EDITOR’S NOTE (Nick Stamatakis): Helleniscope has repeatedly noted (here you can link to one of our posts ) the fascination many Greek-Americans had with the CIA since the times of its formation as OSS.  From Tom Karamesinis in the 1950s and 1960s (who actually became deputy director from 1967-73) to Gast Avrakotos (who had a central shady role in deceiving the “second Junta” leader Ioannides and in preparing the 1974 Cyprus tragedy – and then went to Afganistan to help defeat the Soviets in the famous “Charlie’s Wilson War”) to Bill Basil (involved in the wiretapping scandal in Athens in 2008-09 -who is still around as a trainer) there have been so many Greeks in Langley that it was rumored they used to have regular lunches at the “Greek Club” in the Agency… After all, we managed to have a very Greek, George Tenet, as the head of the Agency under Clinton and Bush junior… It is rumored that Tenet was so powerful that when George W. Bush was about to fire him he responded in such a way that “W” had one only choice: To award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004)… It was obvious that George Tenet had made an offer President Bush “could not refuse”…

And of course, more recently we have the agent turned whistleblower, John Kyriakou, whose story and 30-month sentence made national headlines…

Our latest “Hellene of CIA” is Marc Polymeropoulos, former Head of Clandestine Operations in Europe and Eurasia for the CIA, who was inflicted with a strange disease after visiting Moscow…  At the bottom of this post, you can also watch a video where Marc talks about his long experience… 

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By Mark Myre (NPR)

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, when he was sound asleep at a Marriott Hotel in Moscow near the U.S. Embassy.

“I was awoken in the middle of the night,” recalled Polymeropoulos, 51. “I just had incredible vertigo, dizziness. I wanted to throw up. The room was spinning. I couldn’t even stand up without falling down. I had tinnitus ringing in my ears.”

He suspected a bad case of food poisoning and carried on with his 10-day trip. The visit included meetings with senior Russian intelligence officials, a common practice despite the long history of tense relations between the two countries and their spy agencies.

But a second bout hit a few days later. Polymeropoulos canceled his remaining meetings and felt fortunate to make it back onto a plane to the U.S.

At the time, Polymeropoulos was settling into a new, senior position at CIA headquarters. After many years in the Middle East, he had become the agency’s No. 2 official for clandestine operations in Europe, including Russia.

But a couple of months after he returned from his Moscow trip, in February 2018, he began suffering crippling migraines that still plague him constantly.

“I started this kind of an incredible journey of seeing multiple doctors, multiple MRIs and CT scans and X-rays,” said Polymeropoulos, whose story was first reported in GQ magazine. “Ultimately a neurologist diagnosed me with occipital neuralgia.”

This nerve inflammation in the back of the head would explain his headaches, though it’s not clear what caused it.

Medical mystery

Polymeropoulos is not alone.

Since 2016, more than 40 U.S. diplomats who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and more than a dozen at U.S. consulates in China have complained of a range of symptoms that also include balance issues, ringing in their ears and memory loss. More than a dozen Canadian diplomats who served in Cuba in 2017 reported similar symptoms.

Polymeropoulos is the first to link his illness to Russia. He says a CIA colleague who traveled with him to Moscow in 2017 suffers similar ailments. In addition, several CIA officers working on Russia issues elsewhere in the world have also been afflicted, he said. Aside from Polymeropoulos, the others are still at the CIA and have not spoken out.

A car drives past the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2019. More than 40 Americans working at the embassy suffered from unexplained ailments that included headaches, balance problems and memory loss.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

“One of whom I know very well and has been really severely affected,” he said.

Many of the State Department diplomats have been examined at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, as well as the University of Miami and the National Institutes of Health.

The bottom line: doctors say the ailments are real, but they don’t know what’s causing them, and they have not found evidence of traumatic brain injury.

Political questions

In addition to the medical mystery, there are also political questions about the so-called Havana Syndrome.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, said 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 said, and she wants to know if this is related to political sensitivities in dealing with Cuba, China and Russia.

“Some of the employees were doubted when they reported their symptoms. Some were pressured to stay silent. Some were ostracized and reprimanded for saying they were sick,” Shaheen said. “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?”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejects this.

