US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’

A view of the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where officials and staff reported cases of brain injuries and other symptoms in the last few years. (AP file)
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Updated 02 March 2023
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US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’

  • There were suspicions that Russia was behind the hundreds of cases of brain injuries and other symptoms reported in the US Embassy in Havana and elsewhere
  • Investigators reviewed 1,500 cases in 96 countries and concluded that there were no evidence pointing to the involvement of foreign adversaries in the ailments

WASHINGTON: US intelligence agencies cannot link a foreign adversary to any of the incidents associated with so-called “Havana syndrome,” the hundreds of cases of brain injuries and other symptoms reported by American personnel around the world.
The findings released Wednesday by US intelligence officials cast doubt on the longstanding suspicions by many people who reported cases that Russia or another country may have been running a global campaign to harass or attack Americans using some form of directed energy.
Most of the cases investigated appear to have different causes, from environmental factors to undiagnosed illnesses, said the officials, who say they have not found a single explanation for most or all of the reports.
Instead, officials say, there is evidence that foreign countries were not involved. In some cases, the US detected among adversarial governments confusion about the allegations and suspicions that Havana syndrome was an American plot. And investigators found “no credible evidence” that any adversary had obtained a weapon that could cause the reported symptoms or a listening device that might inadvertently injure people.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to respond to Havana syndrome cases from government personnel who have reported injuries and their advocates, including members of Congress. President Joe Biden in 2021 signed into law the HAVANA Act, which provided compensation to people deemed to have sustained injuries consistent with what the government calls “anomalous health incidents.”
Affected people have reported headaches, dizziness and other symptoms often linked to traumatic brain injuries. Some US employees have left government due to the severity of their illnesses.
“Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our workforce,” said Maher Bitar, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, in a statement. “Since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration, we have focused on ensuring that our colleagues have access to the care and support they need.”
Mark Zaid, a lawyer for more than two dozen people who have reported injuries, said the new assessment lacked transparency and left key questions unanswered.
“Until the shrouds of secrecy are lifted and the analysis that led to today’s assertions are available and subject to proper challenge, the alleged conclusions are substantively worthless,” he said in a statement. “But the damage it has caused to the morale of the victims, particularly by deflecting from the government’s failure to evaluate all the evidence, is real and must be condemned.”
Authorities in Havana said the findings reflect what Cuba has repeatedly stated: that no attacks occurred.
“We’re not surprised,” Johana Tablada, deputy director of the US division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press.
Tablada noted that former US President Donald Trump used the alleged attacks as an excuse to radically tighten sanctions against Cuba, including the partial paralysis of its consular services for more than five years. She said that, because of unfounded accusations, “very harsh measures were taken against our people in Cuba and in the United States that harmed Cuban families, exchanges between our countries (and) caused a downward spiral (of ties) that was practically irreversible.”
Two officials familiar with the assessment briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the US Director of National Intelligence.
Investigators reviewed roughly 1,500 cases in 96 countries. Many of those cases, officials said, have been linked to other potential explanations aside from a foreign campaign: medical illnesses, malfunctioning air conditioning and ventilation systems, or electromagnetic waves coming from benign devices like a computer mouse. And some people may have come forward to report symptoms based on what they had heard about other cases or the exhaustive media reports about Havana syndrome, officials said.
A core group of roughly two dozen cases identified in an interim assessment published last year has been exhaustively studied, officials said. None of the cases was linked to an attack by an adversary.
The officials stressed their investigation was exhaustive, with participation from seven US agencies. One official described reviewing a report from an American who reported having possibly been hit by a car while driving. US investigators tracked down the car and the driver and investigated that person’s family connections and any foreign travel, the official said.
Some leads were followed for as long as nine months, the official said.
Officials briefing reporters declined to say how the latest assessment, first reported by The Washington Post, may affect payments under the HAVANA Act. The State Department has compensated affected employees with one-time payments from $100,000 to $200,000.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee insisted that “there should be no change” to compensation while they review the assessment.
“We will seek to ensure the review was conducted with the highest degree of analytical rigor and that it considered all the available intelligence and perspectives, documenting all substantial differences in analysis,” said Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, in their statement.
Havana syndrome cases date to a series of reported brain injuries in 2016 at the US Embassy in Cuba. Incidents have been reported by diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel in the Washington area and at global postings. Russia has long been suspected by some intelligence officers of using directed energy devices to attack US personnel.
But the CIA last year said it believed it was unlikely that Russia or another foreign adversary had used microwaves or other forms of directed energy to attack American officials. The agency has faced criticism from those who have reported cases and from advocates who accuse the government of long dismissing the array of ailments.
Even with the lack of answers and attributions of responsibility, officials have sought to stress their commitment to victims’ health.
“I want to be absolutely clear: these findings do not call into question the experiences and real health issues that US government personnel and their family members — including CIA’s own officers — have reported while serving our country,” said CIA Director William Burns in a statement. “We will continue to remain alert to any risks to the health and wellbeing of Agency officers, to ensure access to care, and to provide officers the compassion and respect they deserve.”
 


