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Growing mystery of suspected energy attacks draws US concern
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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is facing new pressure to resolve a mystery that has vexed its predecessors: Is an adversary using a microwave or radio wave weapon to attack the brains of U.S. diplomats, spies and military personnel?

The number of reported cases of possible attack is sharply growing and lawmakers from both parties, as well as those believed to be affected, are demanding answers. But scientists and government officials aren’t yet certain about who might have been behind any attacks, if the symptoms could have been caused inadvertently by surveillance equipment — or if the incidents were actually attacks.

Whatever an official review concludes could have enormous consequences. Confirmation that a U.S. adversary has been conducting damaging attacks against U.S. personnel would unleash calls for a forceful response by the United States.

For now, the administration is providing assurances that it takes the matter seriously, is investigating aggressively and will make sure those affected have good medical care.

The problem has been labeled the “Havana Syndrome,” because the first cases affected personnel in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. At least 130 cases across the government are now under investigation, up from several dozen last year, according to a U.S. defense official who was not authorized to discuss details publicly. The National Security Council is leading the investigation.

People who are believed to have been affected have reported headaches, dizziness and symptoms consistent with concussions, with some requiring months of medical treatment. Some have reported hearing a loud noise before the sudden onset of symptoms.

Particularly alarming are revelations of at least two possible incidents in the Washington area, including one case near the White House in November in which an official reported dizziness.

The new higher number of possible cases was first reported by The New York Times. CNN first reported the case near the White House and an additional incident in November.

Advocates for those affected accuse the U.S. government of long failing to take the problem seriously or provide the necessary medical care and benefits.

“The government has a much better understanding of it than it has let on,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who represents several people affected. Zaid has obtained National Security Agency documents noting it has information dating to the late 1990s about an unidentified “hostile country” possibly having a microwave weapon “to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time.”

Chris Miller, the acting defense secretary during the last months of the Trump administration, created a Pentagon team to investigate the suspected attacks. That was after he met a soldier late last year who described how, while serving in a country Miller wouldn’t identify, he had heard a “shrieking” sound and then had a splitting headache.

“He was well-trained, extremely well-trained, and he’d been in combat before,” Miller told The Associated Press. “This is an American, a member of the Department of Defense. At that point, you can’t ignore that.”

Defense and intelligence officials have publicly promised to push for answers and better care for people with symptoms. Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Defense Department spokesman, said the causes of any incidents “are areas of active inquiry.” Officials have not identified a suspected country, though some people affected suspect Russian involvement.

CIA Director William Burns testified before Congress that he would make the investigation “a very high priority to ensure that my colleagues get the care that they deserve and that we get to the bottom of what caused these incidents and who was responsible.”

Burns receives daily updates on the investigation, which covers employees who have reported cases this year. He has met with those reporting injuries as have other top CIA officials. The agency has worked to reduce the wait time for its employees to receive outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The CIA also replaced its chief medical officer with a doctor seen internally as more sympathetic to possible cases.

“We were treated so awfully in the past,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year CIA veteran who was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury following a 2017 visit to Russia. “Now they’re putting people in place who not only believe us but are going to advocate for our health care.”

One key analysis identified “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” as the most plausible culprit. Published in December by the National Academy of Sciences, the report said a radio frequency attack could alter brain function without causing “gross structural damage.” But the panel could not make a definitive finding on how U.S. personnel may have been hit.

And a declassified 2018 State Department report cited “a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communications, and systemic disorganization” in responding to the Havana cases. The report says the cause of the injuries was “currently unknown.” The document was published by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

The report also noted that the CIA ultimately closed its Havana station, a victory for a potential adversary.

Dr. James Giordano, a neurology professor at Georgetown University, consulted with the State Department on the Havana cases and has been briefed on more recent incidents in the U.S. and abroad. In reviewing records of people affected in Havana, Giordano noted evidence of neurological injuries in several people, suggesting they may have been hit with radio waves.

He identified two possible culprits: a device intentionally used to target potential victims or a tool that used directed energy waves to conduct surveillance that may have unintentionally harmed the people targeted. One of the November attacks outside the White House had “substantial similarities” to the Havana cases, Giordano said, adding that he was not authorized by the government to be more specific.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to fake or misrepresent certain findings to objective clinical evaluations,” Giordano said. “I mean, there are certain things you can’t make your nerves do or not do.”

