A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches Dozens of U.S. diplomats in Cuba and China have complained of chronic, unexplained ailments. Now an ex-CIA official says he had to retire after a trip to Russia led to debilitating migraines.
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A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches

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A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches

A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dozens of U.S. diplomats in Cuba and China have complained of chronic unexplained ailments in recent years - dizziness, blurred vision and memory loss. The cause remains a mystery, but there's a new development. A former CIA official is stepping forward to say he's suffered debilitating migraines and had to retire after being afflicted on a trip to Russia. Here's NPR's Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: During 26 years at the CIA, Marc Polymeropoulos spent a lot of time in rough places, like war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he never suffered any harm until December 2017. He remembers he was sound asleep at a Marriott Hotel in Moscow near the U.S. Embassy.

MARC POLYMEROPOULOS: I was awoken, you know, in the middle of the night, but I had just had incredible vertigo, dizziness. I wanted to throw up. The room was spinning. I couldn't even stand up without falling down and...

MYRE: He suspected a bad case of food poisoning and carried on with his trip, which included meetings with senior Russian intelligence officials. At the time, Polymeropoulos was settling into a new job at CIA headquarters. After years in the Middle East, he became the No. 2 official for clandestine operations in Europe, including Russia. But a couple months after that Moscow trip, he suffered a recurrence of crippling migraines that still plague him.

POLYMEROPOULOS: I started this kind of incredible journey of seeing, you know, multiple doctors, multiple MRIs and CT scans and X-rays. Ultimately, a neurologist diagnosed me with what they call occipital neuralgia.

MYRE: This nerve inflammation in the back of his head would explain his migraines, but the cause remains a mystery. He's not alone. Since 2016, more than 40 U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and more than a dozen at U.S. consulates in China have complained of headaches, balance issues and vision problems. Polymeropoulos is the first to link his illness to Russia. He says several other CIA officers working on Russia issues also have symptoms, but they're still at the agency and haven't spoken out.

POLYMEROPOULOS: I'm - one of whom I know very well and has been, you know, severely affected.

MYRE: The State Department diplomats have been examined at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Miami. The bottom line - doctors say the ailments are real, but they don't know the cause and have not found evidence of traumatic brain injury. There are also political questions about the so-called Havana syndrome.

JEANNE SHAHEEN: I have been very disappointed.

MYRE: Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, says her office has received complaints from employees who served abroad for the State Department, the Commerce Department and the CIA. Some have not been treated well, she says, and she wants to know if it's related to political sensitivities in dealing with Cuba, China and Russia.

SHAHEEN: Some were pressured to stay silent. Some were ostracized and reprimanded for saying that they were sick. So I think that is one of the very real questions. Why were some people treated differently than others? Did it have anything to do with our policies in various countries?

MYRE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejects this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: There were no politics attached to this. The suggestion somehow is that we didn't protect our officers because of some larger political objective. That is patently false.

MYRE: The State Department did commission a study by the National Academies of Sciences, which was delivered in August. But the findings haven't been released, much to the dismay of Dr. David Relman, the Stanford professor who chaired the study.

DAVID RELMAN: We spent a year of pretty hard work addressing some really tough cases and tough problems.

MYRE: He says the report should be made public.

RELMAN: A number of people here were grievously harmed and are suffering still. So I just - I think this is a really important issue, even if we can't give you an easy answer.

MYRE: Meanwhile, unproven theories have been circulating. The main one claims that the U.S. officials were subjected to microwave attacks. Perhaps the intent was to injure them or maybe to steal secrets from their phones and computers. Russia, China and Cuba all deny any such actions. Marc Polymeropoulos believes he was attacked and says it forced him, with great reluctance, to retire last year at age 50.

POLYMEROPOULOS: I just couldn't sit at a computer or go to meetings. The headaches were just too debilitating.

MYRE: He's a burly, bearded guy who spoke with me on his front porch in Northern Virginia. An American flag hangs out front. Halloween decorations frame his suburban home. He stresses that he's not a disgruntled former employee - far from it.

POLYMEROPOULOS: I spent 26 years in an organization that I still love. I have dear friends there. I was a very successful officer who retired in the senior ranks. And I believe the CIA is an indispensable institution. I believe in its mission. So the idea of kind of talking about this publicly is really difficult for me.

MYRE: Polymeropoulos is now asking the CIA for specialized brain treatment at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, something the agency has refused to authorize. The CIA declined to discuss his case but says, quote, "the CIA's first priority has been and continues to be the welfare of all our officers."

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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