US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’

US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’
A view of the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where officials and staff reported cases of brain injuries and other symptoms in the last few years. (AP file)
Short Url
Updated 02 March 2023

US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’

US intel agencies: No sign foreign adversaries behind ‘Havana syndrome’
  • There were suspicions that Russia was behind the hundreds of cases of brain injuries and other symptoms reported in the US Embassy in Havana and elsewhere
  • Investigators reviewed 1,500 cases in 96 countries and concluded that there were no evidence pointing to the involvement of foreign adversaries in the ailments

WASHINGTON: US intelligence agencies cannot link a foreign adversary to any of the incidents associated with so-called “Havana syndrome,” the hundreds of cases of brain injuries and other symptoms reported by American personnel around the world.
The findings released Wednesday by US intelligence officials cast doubt on the longstanding suspicions by many people who reported cases that Russia or another country may have been running a global campaign to harass or attack Americans using some form of directed energy.
Most of the cases investigated appear to have different causes, from environmental factors to undiagnosed illnesses, said the officials, who say they have not found a single explanation for most or all of the reports.
Instead, officials say, there is evidence that foreign countries were not involved. In some cases, the US detected among adversarial governments confusion about the allegations and suspicions that Havana syndrome was an American plot. And investigators found “no credible evidence” that any adversary had obtained a weapon that could cause the reported symptoms or a listening device that might inadvertently injure people.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to respond to Havana syndrome cases from government personnel who have reported injuries and their advocates, including members of Congress. President Joe Biden in 2021 signed into law the HAVANA Act, which provided compensation to people deemed to have sustained injuries consistent with what the government calls “anomalous health incidents.”
Affected people have reported headaches, dizziness and other symptoms often linked to traumatic brain injuries. Some US employees have left government due to the severity of their illnesses.
“Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our workforce,” said Maher Bitar, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, in a statement. “Since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration, we have focused on ensuring that our colleagues have access to the care and support they need.”
Mark Zaid, a lawyer for more than two dozen people who have reported injuries, said the new assessment lacked transparency and left key questions unanswered.
“Until the shrouds of secrecy are lifted and the analysis that led to today’s assertions are available and subject to proper challenge, the alleged conclusions are substantively worthless,” he said in a statement. “But the damage it has caused to the morale of the victims, particularly by deflecting from the government’s failure to evaluate all the evidence, is real and must be condemned.”
Authorities in Havana said the findings reflect what Cuba has repeatedly stated: that no attacks occurred.
“We’re not surprised,” Johana Tablada, deputy director of the US division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press.
Tablada noted that former US President Donald Trump used the alleged attacks as an excuse to radically tighten sanctions against Cuba, including the partial paralysis of its consular services for more than five years. She said that, because of unfounded accusations, “very harsh measures were taken against our people in Cuba and in the United States that harmed Cuban families, exchanges between our countries (and) caused a downward spiral (of ties) that was practically irreversible.”
Two officials familiar with the assessment briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity, under ground rules set by the US Director of National Intelligence.
Investigators reviewed roughly 1,500 cases in 96 countries. Many of those cases, officials said, have been linked to other potential explanations aside from a foreign campaign: medical illnesses, malfunctioning air conditioning and ventilation systems, or electromagnetic waves coming from benign devices like a computer mouse. And some people may have come forward to report symptoms based on what they had heard about other cases or the exhaustive media reports about Havana syndrome, officials said.
A core group of roughly two dozen cases identified in an interim assessment published last year has been exhaustively studied, officials said. None of the cases was linked to an attack by an adversary.
The officials stressed their investigation was exhaustive, with participation from seven US agencies. One official described reviewing a report from an American who reported having possibly been hit by a car while driving. US investigators tracked down the car and the driver and investigated that person’s family connections and any foreign travel, the official said.
Some leads were followed for as long as nine months, the official said.
Officials briefing reporters declined to say how the latest assessment, first reported by The Washington Post, may affect payments under the HAVANA Act. The State Department has compensated affected employees with one-time payments from $100,000 to $200,000.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee insisted that “there should be no change” to compensation while they review the assessment.
“We will seek to ensure the review was conducted with the highest degree of analytical rigor and that it considered all the available intelligence and perspectives, documenting all substantial differences in analysis,” said Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, in their statement.
Havana syndrome cases date to a series of reported brain injuries in 2016 at the US Embassy in Cuba. Incidents have been reported by diplomats, intelligence officers and military personnel in the Washington area and at global postings. Russia has long been suspected by some intelligence officers of using directed energy devices to attack US personnel.
But the CIA last year said it believed it was unlikely that Russia or another foreign adversary had used microwaves or other forms of directed energy to attack American officials. The agency has faced criticism from those who have reported cases and from advocates who accuse the government of long dismissing the array of ailments.
Even with the lack of answers and attributions of responsibility, officials have sought to stress their commitment to victims’ health.
“I want to be absolutely clear: these findings do not call into question the experiences and real health issues that US government personnel and their family members — including CIA’s own officers — have reported while serving our country,” said CIA Director William Burns in a statement. “We will continue to remain alert to any risks to the health and wellbeing of Agency officers, to ensure access to care, and to provide officers the compassion and respect they deserve.”

