The CIA is stepping up efforts to confront the cause and effects of mysterious sonic incidents, believed to be attacks, that have injured U.S. officials, by increasing medical staff and assigning an agency veteran who hunted Osama bin Laden, the agency’s director, William J. Burns, said in an interview Thursday.

“I’m certainly persuaded that what our officers and some family members, as well as other U.S. government employees, have experienced is real and it’s serious,” Burns told NPR in his first interview since taking over the CIA three months ago. “We’re very focused on getting to the bottom of this.”

In March, just before Burns, a career diplomat, took office, the CIA created a task force aimed at expanding efforts to find the cause of the so-called Havana syndrome — unexplained episodes that have injured its officers and other U.S. government workers in Cuba, China, Russia and elsewhere.

The task force will work with the State Department and other intelligence agencies to collect new evidence about the episodes and reexamine material to draw conclusions on whether attacks occurred and, if so, what caused the injuries and who was responsible.

“We’ve tripled the number of full-time medical personnel at CIA who are focused on these issues,” Burns said of the efforts to assist victims. “We have reduced the amount of time it used to take to wait to get into Walter Reed for our officers, from more than eight weeks to less than two weeks.”

He said another part of the team, led by an unnamed official who “a decade ago led the successful hunt for bin Laden,” was focused on finding the culprits behind the attacks and identifying the technology they used.

“We’re throwing the very best we have at this issue,” added Burns, who said the team’s work was based on a 2020 finding by the National Academy of Sciences that an as-yet unidentified foreign actor launched a “directed energy” at U.S. installations.

Burns, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, was also asked about the precarious state of Afghanistan’s military as Western countries withdraw their forces.

He said he believed the Afghan government had the military capacity to hold off the Taliban, provided it had “the political willpower and unity of leadership” to “resist the Taliban.”

He quickly conceded, however, that the “trend lines are certainly troubling.”

Burns was equally equivocal when asked about the CIA’s investigation into the possibility that the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China.

“The honest answer today,” he said, “is that we cannot offer a definitive conclusion about whether, you know, this originated in a lab accident or whether it originated in a natural transmission from infected animals to human beings.”


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