Greg Myre

It's pretty rare for U.S. spies to gather at a conference and talk openly about the most pressing national security threats.

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The U.S. government wants to know why some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers are getting sick. It's called Havana syndrome, after the illnesses turned up in Havana. Many say they've suffered debilitating migraines, dizziness and memory loss.

Some history may be relevant. Years before the first Havana cases were reported, the U.S. government documented microwave radiation being directed at a U.S. embassy and at officials abroad. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has the backstory.

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In 1996, Michael Beck and a colleague at the National Security Agency were sent to a "hostile country" on a brief assignment. After being detained at the airport for about an hour, they were allowed to go, but they knew they were being closely watched.

A few days into the assignment, Beck woke up at his hotel feeling terrible.

"It was extreme fatigue and weakness. I was a bowl of jelly and couldn't get moving," said Beck. He was suspicious of the cause, but the symptoms went away.

In many parts of the U.S., China remains a huge business opportunity despite recent friction. That's the country where Apple makes its phones and Nike stitches its shoes. U.S. farmers sell soybeans to China and Wall Street investors trade Chinese stocks.

Yet inside the Washington Beltway, China is a security threat. Full stop. It's one of the few things Democrats, Republicans and most everyone else in the capital agree on.

"An adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geo-political test," CIA Director William Burns said in congressional testimony.

Consider these recent steps by President Biden and his team: selling nuclear submarines to Australia, outlining their approach to trade with China and hosting a White House gathering with key U.S. partners in Asia.

The CIA has removed its station chief in Vienna, in part because of his handling of cases involving what's known as "Havana syndrome," according to current and former government officials.

A growing number of U.S. intelligence officials in Vienna have reported symptoms in recent months consistent with Havana syndrome, which include dizziness, migraines and memory loss.

As President George W. Bush flew back to Washington on Air Force One on Sept. 11, he was accompanied by Michael Morell, the CIA officer who briefed the president daily.

Morell was in touch with CIA headquarters, which gave him heart-stopping intelligence that he had to urgently deliver to the president.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, a former Afghan army colonel named Mohammed became part of the massive crush of people trying to flee at the Kabul airport last week.

Mohammed and his family — a wife and five children — waited for hours to reach a Taliban checkpoint outside the airport. He presented identification documents that included his U.S. Social Security card and a Texas driver's license, both acquired during two training stints at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, more than a decade ago.

He hit a wall of hostility.

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Time's running out for the U.S. evacuation effort from Afghanistan. The White House says more than 100,000 people have been evacuated, including more than 5,000 U.S. citizens. But people still continue to gather around Kabul Airport, even after this week's attacks by the group by ISIS-K. Master Sergeant Kevin Haunschild leads the team that's responsible for air traffic control at Hamid Karzai International and joins us now. Master Sergeant, thanks for being with us.

KEVIN HAUNSCHILD: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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Updated August 24, 2021 at 10:09 AM ET

CIA Director William Burns met Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The meeting between Burns and Baradar marks the highest level meeting so far between the Biden administration and the Taliban since the group took over in Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

Journalist Hollie McKay was in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif when Afghan security forces fled ahead of advancing Taliban fighters last weekend. In the aftermath, the road out of town was littered with U.S.-made armored vehicles that the Afghan military had left behind.

The Afghan Girls Robotics Team made headlines in 2017 when they came to Washington for an international competition just a few blocks from the White House.

Most members of the team were born after the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, symbolizing a new Afghanistan where girls were free to go to school and women were getting at least some opportunities that had been long denied.

But with the Taliban back, the future of these girls — some of them now young women — has turned precarious.

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And we are going to hear now from NPR's Mara Liasson. She is joining us. Hang on one second. We're having a little bit of a computer problem here. Hey, Mara, you with me?

MARIA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes, I'm here.

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A memo obtained by NPR lays out the emergency preparations being made by American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul — including the destruction of sensitive documents and computers — as most of them prepare to leave the country.

The memo was written for staff at the embassy and shared with NPR on condition of anonymity.

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CIA Director William Burns says he has redoubled the agency's efforts to uncover the cause of Havana syndrome — the mysterious set of ailments that has afflicted more than 200 U.S. officials and family members around the world.

Just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a handful of CIA officers were the first Americans sent into Afghanistan. Gary Schroen was one of them, and he recalled his marching orders.

The recent ransomware attacks on the U.S. gas and meat industries have sparked renewed conversations about the possibility of an international cyber agreement that would set the ground rules for what is and isn't permissible, and spell out sanctions for violators.

This could have been the day that finally answered the burning question: Are there aliens out there? Sadly, we'll still have to wait.

A U.S. government report on UFOs says it found no evidence of aliens but acknowledged 143 reports of "unidentified aerial phenomena" since 2004 that could not be explained.

If you want to extort millions of dollars from a large U.S. company, you can't do it alone. It takes a village. A village of hackers with advanced computer skills, who hang out on the Dark Web, and most likely live in Russia.

"Ransomware has become a huge business, and as in any business, in order to scale it, they're coming up with innovative models." said Dmitri Alperovitch, head of the technology group Silverado Policy Accelerator in Washington.

The problem has long plagued bank robbers and drug smugglers: how to transport and hide huge sums of ill-gotten gains without getting caught?

In the past few years, ransomware hackers have found an almost perfect solution — cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. It's fast. It's easy. Best of all, it's largely anonymous and hard to trace.

President Biden received no grace period when it came to cyber hacks.

"The cyber pressures that this administration has faced so far have been relentless," said April Falcon Doss, a former National Security Agency official who now heads a technology program at the Georgetown University Law Center.

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President Biden and his Pentagon chiefs say the U.S. will assist Afghanistan's military from afar after American troops pull out. They haven't announced the details, but they do have a common refrain: "over the horizon."

"We will maintain an over-the-horizon capacity," Biden said in his recent address to a joint session of Congress.

"We will continue to support (the Afghans) with over-the-horizon logistics," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a recent new conference.

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