What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How radio frequency waves ended a CIA officer’s career

The mysterious ailments that afflicted U.S. employees in Cuba and China in 2016 and 2017 were likely due to “pulsed radio frequency energy,” a new report found. Intelligence officials say Russia is the most likely culprit. Nick Schifrin spoke with former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos about his experiences being hit by the waves and debilitating medical conditions that ended his career.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: invisible attacks on American spies and diplomats. It is a medical mystery that is almost certainly wrapped in the age-old and high-stakes spy games between the U.S. and Russia.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the symptoms were sudden and shocking, sleeplessness, headaches, inability to walk, memory loss, cognitive difficulties.

    Across two years and at least three continents, dozens of intelligence officials and diplomats suffered medical conditions that derailed assignments and their careers.

    Last weekend, the National Academies of Sciences released the first authoritative government report, concluding the victims were most likely hit by directed pulsed radio-frequency energy.

    The lead author was Stanford microbiology and immunology professor David Relman.

  • David Relman:

    That form of microwave radiation is really not terribly common in the world around it. It's sometimes used, for example, in radar systems. It sometimes is used in clinical medicine for treatment of certain ailments. But it's not common in the home around us or in the world that we normally frequent.

    And that's what makes it a little bit unusual, and sort of the message behind it a little bit different.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The message? Someone may have pointed a nonlethal weapon at U.S. government employees in order to harm them. And some former intelligence officials believe the perpetrator was likely Russia.

    To discuss this, we turn to Marc Polymeropoulos, former clandestine CIA officer who was in Moscow in 2017, when he experienced these symptoms.

    Marc Polymeropoulos, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    What did the attacks feel like? And how long did they last?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    It was a night in a hotel room in Moscow I will never forget. It was, frankly terrifying.

    I didn't hear any noise, but I did wake up to something, which turned out to be right away feelings of intense vertigo, ringing in my ears, incredible nausea. I couldn't stand up. I was falling down on the floor.

    And, look, I spent a long time in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was clearly the most terrifying moment of my life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's happened to your career since?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    That was December 2017. By July 2019, I had to retire, and certainly retire early.

    You know, I was in the Senior Intelligence Service. I had a highly decorated career as an operations officer, and I think I had a lot more left in the tank. But, frankly, by that point, I couldn't do a full day's work, and I had missed four months of work. And so I was compelled to retire.

    I don't think I'm in as bad a shape as some of the other individuals who have been afflicted by this. But I have a headache that never goes away. It's 24/7. I have had it for literally three years, at about a three or four level. And it's chronic pain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe that this was perpetrated by Russia?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    There certainly is historical precedent for the Russians kind of doing nasty things to U.S. officials. So, kind of put that — chalk that up.

    But, number two, there has come to be a strong circumstantial case that it was the Russians. And I have to be careful on here to kind of honor my secrecy agreements, so I will just say that it's been reported in the press that the CIA conducted an investigation using some techniques which we call geofencing, and, in essence, found that as other officers later, after me, have been affected by this in different parts of the world, that they saw the travel of Russian intelligence officers very close to those locations.

    So, ultimately, a strong circumstantial case, both historical and with some investigative techniques, I think, has been made and, at the very least, just warrants further investigation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe this is ongoing? And do you believe it's ongoing in multiple locations, including perhaps here in the United States?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    I do. I do.

    You know, from individuals I talk to, I know several cases that had occurred after myself. I'm aware that these are still ongoing. There is a case that apparently, reportedly, did occur also in the United States. And so I have no doubt that this is still occurring.

    And I think you're going to see more attention paid to individuals who have had this happen to them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the connection, as far as you can tell, between the initial victims of this, you and these other alleged victims, in terms of what kind of work you were all doing?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    So, let me just start with the recent cohort. It's myself and others.

    We were all very senior CIA officers, most of us in the Senior Intelligence Service, most of us traveling overseas, in which we're going to discuss with partners or going to talk to U.S. government officials about the Russians.

    And so I think that lends some credence to that — the idea that the Russians would know that we would be traveling. They could anticipate this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A bipartisan group of senators have pushed for not only the release of the report that we're talking about now, but for the victims to get medical attention.

    Do you believe the administration has blocked the medical attention that some of you have been asking for?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    I would say, within the CIA's operations directorate, up until — up to the top levels, everyone has been — has, first of all, believed that something occurred and has been very helpful.

    I think, though, in — both in the Department of State and certainly in CIA, senior medical officials have been less than stellar in their reaction to this. There have to be reforms, so that officers who are afflicted by this get proper medical care, we're not told, as I was, that I'm making this up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I should note that there is an on-the-record statement that the CIA sent me — quote — "CIA's first priority has been and continues to be the welfare of all of our officers."

    The State Department also says it takes diplomats' health seriously. Do you believe that the U.S. government has taken your health seriously? And, going forward, are you going to get the medical treatment that you have asked for?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    So, the answer to your first question, no, they did not.

    I think, with the cohort that was hit in both Havana and China, from all different agencies, I don't think they were treated with either respect or the proper medical care. And I certainly was not as well. It took me — with a rather unprecedented step, as someone who lived in the shadows for so long, I went public with this.

    And to do that was a very difficult decision. But I had to do it, because, ultimately, I needed to get proper medical care. Now, I think, in the future, I do see, even now, the tide turning, but it's because of the publicity.

    You know, for example, I am going to Walter Reed, which has a world-class TBI, traumatic brain injury, program. That is what I really requested. And, ultimately, the agency granted me that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The fact that we're talking about this, and the fact that this happened to you and to others, do you believe that that could affect CIA recruitment in the future?

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    Oh, boy. I don't think so. I don't think this should stop anyone from wanting to undertake public service, in fact, the opposite. I think you just get people angry.

    And so my reaction to this would be, please join the federal government, join the intelligence services, so we can go back and take it to our enemies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Marc Polymeropoulos, thank you very much.

  • Marc Polymeropoulos:

    Thank you, Nick.

Listen to this Segment