Canada mass shooting inquiry identifies many police failings

Canada mass shooting inquiry identifies many police failings
Updated 10 sec ago

Canada mass shooting inquiry identifies many police failings

Canada mass shooting inquiry identifies many police failings
TRURO, Canada: A public inquiry has found widespread failures in how Canada’s federal police force responded to the country’s worst mass shooting and recommends that the government rethink the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s central role in the country’s policing.
In a seven-volume report released Thursday, the Mass Casualty Commission also says the RCMP missed red flags in the years leading up to the Nova Scotia rampage on April 18-19, 2020, which left 22 people slain by a denture maker disguised as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police vehicle.
The assailant, Gabriel Wortman, was killed by two Mounties at a gas station in Enfield, Nova Scotia, 13 hours into his rampage. Disguised as a police officer, Wortman shot people in their homes and set fires in a killing spree that included 16 crime scenes in five rural communities across the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history and said he hopes the report is one of the many steps toward ensuring a tragedy like that never happens again. Trudeau attended the report’s release in Nova Scotia and said his government will examine it closely. “There is no question that there needs to be changes and there will be,” Trudeau said.
Among other things, the commission says the national police force is badly disorganized. Its review of the RCMP’s 5,000 pages of policies and procedures found the force’s own members were unclear on proper responses to critical incidents and communication with the public.
The report delves deeply into the causes of the mass shooting. These include the killer’s violence toward his spouse and the failure of police to act on it, and “implicit biases” that seemed to blind officers and community members to the danger a white, male professional posed.
In response, the commissioners call for a future RCMP where the current 26-week model of training is scrapped — as it’s no longer sufficient for the complex demands of policing. The academy would be replaced with a three-year, degree-based model of education, as exists in Finland.
The document begins with an account of the police errors in the years before the killings, and the events of April 18 and 19.
The report’s summary says that soon after the shooting started in Portapique, Nova Scotia, RCMP commanders disregarded witness accounts, and senior Mounties wrongly assumed residents were mistaken when they reported seeing the killer driving a fully marked RCMP cruiser.
“Important community sources of information were ignored,” it says.
In addition, the report says police failed to promptly send out alerts to the public with a description of the killer until it was too late for some of his victims.
Having laid out a litany of shortcomings, the inquiry calls for a fresh external review of the police force. It says the federal minister of public safety should then establish priorities for the RCMP, “retaining the tasks that are suitable to a federal policing agency, and identifying what responsibilities are better reassigned to other agencies.”
“This may entail a reconfiguration of policing in Canada and a new approach to federal financial support for provincial and municipal policing services,” the report says.
Michael Duheme, the interim RCMP commissioner, said he hasn’t had time to go through the recommendations despite the RCMP getting a copy of the report on Wednesday.
Duheme said he was “deeply sorry” for the pain and suffering endured by families of the victims. “I can’t even imagine what you have endured,” he said, adding that the RCMP “must learn and we are committed to do just that.”
Dennis Daley, the head of the RCMP in Nova Scotia, said to the families that he knows that the response “wasn’t what you needed to be. And for that I am deeply sorry.”
The victims in Canada’s worst mass shooting included an RCMP officer, a teacher, health-care workers, retirees, neighbors of the shooter and two correctional officers killed in their home. The rampage started when Wortman attacked his spouse.
“Nothing will bring my brother back or any of the other people in this horrible ordeal,” said Scott McLeod, the brother of victim Sean McLeod. “If this report makes a positive change nationwide it will be appreciated, I know, by families.”
The report details Wortman ‘s history of domestic violence in his relationships with women, including his spouse Lisa Banfield. In particular, the report notes the experience of Brenda Forbes, a neighbor in Portapique who informed the RCMP of Wortman’s violence toward Banfield. He never faced any consequences, but she dealt with years of stalking, harassment and threats from Wortman, prompting her to leave the province.
Jessica Zita, lawyer for Banfield, read a statement from her client in which she says she hopes there will be meaningful changes from the recommendations especially those involving domestic violence.
Mass shootings are relatively rare in Canada. The country overhauled its gun-control laws after gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women and himself at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college in 1989. Before the Nova Scotia rampage, that had been the country’s worst,