Other scientists remain skeptical. Dr. Robert Baloh of the University of California, Los Angeles, argued that scans of healthy people’s brains sometimes display mini-strokes and that any possible weapon would be too large or require too much power to be deployed without detection.

Baloh said the growing number of cases considered directed energy attacks is actually linked to “mass psychogenic illness,” in which people learning of others with symptoms begin to feel sick themselves.

“Many people are hearing about it and that’s how it gets propagated,” Baloh said.

Lawmakers from both parties are pushing the Biden administration to take this seriously. A bill introduced in both the House and Senate on Wednesday would bolster the payment of disability benefits for traumatic brain injuries suffered in the incidents.

“There’s no greater priority than ensuring the health and safety of our people, and the anomalous health incidents that have afflicted our personnel around the world are of grave concern,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement. Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican, said the people reporting symptoms “were apparently subject to attack.”

Polymeropoulos, the former CIA officer, said he believed the U.S. would ultimately identify what was behind the incidents and who is responsible.

“The actual intelligence is going to take us to the truth on this,” he said. “If we find that a certain adversary did this, there’s going to be uncomfortable decisions on what to do.”

Updated Marion County Courthouse celebrates grand re-opening

JEFFERSON — The Marion County Courthouse showed off its $5.7 million renovation and update Saturday to dozens of guests who gathered to celebrate the grand re-opening of the historical building.

Judges, county commissioners and guests from across the state gathered to mark the end of the project that was more than 20 years in the making.

The renovation was funded through a $4.7 million grant awarded in 2018 from the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. The remaining $1 million paid by the county.

“We have been trying for this grant for almost 20 years,” Marion County Judge Leward LaFleur said previously about the grant. “Others long before me began working on this, and the county commissioners managed to save and set aside $1 million for matching renovation costs throughout the past 20 years so we could get the grant.”

Those other county judges, Lex Jones, Phil Parker and Gene Terry, were present Saturday, along with other district and county judges from surrounding counties.

The renovation project, which lasted nearly three years, was overseen by Komatsu Architecture in Fort Worth and Joe R. Jones Construction in Weatherford. The Texas Historical Commission ensured the historical accuracy of the renovations.

“We’re just really excited to finally put a 20-year project behind us,” LaFleur said. “I want to thank the hard work of everyone in this county and everyone that came before me. This was truly a community project.”

Saturday’s ceremony included a ribbon cutting, which was conducted by local historian Marcia Thomas, whose great-grandfather served as a commissioner on the county commission that erected the building in 1913.

The downtown Jefferson landmark at 102 W. Austin St. is back in operation and fully staffed for county government business. The offices were temporarily moved during the renovation process.

The 37,500-square-foot, three-story building designed by Architect Elmer G. Withers houses the offices of the county judge, commissioners, treasurer, county clerk, county auditor, district attorney and district clerk.

The full interior and exterior renovation project saw most of the original features of the building restored, including the granite flooring on the second floor, the granite walls on the second floor, the judge’s bench in the courtroom on the top floor, a spiral staircase in the first floor “dungeon” that historically served as the records storage room, the seven original safes throughout the courthouse building and the molding along the top of the ceiling in the judge’s courtroom.

Gift benefits Kilgore College Electric Power Technology students

From staff reports

Charles and Mrs. Jo Ann Whiteside recently gave a donation for facility upgrades to the Kilgore College Electric Power Technology program that will help students continue to climb poles and flip switches safely in their pursuit of high-paying careers throughout the region, according to the college.

Known as “phenomenal friends of Kilgore College,” the couple has supported the college since Charles Whiteside’s days as a chemistry instructor at the college in the late 1960s, the college said in a statement. He transitioned from teaching to running his start-up business, Ana-Lab Corp., a full-service environmental research facility in Kilgore, in 1971.

College President Brenda Kays said the Whitesides have been monumental supporters of the Laird Hospital project, internet infrastructure improvements and facilities as a whole.

“His donations have meant that our electric power training field is top-notch,” she said.

