The Pentagon is drafting a memo to the entire military and civilian workforce asking personnel to report any so-called anomalous health symptoms that might indicate they have been victims of a mysterious illness that has struck US diplomats, spies and military personnel around the world, according to two defense officials.
No final decision has been made on whether to issue the memo, but the fact it’s being considered underscores the growing concern at the Pentagon’s senior levels that they need to gather more information on what has become known as “Havana Syndrome.”
“There’s a sufficient amount of concern that with the number of cases that could affect our workforce that this might be a prudent step,” a senior defense official told CNN.
The State Department issued a similar memo to staff earlier this month asking them to immediately report symptoms, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
Since the incidents began in late 2016 in Cuba, federal investigators have struggled to determine what – or who – is causing the mysterious symptoms. There have been cases reported in Russia, China and elsewhere across the globe, and a Senate committee said last month that the number of suspected cases appeared to be on the rise. CNN first reported on two separate incidents that occurred near the White House late last year affecting National Security Council staffers.
Victims have reported a varying set of symptoms and physical sensations, including sudden vertigo, nausea, headaches and head pressure, sometimes accompanied by a “piercing directional noise.” Some reported being able to “step in” and “step out” of these sensations by physically moving their bodies elsewhere. Some have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries and continue to suffer from debilitating headaches and other health issues years later.
The DoD memo is the latest sign that the Biden administration is trying to emphasize it is determined to get to the bottom of what is harming US officials, after victims and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have charged that the government downplayed the issue and failed to properly care for those who were sickened.
It is expected that the memo will describe a series of symptoms that have occurred in existing cases and ask military and civilian personnel to report if they have experienced similar symptoms, the senior official said. The draft memo will describe “the kinds of physical experiences” government personnel have already reported in previous cases.
If the memo is finalized and issued, initial reports from troops and civilian personnel would go to commanders, and then the Defense Department, including health officials, would investigate the cases and potential exposure circumstances. Officials are aware some of the symptoms may be non-specific but believe they need to start gathering more data to help determine what is causing the symptoms.
At a briefing Wednesday, Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he could not confirm a memo is in the works but stated “the Secretary (Lloyd Austin) does take this phenomenon seriously,” adding “We are contributing to a government wide effort to try to better understand these health phenomena and what might be causing them.”
Cause is still a mystery
“We still just don’t what is causing this,” the senior official said.
While the initial wave of “Havana Syndrome” cases involved US diplomats and CIA officials, a US defense official previously noted the Pentagon’s investigation into the matter too, saying, “We would not still be looking at this if we didn’t have equities in it.”
At the end of the Trump administration, then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller created a DoD task force on the issue. CIA Director William Burns has vowed to focus on the issue and has received daily briefings, and the State Department in March named a senior official to lead its response.
Earlier this month, the State Department also issued guidance to its workforce that directed employees and their family members to “immediately” report any new medical symptoms that fit the diverse patten of “Havana Syndrome” symptoms.
The State Department memo also hinted at the difficulty the government has faced in clearly diagnosing cases.
Victims across the globe have experienced a varying set of symptoms and “whether a common cause exists for all individuals, regardless of location, has not yet been established,” the memo reads.
Current and former officials have said that those tracking cases are on the look-out for potential psychosomatic episodes. Some victims, meanwhile, have said that they were ignored or treated as if they were making it all up when they reported their encounters, and both the State Department and the CIA continue to face scrutiny around their handling of individual cases.
“Please note that not every noise or every symptom is evidence of an event; personnel should consider whether the sounds are an explainable noise and/or an explainable medical issue,” the memo reads.
“At the same time, I want to underscore there is no stigma associated with reporting, and that every report will be taken seriously by our health and security professionals, and the leadership of the Department,” wrote Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon, who authored the memo.
The memo emphasizes that the number of individuals affected by these mysterious episodes remains “relatively small” to date, but that despite “extensive investigation,” the government “has been unable to determine whether these injuries are the result of the involvement of any specific actors.”
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.