the Trump administration also set up a task force inside the Pentagon to track the cases, telling CNN last month that he didn't think other agencies were doing enough about it.
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