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Friday, March 24th, 2023

Annual U.S. Intelligence Community Threat Assessment finds foreign adversaries unlikely origins of Havana Syndrome

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In the 2023 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), released last week, the U.S. Intelligence community made Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs) – formerly and more popularly known as the Havana Syndrome – a primary focus, laying out the case that foreign adversaries are not likely behind the mysterious issue.

The symptoms of AHIs were first reported by U.S. and Canadian embassy staff in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, earning them that original name of Havana Syndrome. These symptoms included pain and cognitive difficulties that persisted long after the incident.

According to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, most Intelligence agencies have concluded that it’s very unlikely a foreign adversary was responsible, although she admitted to gaps in collecting info on those adversaries. Adversaries, in this context, included nations such as Russia. The possibility of these being foreign attacks on U.S. personnel has been of major concern for years.

“As part of this review, the IC identified critical assumptions surrounding the initial AHIs reported in Cuba from 2016 to 2018, which framed the IC’s understanding of this phenomenon, but were not borne out by subsequent medical and technical analysis,” Haines said. “In light of this and the evidence that points away from a foreign adversary, causal mechanism, or unique syndrome linked to AHIs, IC agencies assess that symptoms reported by U.S. personnel were probably the result of factors that did not involve a foreign adversary, such as preexisting conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors. Needless to say, these findings do not call into question the very real experiences and symptoms that our colleagues and their family members have reported.”

However, AHIs were not the report’s only concern. The report also warned of malicious use of digital information and communication technologies, with their potential to distort publicly available information and the rising issue of distinguishing fact from propaganda. This, Haines admitted, is a real problem for democracies to counter – open information is a bedrock of freedom, but it also makes it easy to exploit by adversaries.

“Efforts by Russia, China, and other countries to promote authoritarianism and spread disinformation is helping fuel a larger competition between democratic and authoritarian forms of government,” the ICA said. “This competition exploits global information flows to gain influence and impacts nearly all countries, contributing to democratic backsliding, threats of political instability, and violent societal conflict through misinformation and disinformation.

New technologies, from AI to biotech, are likewise growing concerns, and development is picking up pace.

In response, Republican House chairs released a statement noting that the threat assessment nevertheless reinforced that, by and large, China, Russia, Iran, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and North Korea all present grave threats to national security and demand continued attention. This was floated by Committees on Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green, MD (R-TN), Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH).

“From cyber threats to attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure and brazen acts of espionage, our adversaries are pushing boundaries to see how far the United States will let them go,” the collective chairs said in a statement. “We have witnessed this in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, al-Qaeda’s growing confidence following the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan, the rebuilding of ISIS, the Chinese Communist Party’s consistent acts of espionage and cyber intrusions in addition to their military build-up and rapid nuclear expansion, as well as North Korea’s missile tests aimed in the direction of U.S. allies. We have also witnessed this with other transnational issues, including a devastating opioid crisis in the U.S., fueled by the production and trafficking of illicit fentanyl and precursor chemicals by nefarious actors.”

They also focused on China specifically, saying that while tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have not always worked, the government could not be underestimated. For the moment, they emphasized, the United States could still triumph in a peer-to-peer competition with China, but it would require a quick and unified response.

Yet the problem was decidedly not one country alone, according to the ICA assessment.

“Regional and localized conflicts and instability will continue to demand U.S. attention as states and non-state actors struggle to find their place in the evolving international order, attempt to navigate great power competition and confront shared transnational challenges,” the report said. “Regional challengers, such as Iran and North Korea, will seek to disrupt their local security environment and garner more power for themselves, threatening U.S. allies in the process. In every region of the world, challenges from climate change, demographic trends, human and health security, and economic disruptions caused by energy and food insecurity and technology proliferation will combine and interact in specific and unique ways to trigger events ranging from political instability, to terrorist threats, to mass migration, and potential humanitarian emergencies.”