The CIA’s medical office, knocked by agency veterans for lapses ranging from its treatment of war-related psychological traumas to the mysterious Havana Syndrome ailments, is about to get an up close and personal exam from a new oversight board mandated by Congress.
The Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022 contains a little-noticed provision setting professional standards and practices to be overseen by a new medical advisory board composed of 13 experts nominated by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the director of National Intelligence, currently Avril Haines.
“Each member shall be a recognized expert in at least 1 medical field, as demonstrated by appropriate credentials,” the bill says. “Each member shall possess significant and diverse medical experience, including clinical experience.” And “each member shall be eligible to hold an appropriate security clearance.”
The deadline for board appointments was set as 45 days after the bill’s enactment, which would have been about Apr. 25. Citing the press of other more urgent business, committee sources could not immediately provide SpyTalk with the names of nominees, if any.
The appointment of an outside board to peer over the shoulders of a single CIA unit’s day-to-day operations is unprecedented, roughly equivalent to Congress’s creation of intelligence oversight committees in the mid-1970s following reports of CIA domestic spying, assassination plots, meddling in Chile’s elections and LSD drug testing on unwitting Americans.
A CIA spokesperson said the board would “provide guidance to the Director on best practices and offer recommendations on how our medical services can continue to improve and innovate as we provide care to our officers at headquarters and in the field.
“We appreciate working with Congress,” the statement continued, “to ensure we are able to take care of our workforce with highly trained medical, psychological, and health professionals who have access to the latest research and advancements.”
That would be good, according to critics of the agency’s Office of Medical Services, or OMS. Language in the bill written by congressional overseers implies that the credentials of CIA medical staffers dealing with Havana Syndrome were not up to snuff. And it spells out in extraordinary detail the clinical steps that agency medical personnel must perform when assessing complainants.
The advisory board will elect its own chair and meet every three months, according to the bill, signed by President Biden on March 10. It’s required to meet with the intelligence oversight committees twice a year. The bill does not stipulate whether any of those meetings will be public.
Former senior CIA operations officer Marc Polymeropoulos, an outspoken critic of the agency’s halting treatment of Havana Syndrome, of which he is just one of scores of victims, welcomed the creation of the board, however belated. The OMS is long overdue for a checkup, he said.
“There were some individual doctors who were very good, but the Office of Medical Services is utterly broken and has been forever,” he said via email. “Maybe they're different now, but the last time I came back from Afghanistan, a long time ago, in 2012, you would meet with a shrink for about 10 seconds. ‘How you doing?’ ‘Great.’ ‘Any nightmares?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘You drink a lot?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘It's all good.’ ‘Thanks.’ And then you walk out the door.”
Suicides among war veterans, including CIA paramilitary and counterterrorism officers, have soared to epidemic proportions.
“They might be doing things differently now,” he allowed.
Black Site Doctors
For years now, questions have also been raised about the role of the CIA medical officers in the agency’s black site torture sessions.
Former CIA case officer Glenn Carle, whose 2011 memoir, The Interrogator: An Education, denounced the agency’s torture practices, says he assumed the officers filling medically-related functions at an interrogation site were from the Office of Medical Services, but the CIA censors reviewing his manuscript were adamant he remove his reference to “a psychiatrist.”
"The Agency was very keen that I not say that a ‘psychiatrist’ was involved in any way in the interrogation program, because their presence would’ve violated the physicians' Hippocratic Oath, and thus, apparently, implicated OMS,” Carle told SpyTalk. “There’s nothing in my published book about the OMS. But in my draft I had written something like, 'the psychiatrist said…'
“The Agency was adamant on this point: 'You did not know that the person was a psychiatrist, correct?’” they said. “That was correct: I did not know for a fact what his degree was, or what office he came from. But I did know what function he filled.…”
Havana Syndrome Lapses
Years later, the OMS would stumble on the issue of the so-called Havana Syndrome, an inexplicable series of debilitating head ailments reported by Americans assigned to the U.S. embassy there in 2016. Over the following months and years, U.S. diplomats and spies elsewhere—Russia, China, Vienna, India, even Washington, D.C.—reported similar crippling “attacks.”
During a trip to Moscow in December 2017, Polymeropoulos “woke up with an incredible case of vertigo, tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears, and a splitting headache,” he told MSN in June 2021. His complaints, which worsened and still plague him today, got short shrift at headquarters, he and others have said.
Former CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who had preceeded Haspel at CIA) were widely faulted for not taking Havana Syndrome seriously. Some CIA veterans muttered that Haspel was afraid to elevate the issue of suspected Russian complicity in it with President Trump, who had publicly sided with Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Things changed in 2021 with the arrival of veteran diplomat Bill Burns as CIA director, who established a CIA task force to investigate what the agency calls “Anomalous Health Incidents,” or AHI. Burns replaced the chief of Medical Services and drafted a senior CIA officer who had played a leading role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden to run the task force investigating the cause of the illnesses. He also removed his station chief in Vienna, Austria, for not taking the issue seriously enough, according to several news reports.
Today, Polymeropoulos is pleased that “we’ve moved past” the earlier years of denial. He welcomes the oversight board. For him and others still suffering from Havana Syndrome, strict oversight of the OMS can’t come soon enough.
Same for the intelligence oversight committees on the Hill, who complain that the Biden administration “has yet to take all necessary steps, to do away with excessive compartmentation and unnecessary bureaucracy; and to ensure that, for AHI and for other vital missions, the right people consistently and easily can access necessary information,” according to the Intelligence Authorization Act. “That will have to change.” The bill promises vigorous oversight of the CIA’s progress on the issue.
“I think they acted scandalously and unprofessionally with regards to the Havana Syndrome victims,” another highly decorated veteran CIA officer commented to SpyTalk on condition of anonymity, not wanting to get into a public squabble with an agency he devoted his life to and otherwise admires. ”An outside oversight board would be a good start.”
Not All Bad
Carle, who later became a senior officer on the National Intelligence Council, actually praises the constraining role a CIA medical officer played at “Hotel California,” a CIA interrogation black site.
“He was the only ally I had,” Carle told SpyTalk. “He tried to have the detainees, mine in particular, treated humanely. 'This is a human being, man!' I remember him saying in one intense exchange I had with the facility manager..."
Carle also said he "always found OMS to function admirably. It always struck me as one of the more straightforward components of the agency…” Establishing an oversight board, "I suppose, is okay,” he says, but "I actually in general dislike creating yet more staff, procedures, oversight and so on.”
"There is always a reasonable case for each oversight and requirement step taken,” he added. “But they are like barnacles on a ship: Slowly they begin to slow the ship down so that it devotes more and more of its energy to meeting requirements, to scraping barnacles, and not to cleaving the water, which is what a ship is supposed to do."
The problem that congressional critics had with the OMS, was that it was too slow to act on Havana Syndrome and other issues. The committees’ goal is to speed things up. Only time will tell, of course, how that turns out.