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CIA’s Havana Syndrome task force to be led by officer who hunted Bin Laden

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WASHINGTON — The leader of the CIA’s task force on the Havana Syndrome is a veteran officer who was instrumental in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to an official familiar with the matter.

The officer’s role was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The official familiar with the matter told NBC News that the intelligence veteran heading the task force was “intimately involved in the hunt for Bin Laden and will bring that same intensity and rigor to the hunt for the source of the unexplained health incidents” that have now involved diplomats, intelligence officers, and other U.S. agency personnel and their families around the world.

The task force head, a 10-year counterterrorism veteran, is still undercover.

NBC News reported Tuesday that as many as 200 U.S. officials or family members have reported possible symptoms. Roughly two dozen cases were reported in Vienna alone.

The mysterious syndrome was first reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016. In the following years, cases were reported at U.S posts in China, Russia, and now in a number of European capitals as well as Central Asia. In December, a scientific study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine zeroed in on a form of directed energy emissions from microwave as a possible source.

NBC News first reported in 2018 that Russia was suspected of being behind the attacks because it had long experience in that technology dating back to the 1970’s, but one official said this week “there is still no smoking gun.”

The National Security Council is now coordinating two administration task forces on the syndrome, including the one at the CIA, as the administration says it is committed to an all-out effort to find the cause and protect personnel posted overseas.

The task force ordered by CIA Director William Burns includes intelligence analysts, clandestine officers, clinicians, and specialists from across the agency. A senior official said outside experts are also being brought in for additional technical and medical expertise.



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Government has forgiven nearly $400 billion in Covid-relief PPP loans, federal watchdogs say

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WASHINGTON — The federal government has forgiven $394.6 billion in more than 4 million loans to businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), according to new data published by a group of internal federal watchdogs.

More than a million of those forgiven Covid relief loans were to companies with just one employee, at a cost of $12.8 billion, or an average of about $11,497 per job, according to an analysis of the data by NBC News.

The data was released Wednesday by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), a group made up of 22 inspectors general from different federal agencies that monitors all Covid relief spending for the government.

In total, according to the data, the Small Business Administration provided 11.7 million loans nationwide totaling more than $798 billion. The most recent batch of loans was sent out on June 30, and no more money is currently available under the program.

The top franchisees to get funds overall were General Motors franchises at $1.4 billion, according to the newly published data. Following that were McDonald’s franchisees, which received $1.3 billion in funds, and Subway stores, which got $672.9 million.

The vast majority of companies told the federal government they used the money for payroll — $776 billion out of the $798 billion disbursed. As of June 30, businesses said that PPP funding allowed them to retain 90.3 million jobs.

On June 30, when Covid cases and unemployment had declined and vaccines were abundant, the federal government sent out $33 million in PPP loans to 62 businesses that reported they had a total of 4,469 employees.

Some of the biggest winners in this last round of PPP loans were four Planned Parenthood affiliates, which got a combined $4.13 million.

GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky objected to any further PPP funding going to Planned Parenthood during a hearing in late May. The Trump administration had tried to pull back funding from Planned Parenthood affiliates that were given $80 million in PPP loans last year.

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U.K. man arrested for hacking Twitter accounts of prominent Americans 

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Senate Republicans block vote to begin debate on infrastructure bill 

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