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Mystery illnesses strike near White House

Published: May. 18, 2021 at 7:04 AM CDT
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(CNN) - Federal investigators are trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious syndrome that targeted two officials near the White House.

The syndrome has actually been happening for years and has made more than 100 U.S. diplomats and troops sick.

At the president’s doorstep, two mysterious incidents have intelligence officials scrambling.

Multiple sources said two White House officials were struck by a mysterious illness, one hit while they were near an entrance to the White House grounds, the other while they were passing through a gate near the ellipse, on the south side of the white house.

Both were National Security Council officials, and both incidents occurred in November, sources said.

The cases were consistent with a series of strange, debilitating attacks against more than 100 U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel.

One theory claims they came from directed microwave signals.

“But there’s also a psychological impact to this in terms of how this attack was launched and why this specific location was chosen. That’s sending a message that we can get to you this close to the White House,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent.

It’s called “Havana syndrome” because the unexplained symptoms started with U.S. diplomatic officials in Cuba about five years ago.

But similar attacks also occurred against American diplomats and intelligence officers in Russia, China and elsewhere.

Symptoms include ear-popping, vertigo, pounding headaches and nausea.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, says he was hit while in a Moscow hotel in 2017.

“I woke up in the middle of the night with an incredible case of vertigo,” he said. “The room was spinning. I wanted to throw up and go to the bathroom, and I had never experienced anything like this. I had tinnitus. My ears were ringing.”

Polymeropoulos says he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after that attack and had to retire from the CIA.

“I rather would have been shot,” he said.

Who or what is the perpetrator? Current and former U.S. officials say it could be Russia or China but that this is largely circumstantial.

According to U.S. intelligence documents, Russia has been developing microwave weapons for years.

“The people who are best at this are the Russians,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer. “They’re quite amazing, their engineers. I would suspect it’s the Russians, and it’s a flat-out intelligence operation rather than to harm anybody.”

Russian officials have vehemently denied responsibility for the attacks, as have Chinese and Cuban officials.

Experts said they don’t believe President Joe Biden is in danger from such an attack while he’s inside the White House.

But what about when he ventures out?

“If in the very low probability that that threat would present itself to the President, the time to exposure would be minimal with quick reaction by the Secret Service,” Wackrow said.

The Biden administration has ramped up efforts to find out what’s causing the illnesses, and CIA Director Bill Burns has started to get daily briefings on the matter.

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