Prince Harry back in court for phone hacking hearing finale

Prince Harry back in court for phone hacking hearing finale
Updated 30 March 2023

Prince Harry back in court for phone hacking hearing finale

Prince Harry back in court for phone hacking hearing finale
  • The Duke of Sussex made a late arrival and early departure for the finale of a four-day High Court hearing on his invasion of privacy case
  • The publisher denied the allegations and has argued that lawsuits based on alleged incidents dating as far back as 1993 should be thrown out

LONDON: A London judge said Thursday he would rule as soon as possible on whether to throw out or limit a phone hacking lawsuit brought by Prince Harry, Elton John and other well-known figures against a British tabloid publisher.
The Duke of Sussex made a late arrival and early departure for the finale of a four-day High Court hearing on his invasion of privacy case against the company that publishes The Daily Mail. His surprise appearance during three days of the legal wrangling indicates the lawsuit’s importance in the prince’s broader battle against the British press.
Harry, John, and actresses Elizabeth Hurley and Sadie Frost are among a group of seven people suing Associated Newspapers Ltd. for allegedly paying private investigators to illegally bug homes and cars and to record phone conversations.
The publisher denied the allegations and has argued that lawsuits based on alleged incidents dating as far back as 1993 should be thrown out because the cases were not filed within a six-year limitation period.
Attorney David Sherborne, who represents Harry and the other famous claimants, argued that the deadline for filing the lawsuits should be extended because the alleged snooping was covert and the publisher concealed evidence of it through denials “likely to lead the claimants off the scent.”
The claimants said they were unaware of phone hacking done for Associated Newspapers until private investigators, including Gavin Burrows, came forward in the last couple of years to disclose the covert work they allegedly did.
Burrows, who said in a 2021 witness statement that he came forward to “do the right thing” and help the people he targeted, has since issued another sworn statement saying he had not been commissioned by Associated Newspapers to do unlawful work.
In his earlier admission, however, he described how much he charged for different jobs and how Harry, John and his husband, David Furnish, and Hurley and Frost were “just a small handful of my targets.”
He said he “must have done hundreds of jobs” between 2000 and 2005 for a Mail on Sunday journalist whose name is redacted.
In one section cited by Sherborne, Burrows described tapping Hurley’s home phone, hacking her voicemail and digging up travel and medical details on her when she was pregnant. Burrows said that John didn’t have a mobile phone but he got a lot of information about the singer from Hurley’s phone because she was close friends with him, and through the phone of John’s gardener.
“I hacked, tapped and bugged Liz a number of times,” Burrows said in his earlier statement. “She (like Hugh Grant) was a huge earner for me. I could get an itemized phone bill for Liz and Hugh and sell each one for 5,000 pounds (about $6,185), much more than the average price on my menu.”
Until she read Burrows statement, Hurley did not know who had been the source of the information about her, Sherborne said.
“That’s the trigger. That’s when the scales fall from her eyes,” Sherborne said.
Attorney Adrian Beltrami said the claims had been brought “far too late” and should be tossed out. He argued that a national scandal on phone hacking by journalists at other papers a decade ago could have inspired the claimants to look into articles written about them and file their lawsuits alleging wrongdoing within the time limits.
Justice Matthew Nicklin said there was a difference between applying time limits to discovery of the alleged unlawful information gathering and the articles that resulted from some of those acts.
“It’s clear what the claimants are not entitled to pursue because of limitation,” Nicklin said. “But what they are entitled to pursue is slightly more nuanced than simply striking out reference to the articles.”
Attorney Steven Heffer, who is not involved in the case, said the defense is unlikely to prevail at this stage if they concealed the unlawful activity.
“Other newspaper groups emphatically denied phone hacking or any unlawful information gathering, but have had to pay millions in damages and costs,” Heffer said.
The publisher is also seeking to have evidence of payments to investigators barred from being used by claimants because it was protected by confidentiality rules when it was turned over by the publisher to a government inquiry into media law breaking.
Sherborne argued the evidence is in the public domain.
Attorney Michael Gardner, who also is not involved in the litigation, said Harry and the other claimants face an uphill battle on several fronts.
“First, the events in question took place so long ago that they may now be statute barred,” Gardner said. “Secondly, the evidence they are relying on includes material that may be inadmissible. Thirdly, a key witness in the case appears to have signed two completely contradictory statements.”