D’Wayne Shaw, dean of public services and industrial technologies, recalled the Electric Power Technology program moving to its location on the training field in Overton three years ago, “with one storage building, a trailer full of parts and equipment, and a few donated poles.”

“With the support of the KC board of trustees and administration, and donors like Dr. and Mrs. Whiteside, we have come a long way to making this the crown jewel of electrical training facilities,” Shaw said. “This is an outstanding place for training.”

The facility encompasses 4 acres and more than 30 training poles with transformers, trucks and other equipment.

The original goal of the 10-week training program came about in 2008 when a group of service providers foresaw a vast shortage of workers in this field, according to the college. Now, administrators are seeing students hired soon after graduating.

Whiteside has been a member of the Upshur Rural Electric Co-Op Board for more than 25 years.

“That position has influenced my support, but really I just love Kilgore College,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest junior college in the world, and I love to help out. I hope I’m not through yet.”

Iran official says nuke inspector deal expired; talks go on
  • Updated

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s hard-line parliament speaker said Sunday a temporary deal between Tehran and international inspectors to preserve surveillance images taken at nuclear sites had ended, escalating tensions amid diplomatic efforts to save the Islamic Republic’s atomic accord with world powers.

As fellow hard-liners demanded Iran delete the images, officials delayed an earlier-planned news conference by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. That signaled negotiations between the United Nations agency and Tehran will continue through Sunday night.

The last-minute discussions further underscored the narrowing window for the U.S. and others to reach terms with Iran. The Islamic Republic is already enriching and stockpiling uranium at levels far beyond those allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s hard-line parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February. The IAEA struck a three-month deal with Iran in February to have it hold the surveillance images, with Tehran threatening to delete them afterward if no deal had been reached.

That three-month deadline expired Friday under the Gregorian calendar. Under the Persian calendar, however, the three-month deadline comes on Monday.

On Sunday morning during a session of parliament, speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf announced the deal had expired. He said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state, supported the decision to see the deal as void.

“After these three months, the International Atomic Energy Agency definitely won’t have the right to access the camera footage or transfer them,” he said.

Qalibaf, a member of Iran’s top Supreme National Security Council, previously preempted another nuclear program announcement in April as well.

Hours later, however, a website called Nournews that’s believed to be close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council quoted an anonymous official suggesting Tehran’s deal with the IAEA could be extended “another month.”

The nuclear negotiations have been plagued by contradictory, anonymously leaked information coming from Iran. It’s likely a sign of the conflict between the administration of the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, the relatively moderate cleric who clinched the 2015 deal, and the hard-liners now seeking to replace him.

In Vienna, the IAEA had said its Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi would brief journalists Sunday afternoon on Iran. The agency said Sunday night that the briefing would be delayed as consultations between the IAEA and Iran continued.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the images from February until Saturday had been deleted. Before Qalibaf’s remarks, lawmaker Ali Reza Salimi urged an open session of parliament to ensure Iran’s civilian nuclear arm “erased” the images. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country’s civilian atomic agency, did not immediately comment on the decision.

“Order the head of the Atomic Energy Organization to avoid delay,” said Salimi, a cleric from Iran’s central city of Delijan. The “recorded images in the cameras should be eliminated.”

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the agency said in 2017.

It also wasn’t clear what this meant for in-person inspections by the IAEA. There are 18 nuclear facilities and nine other locations in Iran under IAEA safeguards.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. unilaterally out of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. An escalating series of incidents since Trump’s withdrawal has threatened the wider Mideast.

Over a year ago, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general, causing Tehran to later launch ballistic missiles that wounded dozens of American troops in Iraq.

A mysterious explosion also struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran has described as sabotage. In November, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who founded the country’s military nuclear program some two decades earlier, was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.

President Joe Biden has said he’s willing for the U.S. to re-enter the nuclear deal. Weeks of negotiations in Vienna have been described as positive, though no draft agreements have been released. The U.S. also is not directly talking to Iran in the sessions.

Speaking Sunday to ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Iran as taking “destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East.” However, he said in order to counter that, “the first thing that we need to do is put the nuclear problem back in the box.”

“What we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do,” Blinken said. “That’s the test and we don’t yet have an answer.”