Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

CIA removes Vienna station chief for inappropriate response to Havana syndrome outbreak

Outbreak of mysterious brain illnesses in US officials in Austria worst since Havana

Tim Wyatt
Friday 24 September 2021 13:55 BST
Offices at the US embassy in Vienna have been closed due to the outbreak of Havana Syndrome symptoms
Offices at the US embassy in Vienna have been closed due to the outbreak of Havana Syndrome symptoms (Bwag/Commons)
Leer en Español

The CIA has reportedly recalled its station chief in Vienna because he was not taking seriously enough an outbreak of the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” symptoms among people working at the embassy.

The removal is intended to emphasise the significance US authorities are placing on tackling the unexplained health problems which have dogged hundreds of diplomats and other officials since 2016, The Washington Post reported, citing anonymous officials.

First encountered in the US embassy in the Cuban capital, Havana Syndrome sufferers report being suddenly stricken with unusual neurological illness.

The symptoms vary, but range from headaches to ringing in the ears, as well as loss of hearing, memory, and balance. Some victims have suffered long-term brain damage.

Although officially the cause of Havana Syndrome remains under investigation, reports have trickled out that the CIA and the Pentagon don’t believe this is a naturally occurring illness – it’s a deliberate act of aggression. A study commissioned by the State Department said the most likely source is a pulse of radiofrequency energy “directed” at US targets.

In recent times, the Austrian capital has seen a cluster of Havana Syndrome cases, which the CIA officially refers to as “anomalous health incidents”.

According to US officials who spoke to the Washington Post anonymously, dozens of diplomats, intelligence officers and even the children of US employees in Vienna have reported symptoms.

Targeting the children and family members of US diplomats and spies would mark an escalation in the Havana Syndrome attacks so far, which have previously mostly affected serving officials.

Because of the outbreak of new reports of symptoms, offices within the US embassy in Vienna have been closed. The outbreak in Vienna is reportedly the largest since the first in Cuba.

However, reportedly the CIA station chief, the most senior American intelligence officer in Austria, had been sceptical the illnesses reported by staff were genuine and appeared insensitive when people reported their symptoms.

A State Department spokesperson told the newspaper: “We don’t discuss embassy operations or specific reports, but we take each report we receive extremely seriously and are working to ensure that affected employees get the care and support they need.”

A CIA spokesperson said the agency would not comment on specific incidents or officers.

Although many in the US government believe Havana Syndrome to be caused by a directed energy weapon deliberately targeting American officials, others have suggested there could be a psychological explanation for the symptoms or they could be the result of stress.

An FBI team which was sent to Cuba to investigate the initial rash of cases concluded the diplomats were most likely experiencing some form of collective hysteria.

But a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine expert committee concluded last year the most plausible cause was directed microwave energy, while admitting this remained “speculative”.

There have now been more than 200 separate reports from Americans stationed on all five continents, including some on home soil, and there does not yet appear to be any consistent theme in where or in what context the victim first experiences symptoms.

Just this month, a CIA officer who was travelling with the agency’s director, William Burns, in India was reportedly the subject of an attack which caused Havana Syndrome symptoms.

Mr Burns has pledged to prioritise investigating what could be behind the mysterious illnesses and providing better care for those affected by it, some of whom have had to retire because of ongoing headaches, dizziness or memory loss.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in