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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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Incidents of microwave attacks were known 25 years ago

Spotlight

By Julian Borger WASHINGTON JULIAN BORGER IS THE GUARDIAN’S WORLD AFFAIRS EDITOR

When the first reports surfaced of a mysterious disorder that was afflicting dozens of US diplomats in Cuba, Mike Beck’s reaction was one of recognition and relief. Beck was at his home in Maryland, scrolling through the day’s news on his computer, when he spotted the story, and remembers shouting out to his wife. “I got excited because I thought: well, it’s coming out now that it’s not a mirage,” he said. “I felt bad for the victims but thought: ‘Now I’m no longer one of one. I’m one of many.’” Beck, a former National Security Agency (NSA) counter-intelligence officer, had been forced into retirement in late 2016 by a rare early-onset, non-tremor form of Parkinson’s disease. He had evidence, supplied by the NSA and the CIA, that he could have been the victim, in 1996, of a deliberate attack from a microwave weapon. Last December the National Academy of Sciences published a report finding that the scores of CIA and state department officials affected by “Havana syndrome” in Cuba, China and elsewhere were most likely suffering the “effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy”. Washington is now clearly alarmed at the implications of the attacks. The Senate intelligence committee said last Friday: “This pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing.” The statement came the day after the White House said it was looking into “unexplained health incidents” after two of its own officials had been targeted in the Washington area. The CIA and state department have launched taskforces to investigate, and the Pentagon has launched its own inquiry into suspected microwave attacks on troops in the Middle East. But what is so striking about Beck’s case is that its origins were two decades earlier – and that it produced official confirmation more than eight years ago that such weapons had been developed by US adversaries. That raises more questions about why the CIA and state department were so reluctant to believe their own officers could have been targeted by such weapons when cases appeared in Cuba and then China in 2018. “The reality is that this has been an intelligence community issue for decades,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing Beck. An NSA statement that was declassified in 2014 for Beck’s work injury compensation case said: “The National Security Agency confirms that there is intelligence information from 2012 associating the hostile country to which Mr Beck travelled in the late 1990s, with a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy, over time, and without leaving evidence. The 2012 intelligence information indicated that this weapon is designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.” Beck is still not allowed to name the hostile country he visited in 1996. But it is clear from his case that when the wave of Havana syndrome injuries began in 2016, US intelligence agencies knew more than they admitted to. It took a three-year campaign by CIA and state department employees targeted by the attacks to have their illnesses taken seriously. “That it’s taken me three years to get treatment is disgraceful, ethically and morally,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior officer in the CIA’s clandestine service. He was visiting Moscow in 2017, as the deputy chief of operations of the CIA’s Europe and Eurasia mission centre. “I was woken up in the middle of the night with an incredible case of vertigo,” he said. “My head was spinning, incredible nausea, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom and throw up. It was just a terrifying moment … Since that incident, I have had a headache 24/7 for three years and there’s a mental health challenge in this too.” He is convinced Russia is behind the attacks, and that it is the unnamed country in the Beck case. The new CIA director, William Burns, told Congress last month that he had appointed a senior officer to run a taskforce. Polymeropoulos, who is being treated at Walter Reed military hospital, said he was cautiously optimistic. “Under Bill Burns, there seems to be a sea change. We have to see actions now, not just words. But I have hope.” Michael Beck is still fighting for workers’ compensation. The Department of Labor has turned down his claim but the one-year window for appeal is still open. “I’m not suing anyone,” he said. “I’m just looking for what’s right out of this.”

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