As new leadership arrives at the State and Commerce Departments, and the intelligence community, let’s hope they give real attention to weird and disturbing threats to certain career employees.
New light has shone on a string of unresolved episodes occurring in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The episodes have largely slipped from the news. But not from the heads of those injured.
I mean “heads” literally. Recall that several dozen federal employees in China and Cuba had to be evacuated after bizarre neurological effects with seemingly no explanation. Piercing noises, pressure on the head, nausea. Many reported noise and pulsing emanations from a directional source. The symptoms pushed some of the employees into near disability. It started in the U.S. embassy in Cuba in late 2016. The phenomenon eventually acquired a name: Havana-acquired brain injury. A Commerce employee in China, Catherine Werner, suffered permanent brain damage in 2018 under similar circumstances.
Now the National Academy of Sciences has published results of a study of this episode, conducted by a 25-member panel of federal, academic and private sector doctors and scientists. The panel chair is Dr. David Relman, a Stanford professor and chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. It was convened at the request of the State Department.
Academy reports are long, detailed and nuanced. In this case, panelists said national security classifications hampered their research. As did medical privacy and data-linking prohibitions. In detailing these impediments, I sensed the Academy was subtly chiding the State Department and other agencies for being not quite comprehensive in their efforts to get to the root of what the report called unexplained health effects. That is, agencies that had the capacity to go deeper — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say, or the intelligence community — probably should have.
That’s not to say nothing happened. NIH staff did evaluations of the victims. CDC did to an extensive early analysis. The government commissioned clinical studies at the Universities of Miami and Pennsylvania.
The issue itself presented scientific problems, such as, in the report’s words, “how to detect and recognize important anomalies or signals, in a complicated, ‘noisy’ background.” The symptoms could have had any of a number of causes — the Zika virus, bad food or pre-existing neurological conditions in some of the victims.
Moreover, true scientists rarely speak in terms of absolute truths. Despite the fondest hopes of politicians, scientists mostly talk about most plausible or likely conclusions from the latest evidence. This panel pointed out that the “constellation” of clinical signs and symptoms with their “directional and location-specific features” is found nowhere else in medical literature. Although not everyone affected experienced the same set of symptoms.
Keep in mind, the Academy’s assignment was not to pinpoint or identify the source of the energy producing the symptoms. It was rather to do clinical evaluations and to advise State “on best practices in their approach to current patients and prevention or mitigation of potential future incidents.”
But read this committee statement: “After considering the information available to it and a set of possible mechanisms, the committee felt that many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported by DOS employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.” The report expresses the committee’s alarm over the potential source of such beams directed at the employees. It recommends people with clearance and “full access to all relevant information” look into the phenomenon.
The doctors and scientists urge the State Department to do more data gathering on the incidents that already occurred, and to be better prepared to deal with the next episode, in both clinical response and data gathering plans.
In other words, when some malevolent actor is directing deliberately harmful beams to your employees’ soft gray matter, be ready to fully respond.
With a new administration coming in, it’s likely that adversaries — and in particular China, Russia and their surrogate Cuba — will pressure test U.S. resolve. Brain-frying federal employees with electromagnetic pulses could be part of the test. So the still-unsolved mystery needs solving. Personally, I’d like to see U.S. personnel locate the pulsing equipment, break down doors and smash it with sledgehammers.
Meantime, the Academy panel reported that as late as June of this year, many of the affected feds continue to experience health problems such as cognitive difficulties, vertigo, vision deterioration, dizziness and tinnitus. Neither the source nor the illnesses have been nailed down.
It’s all a good reminder that in the great international chess game, some countries are playing with loaded pawns. Such countries apparently view civilian, diplomatic and trade employees as worthy targets. Federal employees in certain locations are therefore in physical danger. We know the Chinese regime isn’t squeamish. Just ask a Uighur. Now a third administration will be dealing with a mystery that’s small in scope but huge in potential import. Let’s hope the coming and going State Department brass read the National Academies report and do what it recommends.