US Supreme Court’s move to hear Trump’s immunity claim gives him gift of delay

Updated 11 sec ago
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US Supreme Court’s move to hear Trump’s immunity claim gives him gift of delay

  • Trump’s lawyers have argued that he should be shielded from prosecution for his effort to reverse President Joe Biden’s election victory over him because he was president when he took those actions
  • Some legal experts criticized the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three Trump appointees, for undue delay

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court appears likely to reject Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for trying to undo his 2020 election loss, according to legal experts, but its decision to spend months on the matter could aid his quest to regain the presidency by further delaying a monumental criminal trial.
Trump’s lawyers have argued that he should be shielded from prosecution for his effort to reverse President Joe Biden’s election victory over him because he was president when he took those actions, a sweeping assertion of immunity firmly rejected by lower courts.
But the Supreme Court’s decision not to schedule its arguments on the issue until late April reduces the chances that a trial on election subversion charges brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith could be finished before the Nov. 5 US election. Trump is cruising toward the Republican nomination to challenge Biden, a Democrat.
Some legal experts criticized the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority includes three Trump appointees, for undue delay.
“They could have set a more aggressive briefing and argument schedule, as Smith requested,” University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman said. “The immunity claims are also outlandish. They could have been rejected on the papers (legal briefs) if they wanted to be the one to decide it.”
“They’ll reject his immunity bid,” Litman added, but forecast that the soonest a decision would come is May.
Legal experts said the justices would need to rule by about June 1 to leave enough time for Trump’s trial on the charges to wrap up before Election Day.
Smith, seeking to avoid trial delays, had asked the justices on Dec. 11 to launch a fast-track review of the immunity claim. Trump asked the justices to not expedite the review, and on Dec. 22 they did what he requested, opting to let the matter play out in a lower court rather than resolving it right away.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Feb. 6 upheld US District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s Dec. 1 ruling rejecting the immunity claim. Trump on Feb. 12 asked the Supreme Court to freeze the D.C. Circuit ruling. On Feb. 14, Smith asked the justices to reject Trump’s bid to further delay the matter. It took the court two more weeks before it announced it would hear arguments in the matter, which it scheduled for the week of April 22.
The trial had been scheduled to start on March 4 before the delays over the immunity issue. Now no trial date is set.

Four prosecutions
The case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces. A March 25 trial date has been set on charges in state court in New York involving hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. It is unclear when the other criminal cases will go to trial.
Trump has pleaded not guilty in all four cases, seeking to portray them as politically motivated.
“I should not have to go through any fake prosecutions before the election,” Trump wrote on social media on Feb. 19.
A criminal conviction could harm Trump’s election chances. In Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls, a quarter of Republicans and half of independents said they would not vote for Trump if a jury convicted him of a felony.
If he is elected and becomes president again next January, he could order an end to this case and a second brought by Smith concerning Trump’s handling of classified documents — or seek to pardon himself for any federal convictions.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked with Trump during the 2020 campaign, said of the delays in the trial timeline as the Supreme Court resolves the immunity matter: “It’s hard to overstate what a victory this is politically for the Trump legal team and for Donald Trump.”
“This is a great benefit to Trump in terms of the timeline of these cases, and how they may interact with the election, particularly in the fall,” O’Connell said.

