Lawmakers Back Changes at C.I.A. for Handling Mystery Health Episodes

WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee approved a bipartisan proposal on Thursday to provide additional resources to help find the cause of Havana syndrome illnesses and take steps to review the C.I.A.’s handling of the mysterious episodes that have injured more than 200 government officials.

The measure would overhaul the agency’s office of medical services and create a voluntary system where C.I.A. officers assigned overseas could first receive brain scans and lab work that would help doctors determine the extent of their injures should they later exhibit symptoms consistent with Havana syndrome or report being victims of a health episode.

The measure comes as some intelligence officers have expressed reticence about accepting foreign posts, or bringing their family members on tours in countries where the episodes have taken place, current and former officials said.

“I think as long as these incidents are recurring, with what seems to be increasing frequency, without the identification of a perpetrator and without the ability to stop them, I think those concerns are going to continue,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

A U.S. official said C.I.A. officers had volunteered in large numbers to work on the issue of the health episodes, eager to find answers.

Since 2016, diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel in Asia, Europe and the Americas have reported hearing strange sounds, feeling unexplained heat or experiencing pressure and then suffering headaches, nausea, vertigo or other symptoms. In many cases, the symptoms have gone on for months or years.

While some government officials are convinced that a hostile intelligence service using an eavesdropping device or a directed-energy weapon is responsible for the injuries, C.I.A. analysts have not reached a conclusion about what is causing the episodes or if a hostile power is responsible.

While the agency’s director, William J. Burns, has been praised for the attention and resources he has put toward victims of Havana syndrome, Congress has been critical of how the C.I.A. and the larger U.S. government handled the cases before this year.

The Intelligence Committee is doing its own investigation, and the bill approved on Thursday mandates an inspector general review of the performance of the C.I.A.’s medical division, and sets up an outside advisory board to examine its work.

“We want accountability,” Mr. Schiff said. “It took too long to get to where we are. Too many people were suffering, not getting the help that they needed and not being believed. So, we’re still making up for lost ground.”

Marc E. Polymeropoulos, a senior C.I.A. officer at the time, was injured in Moscow in 2017 but did not receive effective treatment until after he retired and began seeing doctors this year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“The bottom line is that traumatic brain injury does not get better over time, so I and others suffered unnecessarily,” Mr. Polymeropoulos said. “We made a pact with the C.I.A.: When we would do tough things and get jammed up, they would have our back.”

Doug Wise, a former top intelligence official who has been critical of the C.I.A.’s handling of the health episodes during the Trump administration, said it was important for reviews to look at how top C.I.A. officials handled the episodes, and why officers’ reports were not initially taken seriously.

“I think it is an important thing for the committee to mandate a review. For whatever reason the agency is incapable of doing their own look because they are unwilling to hold their own leaders accountable,” Mr. Wise said. “The only thing the victims asked for was respect, compassion and medical treatment.”

This year, Mr. Burns removed the head of the office of medical services, replacing him with a doctor focused on patient care. Former intelligence officials have said the office is more focused on victim care since that change.

The House measure is aimed at further improving care for intelligence officers by raising pay for the agency’s doctors, mandating outside clinical training and creating an advisory board appointed by Congress and the director of national intelligence.

The Senate version of the bill does not have the precise provisions of the House measure, but the Senate Intelligence Committee is likely to support the measure, congressional officials said.

Asked about the House measure, a C.I.A. spokeswoman said the agency recognized the committee’s work, and looked forward to seeing the final provisions.

This month, Congress overwhelmingly passed a measure drafted by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, to provide additional resources for victims of Havana syndrome, a sign of the broad bipartisan support for bills addressing the issue. Still, House and Senate leaders will need to find a legislative vehicle in which to include a final intelligence authorization bill by the end of the year.

At least 100 C.I.A. officers have been injured and suffered symptoms consistent with Havana syndrome since 2016, when diplomats and intelligence officers in Cuba reported hearing strange sounds or sensing pressure before experiencing headaches, nausea and other symptoms.

Those episodes were followed by others in China and elsewhere in the world.

In many cases, doctors treating people exhibiting symptoms of Havana syndrome have struggled to identify the extent of the injuries because they lack brain scans from before the episodes as points of comparison.

Getting a brain scan or doing medical lab work before deploying overseas would be voluntary under the measure approved by the House committee. Collecting such before-and-after information could be critical to both improving treatments and identifying the cause, Mr. Schiff said.

“The absence of knowing the baseline impairs the diagnosis,” Mr. Schiff said. “People have different baselines and it would be useful to know what those look like, to see how things have changed.”

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