The Secrets of the So-Called “Havana Syndrome”

The Secrets of the So-Called “Havana Syndrome”

The Secrets of the So-Called “Havana Syndrome”

The injuries to US personnel are real, and the cause of the syndrome was not crickets—but excessive secrecy has frustrated investigators and hampered the victims’ efforts to understand this mysterious malady.


Behind closed doors and with little fanfare, on October 8, President Joe Biden signed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act into law. Known as the “Havana Act”—a misnomer since most of the purported “attacks” took place far from Cuba—the legislation authorizes the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department to compensate a growing number of agents and diplomats who have experienced a cluster of cognitive-related injuries from a mysterious, and still unidentified, source. The impetus for the new law came from complaints by a number of injured US personnel that their own government, particularly during the Donald Trump era, has been dismissive of their medical needs and the legitimacy of their injuries.

“We’re not making this up—this happened to real people,” one injured Havana embassy official stated in a dramatic interview with NBC News in October. “It just seems important to humanize this,” another told NBC, “to help all my fellow Americans understand that, as much skepticism as still seems to surround this, it’s very real.”

Indeed, public skepticism remains high—enhanced by proponents of the mass hysteria theory as the likely explanation gaining traction in the opinion pages of the media, as well as by misleading coverage of a secret government study that debunked the initial theory of a “sonic attack” in Cuba. “Is the Havana Syndrome Real? A Newly Declassified Report Says It May Be Crickets,” The National Interest reported. “Secret State Department Report Suggests Likely Cause of Havana Syndrome: BUGGED,” was the headline of a Daily Beast story. “A Declassified State Department Report Says Microwaves Didn’t Cause Havana Syndrome,” declared BuzzFeed News, which obtained the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The portion of the document that is readable does not support any such assertions. But 80 percent of the 98-page report, written for the State Department by the elite JASON scientific advisory group, has been redacted on national security grounds—to protect the intelligence operatives present among those in Cuba who experienced what is officially being called an “anomalous health incident.” About half of the approximately 200 cases of AHIs in China, Colombia, Austria, Germany, Australia, India, Vietnam, and other locations have been reported by members of the CIA.

The fact that CIA spies are involved has cast a long shadow of secrecy over the efforts to resolve this national security mystery. As in the case of the JASON report, information has been restricted and heavily censored; official investigations have been compromised by the lack of access to classified records; and congressional oversight has been kept at arm’s length until recently. The lack of transparency has delayed progress in determining the cause and culprit behind these incidents. Most important, it has left those who experienced these traumatic injuries in the dark about what happened to them and what it means for their health and well-being.

“Excessive Secrecy”

Since late 2016, when a CIA operative experienced what was described as “severe pain and a sensation of intense pressure in the face, [and] a loud piercing sound in one ear,” the saga of the syndrome has been dominated by secrecy. For weeks, the CIA kept secret that its agents were reporting being stricken, one by one, in their Havana homes by what they described as “an invisible beam of energy”—in hopes of ascertaining what was happening to them before it became public. But after rumors of a mysterious malady spread through a panicked embassy community, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission, convened a staff meeting in late March 2017 to discuss the incidents. Close to 50 embassy personnel gathered in a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility), where DeLaurentis explained that the mystery ailments were being investigated and that medical support was available. “He concluded the meeting by asking the assembled staff to avoid talking about the situation outside the secure confines of the embassy, even with their families,” because the matter was classified. “We thought that was nuts,” one official told ProPublica. “There were family members who were attacked at home. How could we not tell them to watch out for this?”

The delay in sharing information between the CIA and the State Department was a critical error in managing the emerging crisis, according to the first internal State Department investigation—an investigation that itself was delayed as the Trump administration appeared to stall any inquiry that would acknowledge the CIA presence in Cuba. By law, any security incident involving embassy personnel requires the convening of an Accountability Review Board, usually within 60 days of a credible episode. But even as reported cases of injuries to US diplomats and operatives multiplied in Cuba and then spread to the Canadian embassy, the ARB was not convened until early 2018—more than a year after CIA agents first reported symptoms. “Both at [Havana] Post and in Washington, response to the incidents was characterized by excessive secrecy that contributed to a delayed response,” the ARB concluded.