Slowing things down
University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade, a former senior federal prosecutor appointed by President Barack Obama, said that a time frame for the election subversion trial “is manageable as long as the Supreme Court acts promptly, and remains mindful of the public’s right to a speedy trial.”
McQuade added that “it seems likely that the court will uphold the D.C. Circuit ruling against Trump.”
“I think that Trump’s arguments are pretty thin,” added Georgetown University law professor Erica Hashimoto.
Chutkan has promised to give Trump about 90 days to prepare for trial once the case returns to her courtroom, with a trial expected to last six to eight weeks. For a verdict to come before the election, the trial would need to start by around Sept. 1, McQuade said.
UCLA School of Law elections expert Richard Hasen said that if the Supreme Court’s ruling comes in late June, “it is not at all clear that there could be a trial before the election.”
“I’m also skeptical the judge would make Trump go to trial if he’s the general election candidate on the Republican side,” Hasen added.
Hasen forecast that the Supreme Court “is likely to reject Trump’s immunity argument on the merits.”
Delaying the trial gives Trump more time to rally supporters around his claim that the charges were politically motivated, an assertion that Reuters/Ipsos polls show is broadly held by Republican voters.
Some experts cite Trump’s long-established record of making strategic use of court delays for legal and political advantage.
Hasen noted that “given the weakness of Trump’s position, it’s reasonable to ask whether this is simply an attempt, now more likely to be successful, to run out the clock.”

 


Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

Updated 53 min 13 sec ago
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Alexei Navalny to be buried in Moscow amid uncertainty, tight security

  • The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death

MOSCOW: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny will be buried in Moscow later on Friday amid tight security and fears of a police crackdown two weeks after he suddenly died at the age of 47 in an Arctic penal colony.
Navalny’s allies — who have promised to livestream the day’s events online — have accused President Vladimir Putin of having him murdered because the Russian leader could allegedly not tolerate the thought of Navalny being freed in a potential prisoner swap.
They have not published proof to back up that accusation, but have promised to set out how he was murdered and by whom.
The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death and has said it is unaware of any agreement to free Navalny. His death certificate — according to allies — said he died of natural causes.
Navalny, a former lawyer, mounted the most determined political challenge against Putin since the Russian leader came to power at the end of 1999, organizing street protests and publishing high-profile investigations into the alleged corruption of some in the ruling elite.
But a series of criminal charges for fraud and extremism — which Navalny said were politically-motivated — saw him handed jail sentences of over 30 years and most of his supporters have either fled the country or are in jail.
Navalny decided to return to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for what Western doctors said was poisoning with a nerve agent only to be immediately taken into custody.
Putin, who controls all the levers of state and is expected to be comfortably re-elected for another six-year term in two weeks, has yet to comment on Navalny’s death and has for years avoided mentioning him by name.
Though Navalny is well known in the West, state TV inside Russia did not mention him for years either and when it did it was brief and in a negative light.
A religious service for Navalny is due to be held at 1400 local time in the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in the Moscow district of Maryino where Navalny used to live.
He is then scheduled to be buried at the Borisovskoye cemetery, around 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away on the other side of the Moskva River two hours later.
Navalny’s allies, who are outside Russia and have been designated as US-backed extremists by the authorities, have called on people who want to honor his memory but cannot attend his funeral service to instead go to certain landmarks in their own towns on Friday evening at 7 p.m. local time.
The Kremlin has dismissed statements by his allies as provocative and warned that the police will uphold the law.
Judging from previous gatherings of Navalny supporters, a heavy police presence is likely and the authorities will break up anything they deem to resemble a political demonstration under protest laws.
Navalny’s wife Yulia, with whom he had two children, has said she is unsure whether the funeral itself will pass off peacefully or whether police will arrest attendees. She is outside Russia.
Navalny’s mother Lyudmila, 69, is expected to attend his funeral. It is unclear who else will be allowed into the church for the service.
Navalny was a Christian who condemned Putin’s decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine as a crazy enterprise built on lies. But the church that will host his funeral has donated to the Russian army and enthusiastically advertised its backing for the war.
In the run-up to his funeral, his allies accused the authorities of blocking their plans to hold a bigger civil memorial service and said unknown individuals had even managed to thwart their attempts to hire a hearse to transport him to his own funeral.
The Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Navalny’s funeral arrangements.


