CIA Director William Burns says he appointed a senior official who led the search for Osama bin Laden to lead the investigation of the ailments afflicting US officials around the world.
Ian Morton / NPR
Ian Morton / NPR
Ian Morton / NPR
CIA Director William Burns says he has redoubled the agency’s efforts to uncover the cause of Havana syndrome, the mysterious cluster of ailments that has affected more than 200 American officials and family members around the world.
That includes the assignment of a high-ranking officer who once led the search for Osama bin Laden to lead the investigation and triple the size of the medical team involved in the investigation, Burns told NPR Thursday in his first interview since it was confirmed. as head of the agency in March.
“I am absolutely determined, and I have spent a lot of time and energy on 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,” Burns said. .
In an extensive exclusive interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, Burns also spoke about 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 transitional moment in the world.”
“We are no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical bloc, especially with the rise of China. And as you well know, there is a revolution in technology that is transforming the way we live, work, compete and fight. And so on.” The CIA, like everyone else in the US government, has to take that into account, “he said.
Havana syndrome is “real and serious,” says Burns
Under Burns’ leadership, the agency has tripled the number of full-time medical personnel at the CIA focusing on the Havana Syndrome and shortened the waiting period for affected personnel to be admitted to the National Military Medical Center. Walter Reed.
“I am certainly convinced that what our officers and some family members, as well as other employees of the United States government, 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 ability to carry out such action so widely throughout the world. world. A report last December from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that microwave radiation is the “most plausible” explanation for the symptoms.
To head the task force investigating the syndrome, Burns has appointed a veteran officer who helped lead the search for Osama bin Laden. The identity of that officer is still undercover, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“We are doing the best that we have on this issue, because not only is it a very serious issue for our colleagues, as it is for others throughout the United States government, but it is a deep obligation, I believe that any leader must assume take care of your people, “Burns said.
The syndrome, which can appear to include migraines, 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 symptoms.
In the years since, dozens of additional cases have been reported at US diplomatic facilities in China, Russia, Europe and Central Asia. Just last week, the Biden administration announced that it is “vigorously investigating” reports of possible new cases in Vienna.
Officials say the causes of the syndrome are not yet clear.
“Here’s the harsh reality right now: We don’t know what caused these incidents. We don’t know who, if anyone, is really responsible,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a congressional hearing last month. The State Department now requires a benchmark test program for diplomatic employees before they go on field assignments.
State Department employees had complained that the agency had been slow to respond and support affected personnel. Some have since withdrawn, blaming their symptoms.
Burns says China is America’s “biggest geopolitical challenge”.
Under the Trump administration, the US foreign policy and intelligence apparatus shifted its emphasis to rivalries of great powers, particularly China.
Speaking Thursday, Burns said China remains a primary focus of the agency in the Biden era, saying it is “the greatest geopolitical challenge the United States faces” this century. He added that the CIA should strengthen its experience in China, including employing more Mandarin speakers.
An immediate challenge is the CIA investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
“The honest answer today is that we cannot offer a definitive conclusion as to whether this originated from a laboratory accident or whether it originated from natural transmission from infected animals to humans,” Burns said, referring to the theory that the outbreak The coronavirus infection began at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a state laboratory in the city where the pandemic was thought to have originated in late 2019. Chinese officials have consistently denied the theory.
“It’s possible, like so many other things, that we never get to a final judgment,” Burns said. “But it will not be for lack of hard work or effort on this issue to try to find out as much as we can about what happened.”
A group of scientists published a letter in the magazine in May Science urging the scientific community to give more consideration to the theory of laboratory leakage, although at least one has since stated that they believe that the theory of animal origin is the most likely scenario.
“[The reality is] that the Chinese government has not been transparent, has not fully cooperated in the WHO investigation initially, and more recently it has been suggested that it will also refuse to cooperate in a follow-up. And that’s deeply regrettable, “Burns said.
CIA wants to retain “significant capabilities” in Afghanistan
For nearly two decades, the national security system focused on American wars in the Middle East and threats posed by extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Now, as the US military nears finalizing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, a process that officials say is more than 95% complete, Burns acknowledged that the withdrawal will affect CIA operations, but said the agency will maintain “significant capabilities. ” in the country.
The US intelligence community has concluded that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the withdrawal is complete. according to Wall Street Journal reports and others that Burns refused to dismiss.
“I have to be honest, those trend lines are concerning at the moment,” he said.
The agency’s main mission in the country, he said, will be to stay focused on the danger that groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda will reconstitute if the Afghan government and military fall without the backing of US and coalition forces.
“The big question, it seems to me and all my colleagues at the CIA and the entire intelligence community, is whether [the Afghan government’s military] The capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower 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 served for three decades as a diplomat, including ambassador to Russia and Jordan, while holding senior positions in the State Department in Washington.
Burns was No. 2 in the State Department when he retired in 2014. He was running the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington when Biden selected him to become director of the CIA.
“I know I was a better ambassador, a better negotiator, a better legislator because of the work of the CIA officers, the intelligence they collected, the insights they provided,” Burns said. “And I very much hope to be a better CIA director because my experience as a legislator, as a diplomat, should help me better connect intelligence work with what matters most.”
Burns said increasing diversity and inclusion at the CIA, an agency that has traditionally been dominated by white men of elite backgrounds, is among his top priorities as director.
“We can’t be effective around the world if everyone looks like me,” he said.
Producer Connor Donevan and editor Courtney Dorning produced the radio version of this interview.