Ian Morton / NPR
CIA Director William Burns said he had redoubled his efforts to uncover the cause of Havana Syndrome – the mysterious set of illnesses that plagued more than 200 U.S. officials and their family members in the world.
This includes the assignment of a senior officer who once conducted the search for Osama bin Laden to lead an investigative team that has tripled in size, Burns told NPR on Thursday in his first interview since he was called. was confirmed as head of the agency in March.
“I am absolutely determined – and I have devoted a lot of time and energy to this during the four months that I have been director of the CIA – to get to the bottom of the question of what and who caused this. “said Burns. .
In an extensive exclusive interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, Burns also discussed the agency’s future in Afghanistan and the theory that the coronavirus was caused by a leak from a Chinese state laboratory in Wuhan. .
He called the present moment a “really important moment of transition in the world.”
“We are no longer the only big kid in the geopolitical bloc, especially with the rise of China. And as you very well know, there is a technological revolution which is transforming the way we live, work, compete and fight. And so the CIA, like everyone in the US government, has to take this into account, ”he said.
Havana Syndrome is ‘real, and it’s serious,’ says Burns
Under Burns’ leadership, the agency tripled the number of full-time medical staff at the CIA who focus on Havana Syndrome and shortened the waiting period for afflicted staff to be admitted to the military medical center. National Walter Reed.
“I have no doubt that what our officers and some of their families, as well as other US government employees have experienced, is real and serious,” Burns said.
The director says he is seriously considering the “very strong possibility” that the syndrome is the result of intentional actions, adding that there are a limited number of “potential suspects” with the capacity to take action so widely across the board. world. A report last December from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which found that microwave radiation is the “most plausible” explanation for the symptoms.
To lead the Syndrome Investigating Task Force, Burns appointed a veteran officer who helped lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The identity of this officer is still a secret, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“We are giving our best to this problem, because it is not only a very serious problem for our colleagues, as it is for others in the US government, but it is an obligation. deep, I think, of any leader to take care of your people, ”Burns said.
The syndrome – which could include migraine headaches, dizziness, and memory loss as symptoms – first appeared in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, where more than 40 diplomats have since complained of the symptoms. .
In the years that followed, dozens of additional cases were reported at U.S. diplomatic facilities in China, Russia, Europe and Central Asia. As recently as last week, the Biden administration announced it was “vigorously investigating” reports of possible new cases in Vienna.
Officials say they are still not clear on what causes the syndrome.
“Here’s the harsh reality right now: We don’t know what caused these incidents. We don’t know who, if any, is really responsible,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a hearing at the Congress last month. The State Department now requires a basic testing program for diplomatic employees before they leave for field assignments.
State Department employees complained that the agency was slow to respond and support affected staff. Some have since retired, blaming their symptoms.
Burns says China is “America’s greatest geopolitical challenge”
Under the Trump administration, the US foreign policy and intelligence apparatus has focused on rivalries between major powers, especially China.
Speaking on Thursday, Burns said China remained one of the agency’s top priorities in the Biden era, saying it was “the greatest geopolitical challenge facing the United States” this century. He added that the CIA needs to strengthen its expertise in China, especially by employing more Mandarin speakers.
An immediate challenge is the CIA’s investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
“The honest answer today is that we cannot offer a definitive conclusion as to whether this is due to a laboratory accident or if it is due to natural transmission from infected animals to humans,” he said. Burns said, referring to the theory that the coronavirus outbreak began at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a state-run laboratory in the city where the pandemic is believed to have originated in late 2019. Chinese authorities have still denied the theory.
“It’s possible, as with so many things, that we will never come to a final judgment,” Burns said. “But it won’t be for lack of hard work or effort on this issue to try to find out as much as possible what happened.”
A group of scientists published a letter in the journal in May Science urging the scientific community to pay more attention to the theory of laboratory leaks, although at least one of them has since said that he believes the theory of animal origin is the most likely.
“[The reality is] that the Chinese government was not transparent, did not fully cooperate with the WHO investigation initially, and it was suggested more recently that it would also refuse to cooperate in a follow-up. And that’s deeply regrettable, ”Burns said.
CIA to retain “significant capabilities” in Afghanistan
For nearly two decades, the national security establishment has focused on US wars in the Middle East and threats posed by extremist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.
Now, as the US military prepares to finalize its withdrawal from Afghanistan – a process that officials say is over 95% complete – Burns has acknowledged that the withdrawal will affect CIA operations, but has said the agency would retain “significant capacity” in the country.
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the pullout ends, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and others Burns has refused to fire.
“I have to be honest, these trend lines are troubling right now,” he said.
The agency’s main mission in the country, he said, will be to stay focused on the danger of groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda reconstituting themselves if the Afghan government and army fall without support. American and coalition forces.
“The big question, it seems to me, and to all my colleagues in the CIA and the intelligence community, is whether or not [the Afghan government’s military] capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political will and unity of leadership that is absolutely essential to resist the Taliban, ”he said.
Burns is the first career diplomat to lead the CIA
Burns, 65, is the first career diplomat to lead the CIA. He was a diplomat for three decades, including ambassador to Russia and Jordan, while holding senior positions in the State Department in Washington.
Burns held the second position in the State Department when he retired in 2014. He was head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington when Biden hired him to become director of the CIA.
“I know I was a better ambassador, a better negotiator, a better decision maker because of the work of the CIA agents, the intelligence they gathered, the information they provided,” Burns said. “And I really hope I’ll be a better director of the CIA because my background as a policy maker, as a diplomat, should help me better connect intelligence work to what matters most.”
Burns said increasing diversity and inclusion at the CIA, an agency traditionally dominated by elite white men, is among his top priorities as director.
“We can’t be effective in the world if everyone looks like me,” he said.
Producer Connor Donevan and editor Courtney Dorning produced the radio version of this interview.