First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

Updated 01 March 2024
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First US moon lander in half a century stops working a week after tipping over at touchdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: The first US spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo astronauts fell silent Thursday, a week after breaking a leg at touchdown and tipping over near the lunar south pole.
Intuitive Machines’ lander, Odysseus, lasted longer than the company anticipated after it ended up on its side with hobbled solar power and communication.
The end came as flight controllers received one last photo from Odysseus and commanded its computer and power systems to standby. That way, the lander can wake up in another two to three weeks — if it survives the bitterly cold lunar night. Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said these final steps drained the lander’s batteries and put Odysseus “down for a long nap.”
“Good night, Odie. We hope to hear from you again,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.
Before losing power, Odysseus sent back what Intuitive Machines called “a fitting farewell transmission.”
Taken just before touchdown, the picture shows the bottom of the lander on the moon’s pockmarked surface, with a tiny crescent Earth and a small sun in the background.
The lander was originally intended to last about a week at the moon.
Houston-based Intuitive Machines became the first private business to land a spacecraft on the moon without crashing when Odysseus touched down Feb. 22. Only five countries had achieved that since the 1960s, including Japan, which made a sideways landing last month.
Odysseus carried six experiments for NASA, which paid $118 million for the ride. The first company to take part in NASA’s program for commercial lunar deliveries never made it to the moon; its lander came crashing back to Earth in January.
NASA views these private landers as scouts that will pave the way for astronauts due to arrive in another few years.
Until Odysseus, the last US moon landing was by Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

Ukraine forces claim downing record number of Russian jets in February

Updated 01 March 2024
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Ukraine forces claim downing record number of Russian jets in February

  • Says 10 SU-34, two Su-35 fighter jets and an A-50 aircraft had been shot down in February
  • Russian military bloggers and the British defense ministry had also mentioned downed A-50 planes

KYIV: Ukraine said Thursday it had destroyed a record number of Russian planes in February, at a time when ground forces are under increased pressure in the east.

AFP was unable to verify the claims and Russian authorities do not comment.
“Our sky defenders have achieved the greatest results in downing Russian jets since October 2022,” the Ukrainian defense ministry said.
It said 10 SU-34, two Su-35 fighter jets and an A-50 aircraft had been shot down in February.
The tally included three Su-34s downed overnight which were “launching guided missiles at our infantry positions in the east,” ground forces commander Oleksandr Pavliuk said.
Ukraine had said it had shot down another A-50 plane in January.
The claims are hard to verify, but Russian military bloggers had mentioned the destruction of the A-50 aircraft — although they blamed friendly fire.
Russian military bloggers, who have sources in the armed forces, often publish exclusive information, contrary to government sources and Russian state media outlets.
The British defense ministry on Tuesday also mentioned two A-50 downed, noting the incidents “forced Russian decision makers to consider safer operating areas.”
Two years into the invasion, Ukraine has said its priority was to “throw Russia from the skies.”
Ukraine is expecting the delivery of F-16 fighter jets supplied by its Western allies.

 

 


US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

Updated 01 March 2024
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US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

  • Republican Senator Rand Paul sought to block the sale, saying it would embolden Turkiye for its “misbehavior"
  • Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally

WASHINGTON: The US Senate on Thursday soundly defeated an effort to stop the $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to Turkiye, which President Joe Biden’s administration approved after Turkiye approved Sweden’s joining the NATO alliance.
As voting continued, the tally was 78 to 13 against a resolution of disapproval of the sale introduced by Republican Senator Rand Paul.
Before the vote, Paul criticized Turkiye’s government and said allowing the sale would embolden its “misbehavior.” Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally.
The Biden administration formally informed Congress on Jan. 26 of its intention to proceed with the sale of 40 Lockheed Martin F-16s and nearly 80 modernization kits to Turkiye, a day after Ankara fully completed ratification of the NATO membership of Sweden.
The sale had been held up for months over issues including Turkiye’s refusal to approve Sweden’s accession to the military alliance. Turkiye first asked to make the purchase in October 2021.
The US Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the law has been in effect for half a century, no such resolution has both passed Congress and survived a presidential veto.
Sweden and Finland applied to enter NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. While Finnish membership was sealed last year, Sweden’s bid had been held up by Turkiye and Hungary. All NATO members need to approve applications from countries seeking to join the alliance.