The ARB evaluation itself became a major example of that excessive secrecy. The State Department refused to show the report to Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, approving a briefing instead. The Trump administration similarly resisted a request from the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, to turn over an unclassified copy to Congress.

Nor was the ARB report shared with a team of investigators from the National Academy of Sciences that had been commissioned by the State Department to identify the cause of the injuries. In an interview, Dr. David Relman, the chairman of the NAS’s Standing Committee to Advise the Department of State on Unexplained Health Effects on U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies, told me how his team was denied access to relevant national security records. Even an unclassified CDC epidemiological assessment was off-limits; the NAS team finally obtained the CDC report through unofficial channels.

The JASON report was among the classified assessments withheld from NAS investigators. Stamped secret and titled “Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” the “rapid response study” evaluated eight tape recordings, made in Havana by US personnel, of a shrill buzzing sound they associated with their injuries. Through acoustic analysis, the JASON team concluded the recorded sounds were “an excellent match” to the mating call of the Indies short-tailed cricket.

But the report clearly pointed out the tenuous correlation between the recordings and the injuries. Seven of the recordings were, in fact, not made “simultaneously with reported onset of symptoms” but rather at different times and places; moreover, some victims reported hearing no sound at all. The JASON scientists specifically stated that “the sound pressure intensity levels of the recorded and audible sounds are not, by themselves, the cause of reported long term harm” to the victims. The main takeaway from the report was not that the din of lovelorn crickets caused the Havana syndrome but that something else did.

Microwaves, perhaps? Neither microwaves nor other energy sources could “produce both the recorded noise/video signals and the reported medical effects,” the JASON report said, leaving open the possibility that a directed-energy device could indeed generate the health incidents alone. Contrary to BuzzFeed’s assertion that JASON “dismissed” microwaves as the potential cause, the study contained a section on mitigating the threat of “electromagnetics” if they were identified as the source of the syndrome. Those recommendations are, predictably, redacted.

The Trump administration managed to cover up the existence of the classified JASON report; it endeavored to do the same with the unclassified NAS report. Dr. Relman noted that the NAS expected the State Department to publicly release its report after it was submitted in August 2020. Instead, the administration withheld it. “The American people and their elected representatives deserve to read what we have found,” Dr. Relman stated publicly in October 2020, in an effort to prod the State Department to release the report. The study was eventually leaked to The New York Times and NBC News—presumably by one of the victims who had obtained a copy—and then was posted on the NAS website on December 5, 2020.

Reviewing all plausible theories—chemical poisoning and psychological factors among them—the NAS team concluded that “many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported by [State Department and CIA] employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency.” It was beyond the NAS’s ability to identify the source, the report observed. But, its authors warned, “the mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others.”

The Question of Russia

As cases of anomalous health incidents among intelligence, military, and diplomatic personnel have proliferated around the world, the identity of those “malevolent actors” and what “new tools,” if any, they may be using have become the subject of intense speculation and debate. A study released by the Cuban Academy of Science in September, for example, dismissed the idea that such actors and devices exist. “No known form of energy can selectively cause brain damage (with laser-like precision) under the conditions described for the alleged incidents in Havana,” the report stated. The injuries experienced by the US and Canadian embassy communities were likely due to “a heterogeneous collection of medical conditions, some pre-existing before going to Cuba and others acquired due to mundane causes.” It also cited conditions for the “psychogenic propagation of malaise”—commonly known as mass hysteria—as a causal factor for the trauma experienced by some victims.

