In 2016, about 25 members of the American diplomatic corps and their families in Havana, Cuba, came down with a similar set of disturbing and unexplained symptoms. Most of them reported that the experience started with an irritating sound that stopped abruptly, sometimes when changing location, some feeling debilitated as they heard it. In the aftermath of the mysterious noise, they reported a list of symptoms that affected their mental and physical functions including headaches, brain fog, vertigo, poor balance, hearing loss, and other conditions that would normally be associated with a head injury. For some, symptoms went away quickly; others struggled with them for months or years.
Doctors were unsuccessful in finding a diagnosis and Foreign Service officials did not raise an alarm, suggesting explanations ranging from ill effects of pesticides to a mass psychogenic illness, shared symptoms experienced due to a group’s belief that they have been exposed to something that would cause injury.
Then it happened again the next year at the U.S. consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. Since then, individuals and small groups, mostly connected in some way to U.S. diplomatic interests abroad, have continued to tell the same story. The U.S. government has said that it currently has at least 130 such cases stemming from a long list of international locations, and a small number in the Washington, D.C., area.
Under the Trump administration, some initial investigations were made into the cases, with few conclusions drawn. Until very recently, what has come to be known as Havana syndrome received little attention from government or media. To compound the matter, many of the victims claim that the agencies they worked for at the time of the incidents have been lackluster in providing medical care to treat or mitigate their symptoms.
Last week, a bill unanimously passed the Senate authorizing the CIA and State Department to provide financial support to victims. The Biden administration has said that the National Security Council is currently reviewing the cases and intelligence on them, but so far, while conjectures abound, more questions than answers remain.
Yet a consensus is slowly forming that these mysterious cases are neither a coincidence nor a natural phenomenon, but the result of a planned attack on America’s diplomatic corps.
A Real Pain In the Brain
In testimonials given by several victims, their claims were met with skepticism. While symptoms persisted, sometimes to an extent to which they could no longer perform their jobs, brain scans and other tests turned up little to pin their conditions on.
James Giordano, professor of neurology and ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center and senior fellow in biotechnology, biosecurity and ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. was brought in as part of a team that was assembled by the U.S. government to study the cases that originally cropped up in Havana. He was confident that the symptoms were real.
“Objective tests showed that these cases could not be fake,” said Professor Giordano. “Upon medical examination and validation, these subjective symptoms had objective signs like the way their eyes were moving relative to the position of their head, representative of some sort of displacement in the inner ear organs and a number of cognitive problems.”
Professor Giordano said that, given the high level of training and necessity of sequencing and multitasking in the jobs of multiple victims, the level to which their capabilities had been diminished was an obvious sign of some form of injury.
“The electrographic records and their motor function were all highly representative of a head injury, but none of them reported head injuries. There were no concussions or collective trauma,” he said.
Several alternative theories, Professor Giordano said, were eliminated in his mind. Residual effects from pesticides would have affected a broader base of people in the area where the incidents occurred and that or another chemical agent would have left detectable traces. The individuals developing symptoms before they learned of other cases undid suggestions that symptoms were psychosomatic.
“These individuals had been on the job for a number of years; if they wanted a change in duties, they could have asked,” he said. “There was no underlying motivation for fictitiousness.”
An Invisible Weapon
The theory that emerged from a report by the National Academy of Sciences was that Havana syndrome was “consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy.” This conclusion, embraced by many scientists and others with expertise in the field, points to a deliberate effort to target individuals with a device that strikes them with some sort of radio, sonic or microwave radiation.
“My impression was that they were being hit with a wave of energy that would vibrate tissues and fluids to create bubbles and create an effect in the inner ear that communicated to the brain, something like a ministroke,” said Professor Giordano.
The idea of bombarding an object with waves is not new. It is a method used for multiple purposes including vermin repellant, testing the durability of objects, or heating food.
There are several options as to the type of wave that could potentially cause the symptoms. One that has received considerable attention in studies on Havana syndrome cases is based on the work of Dr. Allan Frey, an American scientist who in the early 1960s discovered that microwaves directed at a subject’s head could produce the sensation of a chirping or cricket-like sound without the sound actually being present or audible to others. Such noises match up with what several victims report hearing, though others claim to have heard more shrill shriek-like sounds.
Beginning in the Cold War period, both the U.S. and Soviets experimented with microwaves, but there is no known weapon that was produced or unveiled in the decades that have passed since then.
“The fact that these devices are under development is not unknown; what is problematic is whether the sophistication exists to scale them to be precise, fieldable, and operational. In 2017, my thinking was that development had not reached that stage,” said Professor Giordano. “In 2018 and 2019, the Donovan Group, working with Central Command, took a deeper dive into these technologies and as a consequence of that work they determined that it is indeed possible if not probable that the sophistication of directed energy devices for acoustic or microwaves could be made operational.”
In order to confirm this theory, however, the device that could be used to inflict such damage would have to be found.
A recent article in the Guardian highlighted an American-based project codenamed Medusa aimed at creating a microwave weapon that would be small enough to fit in a car and that would have a “temporarily incapacitating effect.” Lev Sadovnik, who served as president and CEO of WaveBand, the company that contracted with the U.S. government to produce the device, told the Guardian that what was produced partially met those goals, but that its range was limited. Moreover, refining the device was limited by ethical concerns that prevented testing on human subjects. Mr. Sadovnik and other experts pointed out, however, that others engaged in such research, namely Russia and China, likely are not bound by the same limitations.