Indonesian Buddhists step out to support Muslims in Ramadan fast 

Indonesian Buddhists step out to support Muslims in Ramadan fast 
Updated 30 March 2023

Indonesian Buddhists step out to support Muslims in Ramadan fast 

Indonesian Buddhists step out to support Muslims in Ramadan fast 
  • Buddhism has about 2 million followers in Muslim-majority Indonesia 
  • Temples offer snacks to break the fast, some cook iftar meals 

JAKARTA: As millions of people in Muslim-majority Indonesia are observing the fasting month of Ramadan, members of the Buddhist community have been extending their support and preparing iftar meals for those breaking their fast at dusk. 

Muslims comprise nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 277 million population, but the multifaith nation officially recognizes six religions, including Buddhism, which has an estimated 2 million followers. Since Ramadan began last week, many Buddhist temples across the country have been extending support to their Muslim neighbors. 

In Cirebon, West Java province, members of the Dewi Welas Asih Temple congregation have come together to prepare iftar meals throughout the fasting month. 

They hand out meal boxes around 4 p.m., right before sunset, hoping to reach the people who need their support the most. Each box consists of rice, sauteed vegetables, fried eggs and either chicken or beef, all home-cooked. 

“It doesn’t matter what religion you have, if there is one good moment to do good deeds, all of us here at the Dewi Welas Asih Temple believe that it’s very wise, right, and honorable to give back, even if it’s not on your own religious holiday,” Yulia Hiyanto, who has been organizing the temple’s iftar activities, told Arab News. 

“When we are able to give back and it is accepted with a smile…my heart feels something that can neither be described nor bought, and I hear this from other friends too, this feeling of utmost happiness.” 

In a similar spirit, the youth of the Dhanagun Temple in Bogor, also in West Java, are dedicating their Sundays throughout Ramadan month to reach out as many people as they can across the city and hand out snacks commonly eaten in Indonesia to break the fast. 

“It is our hope that our program can help people in need, especially Muslims in Bogor, who are now fasting,” said Hansen, the temple’s youth leader. 

“Ramadan is a good month, a month filled with love…That is why we want to join in sharing kindness and love.” 

UK ‘urged to boost monitoring of Islamic schools’ in new report

UK ‘urged to boost monitoring of Islamic schools’ in new report
Updated 30 March 2023

UK ‘urged to boost monitoring of Islamic schools’ in new report

UK ‘urged to boost monitoring of Islamic schools’ in new report
  • Bloom consultation likely to support calls for stricter state oversight of unregistered madrasas
  • Muslim leaders say the government has failed to engage with religious community

LONDON: Britain should do more to monitor Islamic groups and schools, crack down on forced marriages and help people to leave oppressive religious groups, a government consultation is reported to recommend.

The report, to be released within weeks, is set to be what the Guardian described on Wednesday as “the most sweeping review of the relationship between faith and the state in recent times”. It is led by Colin Bloom, a former head of the Conservative Christian Fellowship who was appointed in 2019 to review the government’s engagement with various faiths. 