Other authoritative investigators have made similar arguments. An early FBI investigation into the source of the maladies included an evaluation by the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit that also focused on psychogenic causes—without actually interviewing any of the US personnel whose brain injuries were medically confirmed. “I mean, I have verified physical injuries,” Kate Husband told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, describing the concussion-like brain disorder that has left her unable to work and ended her diplomatic career. The FBI study remains classified.

US scientific experts also dispute that a directed-energy device that could inflict such injuries actually exists. As Cheryl Rofer, whose 35-year career at Los Alamos Laboratories included work on microwave technologies, argued in Foreign Policy, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

But an informed debate on weaponized microwaves has been rendered nearly impossible given the tight secrecy that surrounds the R&D of such technology. Both the United States and the Russians have been exploring such technologies for decades. The CIA began to research the potential for microwave weaponry as a component of its MKULTRA mind control program in the 1950s—after analyzing Soviet scientific literature that suggested that microwave radiation could be used to disorient military and diplomatic personnel. One early MKULTRA experiment was titled “Effects of radio-frequency energy on primate cerebral activity.” In the mid-1960s the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated another secret study—code-named “Project Pandora”—of the impact of microwaves on the behavior of monkeys, in an effort to determine whether the Soviet program of beaming microwaves at the US embassy in Moscow was an attempt to debilitate personnel posted there. The “Moscow Signal,” as the radiation was referred to in secret cables, targeted the embassy from 1953 to 1979, creating an eerie, if distant, precedent for what appears to be the targeting of US personnel around the world today.

More recent Moscow-connected cases are receiving renewed attention from investigators. In 1996, a National Security Agency counterintelligence officer named Mike Beck was stricken with extreme vertigo in his hotel room while on a mission to a “hostile country.” “There is intelligence information from 2012 associating the hostile country to which Mr. Beck traveled in the late 1990s with a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence,” states an NSA document that was declassified in 2014 as part of a workers’ compensation case Beck filed after he and a colleague on that mission both developed a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. “The 2012 intelligence information indicated that this weapon is designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.”

That information, and the name of the country where Beck sustained his injuries, remain highly classified—despite their obvious relevance to understanding the causes of the current cases of unexplained health incidents. Sources familiar with the still-secret intelligence report told The New York Times the country was Russia.

Russia is also tied to the more recent case of veteran CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos, who experienced extreme vertigo with nausea and tinnitus in his hotel room during a December 2017 trip to Moscow. He subsequently developed debilitating headaches that forced him to retire from the agency. For three years, the CIA medical office rejected his requests for medical treatment and workers’ compensation, but under the new leadership of director William Burns, his claims have been accepted as part of the increasing cohort of AHI cases. Polymeropoulos considers his case, and those more recently reported, to be “an act of war.” He has become a high-profile proponent of an aggressive US response.

These cases have contributed to a rough consensus within the national security agencies that the AHI injuries are real; that the cause is some type of modernized, and mobile, microwave-energy device; and that the likely culprit is Russian military intelligence. “Senior officials in the Trump and Biden Administrations suspect that the Russians are responsible for the syndrome,” reported Adam Entous, who has covered this story extensively for The New Yorker. “Their working hypothesis is that operatives working for the G.R.U., the Russian military-intelligence service, have been aiming microwave-radiation devices at U.S. officials, possibly to steal data from their computers or smartphones, which inflicted serious harm on the people they targeted.” During a June summit in Switzerland, Biden reportedly raised the issue with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The memorandum of their conversation remains classified.

Seeking Transparency

Along with “excessive secrecy,” the Trump administration’s response to the health incidents, according to its own ARB report, was characterized by a “lack of senior leadership, ineffective communications, and systemic disorganization.” But those affected did not find the Biden administration any more responsive or transparent, at least initially. “We have been disheartened to learn and experience that staff within the Department continue to 1) Deny employees and injured family members access to proper medical evaluation and treatment 2) Reject scientific evidence regarding the injuries and treatment needs and 3) Invalidate our injuries and experiences,” a group of 21 State Department officials wrote on May 25 to Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon. They demanded that the State Department leadership “stand by the women and men advancing our foreign policy by prioritizing the health, safety and security of our officers.”