Not all scientists are convinced of the directed energy theory.
William Happer, a former National Security Council official and expert on radiation propagation, who teaches physics at Princeton University, was one of those initially involved in discussions on Havana syndrome cases during the Trump administration. He said that lack of hard data made it impossible to draw solid conclusions.
“The problem is these cases are episodic; we would have to have a lot more of them to get good statistics,” he said.
Professor Happer was also skeptical that microwaves or sonic beams could be used to cause the symptoms that have been observed.
“The idea of radio waves is not easy to support,” he said. “If you focus radio waves on something you would want to use the shortest waves possible. But, then the problem is that they would not penetrate structures well. The shorter a wave is the more it gets absorbed by glass or building materials. There are some cases where it could be what happened, but in many instances it’s hard to see how it would have worked.”
Some proponents of the directed energy theory have countered such objections, saying that if perpetrators were working with strong intelligence that gave them detailed knowledge of whether the buildings’ victims were in, or if they had access to them, the limitations of short waves could be overcome. It is not clear how many of these incidents occurred in secure areas like the U.S. embassies in Cuba or China, but several victims reported first hearing sounds and experiencing other symptoms while in hotels or outdoors.
Professor Happer was not dismissive of the injury that officials said they suffered, but did not feel there was enough evidence to present a solid hypothesis as to the cause.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but everything that is being said is speculation,” he said. “If you listen to victims it sounds persuasive that something bad happened to them, but the science on this is marginal at best and those are the hardest things to fix.”
While the scientific angle of the Havana syndrome is gray enough, piecing together the potential international relations side of it so far has been pure guesswork.
Known victims have shared a profile. Professor Giordano said the cases he had studied directly, which were all connected to the 2016 Havana incidents, were mostly employees who were “important to national security and defense” and whose “job description and experience was such that they were highly valuable assets to the embassy.” He also noted that they were all living off embassy grounds. Cases in other locations included CIA operatives and administration advisors that were on temporary visits to foreign countries including Moscow and London.
Several victims reported that they saw people who they thought might be following them or suspiciously engaging them, but others did not perceive any possible culprit.
Some have implicated China, noting the country’s past experimentation with directed energy technology and the cases in Guangzhou. More accusations have been directed toward Russia. Though no hard evidence exists publicly, there are several compelling pieces pointing toward Moscow.
In several instances, vehicles belonging to the GRU (Russian military intelligence) were located in the vicinity where victims were first stuck with their symptoms. Intelligence experts, though, noted that in most of the countries where this was the case, it was not unusual for U.S. diplomatic personnel to be trailed by Russian agents on a regular basis.
Another clue pointing toward the Kremlin is the high probability that significant work on military-directed energy use exists in Soviet-era files. In 2018, Dr. Frey told the New York Times that, after unveiling his findings on microwaves in 1961, he was flown by the Soviet government to lecture on his research at the government’s Academy of Sciences. Though he said it had not been previously discussed before his trip, after the formal lectures, he was taken to a set of secret labs and army bases to field questions from scientists working on classified directed energy projects.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Communist agents used directed energy devices to bombard the U.S. embassy in Moscow, but no known injuries were caused at the time and the purpose of the operation remains unclear.
Those who feel the incidents are part of a purposeful intelligence campaign against the U.S. have proposed two theories about the goal of the attacks: It could be that waves were directed at individuals with the purpose of extracting information from phones and computers they were carrying and that physical injuries were a byproduct, or that the intent was to harm the victims directly.
Getting to the Bottom of It?
Several observers have accused the Trump administration of failing to appropriately address the potential threat of the Havana syndrome. An extensive article by the New Yorker says that shortly after the initial cases in Cuba, Charles Kupperman, who served as an advisor to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, sought to make the issue a priority, but got little support from others in the administration. He attributes the lack of interest largely to doubts over the veracity of the symptoms themselves or that they were linked to nefarious actions by foreign powers.
The article however, advances several theories of its own including that high turnover in the Trump White House made it easy for projects to slip through the cracks and that the former President and his closest aides were generally unreceptive to intelligence that negatively implicated Russia.
Professor Giordano said that while he would not hazard to guess at the political reasons for it, his experience was that the Trump administration gave the matter little attention.
“In three instances, we made proposals for funding to look at these threats to national security. They went up the chain [and] were either denied or approved but the money was never allocated,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s rejection of the conclusions of the intelligence community’s reports on Russian election interference and some other issues created friction between agencies and the White House, which Professor Giordano felt played a role in the Havana issue stalling.
“The rather partisan nature over the last four years was very palpable and the persistent separation between the executive and the intelligence community rendered these conversations difficult to advance. As a consequence very little came of them,” he said.
Professor Giordano did back up reports, however, that in the Trump administration’s last year in office, as more cases (including one originating on U.S. soil) were reported, a new set of investigations were opened and pursued with more determination than existed initially.
The Biden administration has pledged to step up investigations and confirmed that several agencies are currently engaged on the issue. Asked by a Senate committee whether President Joseph Biden planned to raise the issue at his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admitted that, at this point, there was far too little information to justify finger pointing.
“We do not know who, if anyone, is actually responsible, state actor [or] individuals. This is exactly what we’re trying to get to the bottom of. So, certainly, if we have concerns, suspicions, beliefs that any state actor, Russia or otherwise, was involved and engaged in this, you can be sure that we will take it to them. But right now, we simply do not know.”