House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt limit bill unveiled Wednesday would slash $130 billion from a broad range of domestic programs, including clean-energy subsidies and student loan forgiveness. But one thing the bill would not cut is the military, which last month requested an $842 billion budget.
Buried in the Pentagon’s sprawling budget request is an ask for at least $36 million to respond to Havana syndrome, the mysterious symptoms alleged by U.S. spies and diplomats. Initially blamed on microwave weapons wielded by foreign powers like Russia, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded there is “no credible evidence that a foreign adversary has a weapon or collection device that is causing” the symptoms — opening the possibility that they may be psychogenic in nature.
The amount represents an increase of $2.1 million over the previous fiscal year and “ensures that individuals affected by anomalous health incidents receive timely and comprehensive health care and treatment,” according to the Defense Health Program’s proposed operation and maintenance budget, released on March 13. “Anomalous health incidents,” or AHIs, is the U.S. government’s term for Havana syndrome, named after the CIA officers and diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba who, in 2016, reported symptoms like headaches, nausea, and hearing loud noises. Since then, U.S. Embassy personnel who served in other countries have reportedly been affected, including China, Colombia, France, Georgia, India, Poland, Serbia, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The $2.1 million comes in addition to the AHI’s program baseline funding of $21.2 million, which “ensures that individuals affected by anomalous health incidents … receive timely and comprehensive health care and treatment.” Most of the 1,000 Havana syndrome cases reported to the U.S. government were found to be attributable to stress, environmental causes, or preexisting medical conditions, according to a CIA interim report last year.
The Defense Department is also requesting an additional $15 million for research that will “further examine why AHIs occur, who is at-risk, and what the short- and long-term health effects are.” Earlier this month, Politico reported that the Pentagon’s research laboratories are testing weapons in an attempt to ascertain what might be causing the symptoms.
The budget now goes to Congress for approval, which is likely to be granted. In 2021, legislation authorizing payments to people affected by Havana syndrome passed with unusual partisan comity; bills passed unanimously in both the House and Senate before being signed into law by President Joe Biden. The legislation, called the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act, provided $30 million for victims.
The $36 million now being considered does not include AHI funds allocated to the intelligence community, which operates on a secret budget. The Pentagon’s research and development budget alludes to its coordination with the intelligence community in responding to AHIs: “Program development and execution is peer-reviewed and coordinated with DoS [Department of State], DoD [Department of Defense], the Intelligence Community, and other federal entities as they continue to investigate AHIs through numerous interagency efforts.”
The Defense Department does not specify which federal entities may be involved. But a Pentagon inspector general report released last month and not previously reported provides some insight into the military’s response. A steadily growing number of personnel have been tasked with responding to Havana syndrome, the report reveals, spanning an array of military service branches.
“As of May 2022, only four full-time individuals were supporting the CFT [cross-functional team],” the inspector general report says, referring to the group established to coordinate the military’s response to Havana syndrome. “By October 2022, 11 individuals were working full-time for the CFT, alongside the newly added Major General.”
Defense Department personnel supporting the cross-functional team full time come from agencies spanning the Army, Navy, Air Force, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Joint Staff, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, along with other agencies that were redacted. (The report also notes that its investigators conducted interviews with the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command.)
In 2021, The Intercept reported that the Department of Homeland Security sent out a memo encouraging personnel to report “unexplained health incidents” to medical personnel. DHS as an agency contains the largest number of federal law enforcement agents in the country, including agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
The inspector general also suggested that Havana syndrome has become plagued with overclassification. “Senior officials … told us that much of the AHI data are being over-classified,” the report says, “at the Top Secret level.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement rejecting intelligence agencies’ March finding after a yearslong investigation that Havana syndrome was “very unlikely” to have been caused by a foreign adversary or any other deliberate mechanism.
“Something happened here and just because you don’t have all the answers, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen,” Rubio said.