In 2018, eight former members of the Havana embassy community retained the renowned Washington, D.C., whistleblower lawyer Mark Zaid to represent them. On their behalf, Zaid played a role in pressing Congress to pass the Havana Act. Along with The New Yorker’s Entous, Zaid—the founder of the James Madison Project, a public interest legal firm dedicated to promoting right-to-know matters on national security—filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking access to thousands of pages of secret records generated by the State Department’s investigations of AHIs. “Congress needs to push for greater transparency from the executive branch as to what it knows about these incidents. Sometimes even more valuable than compensation is knowledge,” Zaid observed. “We’re looking for answers,” he told NPR in mid-October. “We’re tired of the subterfuge of the US government hiding this information.”

Leading members of Congress repeatedly pressed both the Trump and Biden administrations for more information—and have repeatedly complained about the failure to comply. “The Department has not been forthcoming with key details about the incidents involving the serious injuries incurred by several of these personnel,” stated a letter that six senators, led by New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just before Trump left office. “We also have very limited information regarding the Department’s assessment of causation and ways to prevent future incidents. It is imperative that the Department provide us the relevant information currently in its possession.” Shaheen and Senator Susan Collins subsequently drafted the Havana Act, which mandates reports to Congress by the CIA and the State Department on the distribution of compensation funds in an effort to increase the flow of information to lawmakers.

Biden signed the bill with a growing sense of urgency to resolve this mystery as cases mushroom around the world. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris’s trip to Vietnam was delayed by the evacuation of two US officials from Hanoi who had suffered syndrome-like symptoms. In September, a member of the CIA entourage accompanying director William Burns to India experienced an AHI; in October, five families of US diplomats in Bogotá were reportedly stricken as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken prepared to visit Colombia.

Indeed, beyond the harm done to dozens of individuals who have been diagnosed with brain trauma, the phenomenon of unexplained health incidents is creating a crisis of confidence in the national security and foreign policy establishments. Recently, the State Department relieved Ambassador Pamela Spratlen of her duties supervising the Health Incident Response Task Force only six months after Secretary Blinken appointed her “to reaffirm our commitment to make certain that those affected receive the care and treatment they need.” Spratlen had reportedly refused to reject the FBI study on mass hysteria, offending the injured Foreign Service officers for whom she’d been appointed to advocate. Around the same time, the CIA’s Vienna station chief was relieved of his duties for failing to aggressively investigate multiple reports of AHIs among his agents in Austria. “It’s obvious how a US adversary would have much to gain from the disorder, distress, and division that has followed,” said Senator Shaheen.

That the Biden administration is actively investigating the mysterious injuries to US national security personnel is no longer in question. The State Department and the Pentagon have established task forces to intensify their bureaucratic focus on the issue; the CIA has upgraded its efforts by appointing a new task force chief—an undercover counterterrorism operative who is a veteran of the campaign to track down and kill Osama bin Laden. The Joint Intelligence Community Council has held classified high-level briefings to share information between agencies. “Addressing these incidents has been a top priority for my Administration,” Biden said in a statement issued when he signed the Havana Act. “We are bringing to bear the full resources of the U.S. Government to make available first-class medical care to those affected and to get to the bottom of these incidents, including to determine the cause and who is responsible.”

When and if that determination comes, it will be met with widespread skepticism given the intensity of the debate surrounding this enigmatic phenomenon—unless the investigative record is declassified for public scrutiny. Five years after CIA operatives first experienced mysterious health problems in Cuba, the paper trail of secret documentation is long and getting longer; and there are no signs that Biden plans to lift the veil of excessive secrecy that has characterized and compromised this inquiry from the beginning. As a growing list of individual health incidents morphs into a perceived but still unexplained national security threat, that lack of transparency will continue to deprive AHI victims of the information that they have a need to know—and, like the rest of us, the right to know.

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