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CIA launches task force to probe invisible attacks on US diplomats and spies as one victim finds some relief

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By Kylie Atwood, CNN
Updated 4:26 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

(CNN) — More than three years after former senior US intelligence officer Marc Polymeropoulos suffered a mysterious attack in Moscow that changed his life forever, he finally has a diagnosis: a traumatic brain injury, sleep insomnia, and anxiety.

The determination from Walter Reed Medical Center this month comes after he spent years fighting to get specialized medical treatment as his own employer, among others, cast doubt on the nature of his illness.
“When they provided me the piece of paper with the diagnosis that said I had a traumatic brain injury, you know, I had tears in my eyes,” Polymeropoulos told CNN. “I immediately, in fact, called another agency officer who had been affected by this, and all I could say was, you know, they didn’t believe me before. And look at this now.”
Polymeropoulos is one of some 40 US government officials across multiple agencies who were victims of debilitating invisible attacks in Russia, Cuba, China and other places around the globe. Just last year, more of these assaults were carried out against Central Intelligence Agency officers, according to a source familiar with the cases.
    Now, CNN has learned that the CIA has set up its first-ever task force to focus on suspected microwave attacks on US intelligence officers. The effort will draw on a wide range of resources at the agency and ensures a team and process exists to address any future incidents, according to a US government official.
    When Polymeropoulos first came to CIA medical officials, they did not believe he had suffered an attack similar to those that US diplomats in Cuba were experiencing at the time. But he was confident about the similarities.
    Polymeropoulos, a 26-year veteran of the agency who spent his career fighting terrorism in the Middle East, felt betrayed. He described his relationship with the CIA as going from a love affair to a divorce.
    “They send you to a dangerous place and you accept that risk, but you always know that if something happens to you — they’re going to have your back, that I would always get proper treatment,” Polymeropoulos said. “What happened with me is, I think that pact was broken.”
    The CIA declined to respond directly to Polymeropoulos’ remarks, but spokesman Timothy Barrett said in a statement that the “CIA is working alongside other government agencies to double down on our efforts to find answers regarding the unexplained global health incidents that have impacted personnel. The Agency’s top priority has been and continues to be the well-being of all of our officers.”

    ‘Needless suffering’

    Polymeropoulos cut his career short when he retired in 2019. He points to the “needless suffering” he went through because the agency did not give him the support he felt he needed more immediately. Two other State Department officials who experienced similar attacks also cited frustration over the delay it took to get the care they needed.
    It is hard to determine the medical impact of delayed specialized treatment, but experts say that early treatment for traumatic brain injuries leads to a more speedy recovery. Polymeropoulos, who fought to get treatment at Walter Reed, is now trying to move on and help others.
    “It’s not healthy for me to be angry about it,” Polymeropoulos. “I’m putting my efforts forward to just ensuring that — people will not suffer that kind of delay in the future.”
    Marc Zaid, Polymeropoulos’s lawyer who represents almost a dozen other clients who became sick due to the mysterious attacks, said “Marc is the only one of my clients who received treatment at Walter Reed,” the government’s premier military medical facility. “All the others have all gone to their own personal doctors or went to” the University of Miami or the University of Pennsylvania for treatments and studies, Zaid said.
    “At no time ever to my knowledge did the Walter Reed TBI (traumatic brain injury) folks even come up as an option. Now, understanding what the benefit is, that is incredibly disappointing,” Zaid said.
    Polymeropoulos took part in art therapy during his month-long specialized program at Walter Reed Medical Center — a treatment that he called one of the best things he’s ever done. One of his projects shows a Superman mask punctured by a dagger — representing the image his family had of him, being ruined by the attack which changed him forever. Behind the mask there is a CIA seal cracked in half “which signified kind of the betrayal I felt in not getting the health care,” as immediately as he needed it, he said.
    The Biden administration has a major challenge ahead in determining how it pursues these investigations. Early movement across multiple agencies signals that they are moving to re-examine the issue and prioritize the investigation, and Blinken is being updated on developments.
    “Secretary Blinken requested a comprehensive briefing on the issue during the transition, and he has received updates during his time in office. He has made clear that this is a priority for him, and those updates will continue on a regular basis,” said a State Department spokesperson.
    This new momentum comes after a recently declassified 2018 State Department report obtained by the George Washington University’s National Security Archive concluded that the department’s investigation into what some called the ‘Havana Syndrome’ may have been botched from the beginning.
    “You see chaos, lack of organization, you see excessive secrecy, as the authors of the report put it, all of which compromised an initial investigation assessment of what was going on,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive.
    The State Department spokesman said, “we have no higher priority than the safety and security of US personnel, their families, and other US citizens. The US government is working to determine what happened to our staff and their families and to ensure the well-being and health of our officials going forward. That investigation is ongoing and is a high priority. The Department has not yet determined a cause or culprit.”
    Bill Burns, Biden’s pick to lead the CIA, said during his confirmation hearing that he would prioritize care for affected CIA personnel, including at Walter Reed, as well as finding those responsible party behind the attacks.
    “I will make it extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks that you just described,” Burns said.
    The CIA’s new task force, created at the end of 2020, is expected to be key to this effort.
    The task force team will draw on agency physicians, as well as officers specializing in human resources, privacy and civil liberties, and counterintelligence, to provide effected individuals with the medical care and resources the CIA personnel may need, the official said. It will also leverage relationships with leading medical intuitions to best address issues impacting officers’ health, the official added.
    Sources familiar with the ongoing investigations out of the separate US agencies — including the CIA, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the State Department — say that a major impediment to their efficacy is the fact that they are largely siloed efforts. Interagency coordination has been limited, in part due to the highly classified nature of some details and the privacy restrictions of health records, and that has hampered progress.
    It is not clear if the Biden administration will bring the multiple investigations of these suspected microwave attacks under one roof, but officials at the National Security Council are discussing that possibility, two sources familiar with the discussions told CNN. The NSC did not respond to a request for comment.