“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,” Pompeo said when asked at a recent press conference.

A new report

The State Department commissioned a study last year by the National Academies of Sciences, which handed in the report in early August.

But the findings have not been released, much to the frustration of Dr. David Relman, the Stanford professor who chaired the study.

“I am quite puzzled and and somewhat dismayed that it has been this long with really, silence,” Dr. Relman told NPR. “We spent a year of pretty hard work addressing some really tough cases and tough problems.”

Dr. Relman expects the report to be made public, as is the tradition of work done by the academies.

“A number of people here were grievously harmed and are suffering still. So I think this is a really important issue, even if we can’t give you an easy answer,” he said.

Unproven theories have been circulating for the past few years.

The leading one is that U.S. officials were subjected to some sort of sonic or microwave attacks by foreign governments. Perhaps the intent was to injure them. Or maybe the aim was to steal secrets from their phones and computers, and the officials were just collateral damage.

Russia, China and Cuba have all denied any such actions.

Early retirement

With great reluctance, Marc Polymeropoulos retired from the CIA last year at age 50.

He believes he was attacked during his 2017 visit. But he acknowledges that there’s no proof at this point, and said his focus is on regaining his health.

“I just couldn’t sit at a computer or go to meetings. The headaches were just too debilitating,” he said.

Polymeropoulos is 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.

“I spent 26 years in an organization that I still love. I have dear friends there,” he said. “I was a very successful officer who retired in the senior ranks. So the idea of talking about this publicly is really difficult for me.”

Polymeropoulos was examined by the CIA medical staff and then by many private doctors, but the headaches continue to plague him. After a lengthy back-and-forth with the CIA, he was allowed to enroll in a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. But it’s just a study. What he wants is specialized brain treatment across the street from the NIH — at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Walter Reed is cutting-edge when it comes to treating traumatic brain injuries, a testament to its vast experience in dealing with wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve asked [the CIA] repeatedly over the last year to send me to Walter Reed, and they have actively rejected this, which to me is is kind of mystifying,” he said.

The CIA declined to discuss the specifics of his case, but said, “The CIA’s first priority has been and continues to be the welfare of all of our officers.”

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7 ΣΧΟΛΙΑ

  1. We mentioned Tenet in our editor’s note… As I said, the first notorious one was Tom Karamesinis who became deputy director 1967-73… What is remarkable is that many of those men rose to higher status and are still today in their retirement employed as “trainers” of the newer generations… I am fascinated with answering this question: “What are the cultural/ethnic identity traits that helped them succeed at these difficult and usually very dangerous positions?”

  2. A LOT MORE THAN YOU THINK. JUST LOOK FOR GEORGES AND NICKS.

    WHY? CIA and State and DoD are the elite agencies in which to serve, ones that haven’t been overwhelmed with sloppy, unmotivated, unionized, with a burrowed in Set of political appointees (as careerists) workforce. Americans of Greek descent are well educated and credentialed and are attracted to these agencies which also offer travel assisgments.

    CIA Director Gina Haspel welcomed three senior officers to the Agency’s leadership team including Greek-American Andrew (Andy) Makridis who was appointed Chief Operating Officer (COO). Makridis succeeds Brian Bulatao, who is pending Senate confirmation to be Under Secretary of State for Management.

    Nick Natsios followed Karamessines as chief of the Athens station in the 1950s and went to run CIA stations in Vietnam, France, and South Korea.

    George Kalaris, former station chief in Brazil and Indonesia, succeeded the legendary James Angleton as chief of Counterintelligence Staff in 1975.

    George Jameson served over thirty years in the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Intelligence Community-as a senior counsel, as director of the CIA’s policy and coordination office, and managing congressional affairs at the CIA and the office of the DNI. His responsibilities included the reviewing of legality and propriety of operations including covert action and counterterrorism, war crimes issues, foreign relationships, information and privacy, and intelligence community policy and reform.
    A private consultant, he is also an adjunct staff member at the RAND corporation and Chairman of the nonprofit Council on Intelligence Issues

    George Fidas’ professional experience includes: Political Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency, 1973-2004; Director of National Intelligence Faculty Representative, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, 1993-96; Contract Professor, National Defense Intelligence College, 2004-07

    And don’t forget John Negroponte, briefly as DNI-Director National Security, with CIA reporting to him at the time.