Several sources have told the Guardian that the report, which is due to be published by the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities, will call for the monitoring of unregistered faith schools, where there are concerns about abuse and radicalization.

It however also warns that such measures risk clashes with faith leaders, who have previously resisted attempts by ministers to intervene in religious affairs.

Other sections will also call on the government to do more to combat forced marriages and offer more help to those attempting to leave oppressive religious groups. 

The recommendations are likely to boost calls for stricter monitoring of Islamic groups by Secretary of State for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove. 

The Muslim Council of Britain told the Guardian: “There remains a lack of any meaningful engagement by government with diverse British Muslim communities.

“We would hope that the Bloom report recognizes how vital it is for the government to establish meaningful engagement with British Muslim communities more broadly and the key role Muslim-led representative bodies can play in facilitating this.”

In the past, Conservative ministers have attempted to regulate such schools before but were forced to back down due to protests from mainstream religious groups. 

Following the “Trojan horse” scandal in 2015, the then-Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to crack down on Islamic madrasas by allowing inspectors to visit any institution where children are taught for more than six hours a week. 

Islamic groups claimed they were being unfairly singled out premised on shaky evidence of systemic radicalization within their community. 

Cameron reportedly abandoned the plans after Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warned that it would make running Sunday schools more difficult.

Some of the Bloom proposals will also be intended to strengthen religion as a core component of British society. This includes providing resources for religious education in schools and increased funding for chaplains in prisons, schools, and universities. 

“I have never seen a report on religion and the state which is this comprehensive,” one source familiar with large parts of the report told the Guardian.

“Colin [Bloom] has gone in-depth into many areas of public and religious life from which ministers normally stay well away,” they added.

Richy Thompson, the director of public affairs at Humanists UK, said: “In the past, the government has sometimes been nervous about tackling problems caused by religious groups, but those problems can extend to the most extreme forms of abuse. 

“If this report is to see the government change tack here, then that is to be welcomed.”

To fight climate change, Islamic seminary in southern Pakistan turns to fruit plantations

To fight climate change, Islamic seminary in southern Pakistan turns to fruit plantations
Updated 30 March 2023

To fight climate change, Islamic seminary in southern Pakistan turns to fruit plantations

To fight climate change, Islamic seminary in southern Pakistan turns to fruit plantations
  • Pakistan is among countries most vulnerable to changing climate
  • School in Sindh started tree-planting drive 4 years ago

KARACHI: A seminary in southern Pakistan has set a new trend for religious schools as it cultivates large swathes of land to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the global greenhouse gases that warm our planet but its geography makes it one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
Last year, one-third of the country was submerged by unprecedented monsoon floods that claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people and caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.
Located in Hala village in Sindh, a province that was one of the worst affected by the floods, the Jamia-Tul-Uloom-il-Islamia boarding school also saw its orchards destroyed, which made it even more determined in its tree-planting drive.
“What’s happening due to climate change makes it essential for us to plant more and more trees to stop its adverse effects,” Umar Farooq, who supervises the institute’s agricultural land, told Arab News.
The seminary, which is also a trailblazer in introducing science alongside religious education, has been planting trees for the past four years.
It now has 8,500 mango trees, 1,400 date palms and a lemon orchard.
“Seeing the havoc that floods wreaked recently, we will have to plant more trees,” Farooq said. “We have been expanding our orchards with the help of scientific methods.”
When it was established in the 1950s, the school received farmland to grow crops and meet its administrative needs. The idea was unique as most Islamic boarding schools in South Asia rely on external funding.
But it was only with the tree-planting drive that this potential began to be realized, as Jamia-Tul-Uloom-il-Islamia’s management observed that its orchards could bear fruit that could be sold for income.
“We have planted orchards in the surrounding fields, which will improve the weather conditions and also increase the income and resources of our seminary,” Maulana Muhammad Ahsan Bhutto, the seminary’s administrator, told Arab News.
The management is aware of the worsening impacts of the changing climate and is trying to engage students as well in efforts to mitigate it, at least to lessen their contribution to global warming and raise awareness.
“We teach our children to plant trees in their areas,” Bhutto said. “We ask every child to plant one tree annually and look after it.”