Marc Polymeropoulos was a senior CIA case officer on a routine visit to Moscow in 2017 when he woke up in his hotel room with a severe case of vertigo.
His first inclination was that he had food poisoning and that the symptoms would soon disappear. Instead, it was the beginning of a poignant affliction that would last for years and ultimately force him out of the CIA.
“It’s incredibly unsettling,” Polymeropoulos said of that night. “The room was spinning. I couldn’t get up. I was falling. I felt like I was going to get physically sick. He had ringing in his ears. Then I knew that something very significant had happened. “
Polymeropoulos had been the victim of “Havana syndrome,” a debilitating affliction first suffered in 2016 by staff at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba. The mysterious symptoms “are consistent with the effects of directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy,” according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published last December, leading many to believe they are the result. attacks with a microwave weapon or directed energy device.
The US intelligence community does not officially know more now than it did five years ago.
After more than 40 cases were reported from Havana, the number of affected US officials around the world rose to 130, including incidents on US soil.
Last month, new information about two US officials affected by the Havana syndrome was revealed near the White House.
Polymeropoulos said he believes Russia is behind the attacks because they have the capacity to carry out these attacks and that many of the affected officials were involved in Russian operations. He said the attacks appear to be in line with Russia’s treatment of American diplomats.
“There has been a long list of American officials who have developed some pretty serious health symptoms after serving in Moscow,” he said. “That is something that is also worth looking at again. Whether it’s the old kind of signals intelligence systems that got too high or the old spy dust, you know, the Russians are very aggressive against US government personnel. “
However, he said this is just his theory. He is not involved in the ongoing investigation into the matter and is unaware of the secret discussions about the alleged attacks.
The episodes also occurred with American diplomats in China.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees recently held closed-door hearings on the Havana syndrome. Representatives for both parties declined to comment on the closed discussions, but a spokesman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner said the senator “welcomes the CI’s renewed focus on these mysterious attacks and will continue to work with the IC to understand the cause and attribution “.
In a joint statement after the hearing, Mr. Warner and Florida committee vice chair Marco Rubio pledged to find the culprit.
“Ultimately, we will identify those responsible for these attacks on US personnel and hold them accountable,” they said.
The State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon have launched investigations. The National Security Council has begun leading what it called a government-wide investigation into the anomalies. No official determination has been made on the cause or who may be behind it.
“The Intelligence Community is taking these anomalous health incidents (IAH) very seriously and is committed to investigating the origin of these incidents, preventing them from continuing and attending to those affected,” said a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence. “For now, we do not have definitive information on the cause of these incidents, and it is premature and irresponsible to speculate.”
The intelligence community has not determined whether a foreign actor is responsible, but spy agencies have redoubled their efforts in recent months, the spokesman said.
Polymeropoulos said he understands why the intelligence community is taking a methodical approach. For him, however, supporting those affected by the attacks has priority.
With so little understanding of these attacks, Mr. Polymeropoulos’s journey to receive the treatment he needed for his injuries was a long one.
After spending most of his career as a case officer in the Middle East, he said he did not expect to find a career-ending attack on his trip to Moscow, especially from within the walls of his five-star hotel nearby. from the United States embassy. As the symptoms persisted, she knew she was experiencing something more serious than food poisoning. Symptoms continued after he returned to the US.
He reported his symptoms to the CIA Office of Medical Services shortly after returning.
“I couldn’t even go to work more than several hours a day due to headaches, dizziness and mental confusion,” he said.
With no treatment available to him, Polymeropoulos decided to withdraw from the agency in 2019 and, still seeking treatment, hired an attorney to pressure the agency.
“I want nothing more than to get to Walter Reed,” he said he told his attorney and other high-ranking former agency officials who intervened on his behalf. “And that was communicated to the CIA in a very specific way. And it worked.”
He said he had no interest in receiving a financial settlement. He only wanted treatment, which the agency refused.
In October 2020, Polymeropoulos took the unusual step for someone who had spent an entire career in the shadows and reached out to GQ journalist Julia Ioffe to make her case public.
He said he was heartbroken by the decision to go public. He had told the agency that he would, and said they weren’t surprised, but he didn’t make the decision lightly after a 26-year career.
“It caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. Many people I work with, my former colleagues, were very upset with me and they certainly rejected me after that. “
But it finally worked.
After the story was published, there was enough public pressure and the agency agreed to send him to a month-long program at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence, he said.
When he arrived, he was not only carrying the symptoms of the attack, but also with a persistent anxiety that he attributed to not being believed. The program was helpful not only in dealing with the headaches, he said, but also in dealing with what he describes as the moral damage of feeling rejected.
He felt that his claims were finally validated.
Polymeropoulos attributes the agency’s denials to what he describes as a leadership failure on the part of the Office of Medical Services. But he said current CIA director William J. Burns has taken a different approach. Mr. Burns pledged at his confirmation hearing to prioritize the attacks, and the agency has established a task force to further examine the incidents.
“I think he just understands leadership,” Polymeropoulos said of Burns. “The United States government asked me to do some really unique things as a CIA operations officer, but I always knew that you have this pact with the leadership that they would back me up if something went wrong. And they really didn’t. And I think he understands that they should have. “
Polymeropoulos also credits lawmakers for beginning their investigation into the incidents and for taking the allegations seriously.
Last month, Senators Susan Collins, Mark Warner, Marco Rubio, and Jeanne Shaheen introduced the HAVANA Act, which aims to provide financial support to those injured in the attacks.
“This is the way the system is supposed to work,” Polymeropoulos said when discussing congressional oversight. “I think it is an effort to correct some mistakes that were made. I and others who have been affected are incredibly grateful to the senators and members of the House on both sides of the aisle. “