    And the ones serving or served with No Official Cover (NOCS) status, you will never know, not even in retirement or death.

    • Thanks, American… I think we should write a more complete piece now…

      But I was also referring to some more specific qualities… It has been said for one of these Greek CIA men and may apply to many: “He had an uncanny ability to come close to people instantly. You would meet him for the first time and within the first half-hour you found yourself spilling your family secrets to him…” I think being personable is one thing – but here we see some extreme qualities of adjusting to “foreign” or “unknown” situations that cannot be easily taught in the courses that I am sure the Agency teaches all of its people… My theory is that the “Greek DNA”, the Greek identity, at the center of which we are finding this ability to travel all over the world and adjust to the unknown, has something to do with it… Especially for those who had successful careers internationally in the various clandestine operations…

      Just watch Marc Polymeropoulos for a few minutes in the video posted here and you will have the same feeling: You will think that you know him forever… And that he is your closest friend and you can open up to him…

  3. Publisher: Don’t oversell yourself on the Greek mystique, although clearly people of certain races and ethnicities have better survival and human navigation skills than others. CIA case officers who are trained for clandestine activity (both official and not official and also para-military activity) are very highly trained individuals who also speak multiple languages. Yes, what Yiayia told you about watching out in crowds may form a basis for good instincts, but the rest of the tradecraft comes from years of highly specialized training. And not all CIA employees are in the clandestine operatIons side of that business, most cited above are or were not.

    In any case, recently, a very successful Big City restauranteur recounted to me how that restauranteur deals with the many, big cash spending Gypsy population that frequents their restaurant, and how there is an art form to seating and dealing with them , particularly with regard to other customers and the vulnerability the other customers to Gypsy scams. Greek “instincts” definitely play a role in navigating that successfully.

    So, don’t single out the “spy” part. Lawyers, politicians, law enforcement, restaurant and small business operators of Greek heritage, all have some of those same instincts that serve them well. See http://www.emypoumpouras.com. Emy is former US Secret Service.

    Now with all that said, why don’t our heritage’s great instincts enable us to smell out the many crooks and scammers in our church hierarchy and deal with them? It’s strange isn’t it?

    • AMERICAN: Why can’t we smell out crooks and scammers? Because we take it as a natural part of life instead of decrying it… And why do we take it as a natural part of life? One of the reasons may be that we largely “invented” the institution of the “mafia” among our so many other inventions… Mafia originates in Southern Italy the historians tell us – a Greek-dominated area for the past 3000 years… and “mafia” is largely founded on a “crooked transformation” of the institution of the “family”… “Greek-way family” overrides everything else… Leaving no space for meritocracy. Since 1960, during the last 60 years, Greece had eight (yes, eight!!) prime-ministers from only three family clans: Karamanlis, Papandreou, Mitsotakis… Father Mitsotrakis had a minimum of 5,000 godchildren in Crete and son Mitsotakis, the current prime minister is part of the “legacy”… When “family affiliation” precludes other qualifications then you end up with all kinds of “crookedness”… This crookedness, the exclusion of meritocracy, is the number one reason of Greek emigration in the last few centuries… Those who came to the US flourished with their competence, skills, ability, natural intelligence in a wonderful country that gave them the opportunity to succeed on their merits. But unfortunately, they still left room for “family schemes” like the Karloutsoses and the rest…

      But these abominations of our race should not take away the superb natural intelligence, the very daring and adventurous character, a character that knows no fear (and as such is deeply freedom-loving), an unsurpassed natural curiosity which led to the creation of all arts and sciences and an unmatched ability to communicate with people “whose tongues we do not understand”, as Homer put it… All of which may explain the high concentration of Greek-Americans at the CIA… We should know our flaws along with our so many positive traits… I am sure that those Greeks at the CIA had success not only based on their merits but also on their understanding of what “crookedness” means…

ΑΦΗΣΤΕ ΜΙΑ ΑΠΑΝΤΗΣΗ

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