Mysterious attacks that have been leaving U.S. personnel abroad seriously ill for years and may have recently debuted near the White House are a “critically important” priority for the intelligence community, the ODNI leader said.
At a Thursday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss the intelligence community’s Annual Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, among a list of national security threats, said that “taking care of our people also means investigating the source of anomalous health incidents that have affected our personnel and caring for those affected.”
CNN reported that day that federal agencies are investigating two incidents in November, including one steps from the White House in which a National Security Council official was sickened, similar to the mysterious “Havana syndrome” attacks in which U.S. personnel began falling ill in 2016 with persistent symptoms including severe headaches, ear ringing or popping, dizziness, loss of balance and nausea. Reports have since spread beyond Cuba to U.S. personnel affected in China, Russia, and even London.
The other incident, reported by GQ in October, involved a White House staffer walking her dog just outside D.C. in Arlington, Va., in November 2019. “According to a government source familiar with the incident, the staffer passed a parked van. A man got out and walked past her. Her dog started seizing up,” the article stated. “Then she felt it too: a high-pitched ringing in her ears, an intense headache, and a tingling on the side of her face.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) asked Haines about “at least two possible incidents on U.S. soil of the directed-energy attacks that have created symptoms, sometimes called Havana syndrome, in a number of our personnel.”
“One of the incidents described here happened on the Ellipse in late 2020, and that’s very close to the White House,” Shaheen noted. “So I’m not going to ask you if that report is correct or not because I recognize that there has been a real effort to try and keep this information classified, but I do want to ask you about the concern that I have that that kind of clampdown on information that’s available to Congress, that’s available to the public, has led to leaks, and it’s not clear whether the information we’re getting is correct or incorrect.”
The senator said that members of Congress need enough information to respond as “there are personnel who have been harmed who we need to make sure get the care and benefits they need.”
Haines called the issue “critically important” and added that “across the intelligence committee, frankly, leaders are focused on this issue.”
“On your particular question with respect to information, I’d be happy to look at this with you, to be honest. I think I completely understand getting the information is critical for you to be able to respond to these issues and ensure that you’re able to make good decisions. Maybe we can talk more about this also in closed session, these questions,” the director said.
“Our concern obviously with the classification is because we believe that either it’s protecting sources and methods and it’s critical to our national security, and we’ll have to figure that out with you, but you should certainly have access to the classified information, and we should figure out if there’s a way to help you address these issues more generally,” she added.
“I would argue that with stories like this, with stories that have appeared over the last two years, really, and those people who have been affected who have gone public, that the horse is out of the barn on this,” Shaheen replied. “The information is already out there, and I think it behooves us all to try and make sure that the information that gets out is accurate and that people understand what’s happening and that there is an effort to respond to that. So I would urge you to consider that.”
Haines told lawmakers during her opening statement that “the world will face more intense and cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change to disruptions from new technological and financial crises,” challenges that “will repeatedly test the resilience and adaptability of communities, states, and the international system often exceeding the capacity of existing systems and models.”
“This looming disequilibrium between existing and future challenges and the ability of institutions and systems to respond is likely to grow and produce greater contestation at every level,” she said. “And for the intelligence community, this insight compels us to broaden our definition of national security, to develop and integrate new and emerging expertise into our work, deepen and strengthen our partnerships and learn to focus on long-term strategic threats while simultaneously addressing the urging crises.”
Haines called China “an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community” as the country wields “substantial cyber capabilities that, if deployed at a minimum, can cause localized temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure inside the United States.”
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told senators that “Beijing views the international environment and its ties to Washington as increasingly adversarial,” and “continues its decades-long military modernization to build an increasingly lethal force that will almost certainly be able to hold us and allied forces at greater risk and greater distances from the Chinese mainland.”
“Russian officials have long believed that Washington is seeking to weaken Russia, and Moscow will use a range of tools to pursue its objectives, including mercenary operations, assassinations, and arms sales,” Haines said, adding that Moscow “is becoming increasingly adept at leveraging its technological prowess to develop asymmetric options in both military and cyber spheres in order to give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate to its interests.”
Berrier called the Russian military “an existential threat to the United States,” as Moscow’s “investment in conventional forces, strategic nuclear forces and enhancement of strategic deterrent places the U.S. homeland at risk.”
Haines said that ISIS and Al-Qaeda “remain the most pressing threats to U.S. interest overseas,” and domestically “lone actors in small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate threat.”
“We see this threat manifested itself in individuals who are inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIS, often called homegrown violent extremists, and those who commit terrorist acts for ideological goals stemming from other influences such as racial bias and anti-governmental sentiment, which we refer to as domestic violent extremism or DVE. And DVE is an increasingly complex threat that is growing in the United States,” she said. “These extremists often see themselves as part of a broader global movement, and in fact, a number of other countries are experiencing a rise in DVE.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) noted that traditional nuclear deterrence “wouldn’t work with a terrorist organization,” and asked Haines “about the role of intelligence in protecting us from the nightmare of a nuclear weapon in the hold of a tramp steamer bound into the Port of New York or Miami.”
“We monitor and try to track them to the best degree that we can,” Haines said of terror groups’ activities. “It’s a diffuse issue, as you know, you know, spanning many regions of the globe. We are, in particular, looking for the kinds of weapons that they can use, they give them extraordinary capacity to have catastrophic effects. And we look to ensure that we understand those networks as best we can and then provide whatever warning we’re capable of providing under the circumstances.”
“I think the attackers on Sept. 11 killed 3,000 people,” King replied. “They would have killed 3 million if they could have.”
Haines told senators that the intelligence community “is currently focused on supporting the retrograde that will occur as we withdraw from Afghanistan by ensuring that we provide the best intelligence to support the secretary of Defense and the chairman’s work as they bring our forces home in a safe, orderly, and deliberate way.”
Berrier said that “talks are highly unlikely to result in extended ceasefires or violence reduction while the Taliban continues to apply military pressure on the Afghan government.”
“At the same time, the threat from terrorist organizations will persist,” the DIA chief continued. “ISIS remains the preeminent Salafi jihadist group, sustaining more than a dozen insurgencies globally. It is expanding its African presence and probably rebuilding its ability to direct attacks against the West. Al-Qaeda’s appeal to Salafi jihadists has waned since ISIS’s emergence and counterterrorism pressure has eliminated many of al-Qaeda’s senior leaders. Transnational, racially, and ethnically motivated violent extremists, or REMV organizations, operate across borders, and attract recruits and spread ideology online.”
Asked about chemical and biological threats from nation-state actors, Berrier said active programs are in place to “monitor those very, very carefully in a number of sensitive ways, and we have actually seen the Russians use some of their latest weapons on individuals recently.”
Asked about the ability of China and Russia to produce chemical or biological weapons out of their pharmaceutical operations, Berrier noted that “the dual-use nature of some of those technologies to produce pharmaceuticals and chemical and biological weapons are intertwined very closely, and it is sometimes difficult to discern the real true intent behind some of those facilities.”