Congress hears testimony on Russia’s sonic attacks on US officials in Havana

<span>The US embassy in Havana. The phenomenon was first reported in 2016 by diplomats in Cuba’s capital complaining of brain injuries, hearing loss, vertigo and strange auditory sensations.</span><span>Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP</span>
The US embassy in Havana. The phenomenon was first reported in 2016 by diplomats in Cuba’s capital complaining of brain injuries, hearing loss, vertigo and strange auditory sensations.Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP

Russia has “targeted and neutralized” dozens of US intelligence agents in recent years in a covert worldwide operation using sonic weapons, a House committee heard on Wednesday as it looked into the mystery phenomenon known as Havana syndrome.

The panel heard from expert witnesses that Russia had “the motive, the means and the opportunity” to enact the attacks on US diplomats and other government employees at embassies and other government outposts that left many with debilitating or career-ending brain injuries and hearing loss.

Related: ‘Havana syndrome’ linked to Russian unit, media investigation suggests

“This is a global campaign, and it’s focused on attacking the best of our people,” said Greg Edgreen, a retired army officer, whose company founded by combat veterans and intelligence professionals works with survivors of anomalous health incidents (AHIs).

“The impact has been that mission-critical government officials working abroad and at home are being removed from their posts. America’s best men and women in national security are being targeted and neutralized.”

A comprehensive investigation published last month by a coalition of media outlets said an elite Russian intelligence and assassination unit was probably responsible, contradicting an earlier government assessment that no foreign adversary was involved.

Wednesday’s hearing of the House homeland security subcommittee on counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence was convened to examine the incidents, with its chairman, the Texas Republican congressman August Pfluger, appearing to question the authorities’ conclusion.

“Dating back to 2014, a number of US diplomatic military and intelligence officials and their families have reported major medical symptoms that have affected their auditory and sensory motor skills,” he said.

“It’s paramount that we acknowledge the gravity of the situation.”

The meeting also heard testimony from Christo Grozev, chief author of the report published by the Insider, 60 Minutes and Der Spiegel following a year-long investigation.

“The totality of the evidence uncovered by our team has proven that Russia has the motive, the means and the opportunity to have developed and used non-lethal acoustic or electromagnetic wave weapons against members of US intelligence and law enforcement community,” he said.

Members of Unit 29155 of the Russian GRU, which has been linked to the creation and use of sonic weapons, were “present in locations and at times directly preceding or coinciding with north Havana incidents in at least four cases”, he added.

“These findings present not a smoking gun, but a very plausible operational theory on the existence, origin and culprits behind the AHIs,” Grozev said.

“I expect the US intelligence community will [provide] alternative explanations why these people who are known to only engage with kinetic operations, assassinations, poisoning, never intelligence gathering, were at the wrong time at the wrong place, if they continue to believe that none of this can be attributed to a foreign adversary.”

Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents more than two dozen people who say they became victims of Havana syndrome at US missions in Cuba, China and a number of European countries, told the panel the effects of the attacks were far reaching.

“The victims are not just selfless public servants, but their spouses, children, including infants, and even pets,” he said.

“The overwhelming majority of evidence concerning AHIs is hidden behind classified walls. [It] would lead reasonable people to conclude one or more foreign adversaries are behind at least some of these incidents, and that numerous federal agencies have failed to fully undertake substantive investigations.”

Following the Insider report, a bipartisan group of senators wrote last month to Joe Biden, demanding a “renewed assessment” of Havana syndrome evidence.

Seven separate government agencies spent several years looking at the phenomenon, which was first reported in 2016 by diplomats in Cuba’s capital complaining of brain injuries, hearing loss, vertigo and strange auditory sensations.

Five of the agencies concluded it was “very unlikely” that foreign actors were involved. But reports continued to amass, including the US defense department revealing last month that a senior official who attended a 2023 Nato summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, experienced similar symptoms.

One potential line of inquiry for a new evaluation is the 2020 arrest and subsequent deportation of a Russian spy who worked as a chef at Russia-themed restaurants in New York and Washington, and who was interrogated by an FBI agent who later came down with Havana syndrome.

In 2021, Congress passed the Havana Act, authorizing the state department, CIA and other government agencies to provide payments to staff and their families who were affected during assignments.