CIA taps new 'Havana Syndrome' task force leader who once spearheaded Usama bin Laden search effort: reports

No definitive cause determined since first cases came in Cuba's capital

A senior CIA official who spearheaded the agency’s search for Usama bin Laden has been tapped to lead a task force investigating the cause of the mysterious "Havana Syndrome," which has inflicted cognitive difficulties and even brain damage on scores of U.S. spies and diplomats abroad.  

CIA Director William J. Burns selected the undercover official whose experience includes spending over a decade at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center working intelligence analysis and targeting focused on bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, the Wall Street Journal first reported. 

The individual will now lead a CIA task force first formed in December after a panel of scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identified "directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy" as the most likely cause of the "Havana Syndrome" – which received that name because symptoms were first reported by diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Cuba’s capital city in 2016. 

By May, at least 130 unexplained cases of dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, cognitive difficulties, memory loss and even brain damage were under investigation, up from several dozen last year. Still, no definitive cause has been determined. Just last week, the State Department announced additional cases being investigated at the U.S. embassy in Vienna, Austria. 

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Vienna has for centuries been a center for espionage and diplomacy and was a hub for clandestine spy-versus-spy activity during the Cold War. It's currently the site of indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. over salvaging the nuclear deal negotiated there in 2015, the Associated Press reported. 

The CIA task force, comprised of intelligence analysts, clandestine officers who collect human intelligence, clinicians and human resource specialists, will also seek to determine whether any specific individual or group is behind the attacks, The Washington Post also reported. 

Several former and current officials told the publication they suspect the Russian government, though Moscow has denied any involvement and CIA intelligence hasn’t been able to definitively confirm their responsibility. 

Burns, who became CIA director in March, has made getting CIA officers afflicted by the Havana Syndrome a top priority and has visited several suffering from more severe cases being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. 

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News about the task force’s new leadership comes amid historic protests seen in Havana and other Cuban cities, as the subsequent crackdown by the country’s dictatorship has prompted several U.S. politicians of Cuban descent to call on the Biden administration to intervene to protect human rights. 

Usama bin Laden, who was the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist group that ordered the 9/11 attacks, was killed in May 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALS at his compound in Pakistan after being tracked down through CIA intelligence. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.