    Lawmakers are seeking answers

    While the federal government response had left victims feeling frustrated, members of Congress have taken up the cause.
    Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who has been a longtime advocate for the victims of these attacks, says that the Biden administration needs to prioritize this issue both on the treatment side and on the investigative side.
    “If we don’t hold those responsible accountable, then we can be sure it’s going to continue to happen. And that’s a national security risk to the United States and to our personnel,” Shaheen told CNN.
    While classified briefings about these attacks have been provided on Capitol Hill, many members of Congress did not get all of the information they requested during the Trump administration, according to multiple congressional sources familiar with the matter.
    Some suspect that Trump’s failure to confront Russian aggression across the board was one factor in what they saw as an unsatisfactory response from his administration.
    “The Trump administration did not demonstrate any level of urgency in confronting aggressions, Russian aggression of any sort,” explained Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and current member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So alleged Russian aggression through a curious and not fully defined, be it sound attack, be it microwave attack on US personnel — is clearly not something that would rise to the top of their to do lists when clear Russian aggression is not something that they were contending with.”
    Congressional intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight committees are continuing to investigate the matter, multiple congressional aides told CNN.
    “The Committee has long-standing concern related to whether foreign adversaries might be seeking to do harm to Americans abroad, particularly the men and women of the Intelligence Community who often toil in shadows with no public recognition of their many sacrifices,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN in a statement. “We have conducted, and will continue to conduct, rigorous oversight to ensure the health and safety of all Intelligence Community personnel.”
    A former senior State Department official involved in the investigation told CNN that the department had not closed the investigation during the Trump administration, but described the effort as having hit a “dead end,” due in part to the fact that the US was unable to gain access to the security footage of the residences of US diplomats in Cuba who were also attacked. The official said the Cuban government would not release that footage.
      But Shaheen does not believe the cases are unsolvable.
      “I think we are going to be able to find out, maybe not with 100% certainty, but most of our intelligence doesn’t come with 100% certainty. So I think we will have a pretty good idea,” Shaheen said.

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      Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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      By Kevin Liptak, CNN
      Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

      (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

      The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
      But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
        Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
          Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
              The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
              The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
              Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
              Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
              That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
              But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
              “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
              “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
              While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
              Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
              The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
              Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
              And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
              “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
              As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                  “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                    The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                        Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                        “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                        “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                        Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                        “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                          “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                          Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                          Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                          By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                          Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                          Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                          If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                          “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                            Longtime ATF special agent

                              Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                Gun control advocacy

                                After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                  And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                  This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                  Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                  By Devan Cole, CNN
                                  Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                  Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                  “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                  Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                    “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                      “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                            Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                            “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                            Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                            By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                            Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                            (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                            In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                            “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                              Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                  Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                  “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                  Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                    Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                    Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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