Is Havana Syndrome a secret super weapon? Or a social contagion?
The first person to report strange symptoms was a CIA officer posing as a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.
It was December 2016. He was at home, in Havana, when he was overcome by a severe headache and dizziness. He heard a loud, persistent whirring sound. And then it felt like a wave, or a beam of energy, was pressing in on him.
He thought it was a one-time thing. But two weeks later, it happened again.
Soon after, several other CIA officers in Havana started to experience similar symptoms. Then it spread to the diplomats. Tina Onufer, a foreign service officer in Havana, told NBC News that the symptoms she experienced were like “pain like I have never experienced before in my life.” She added: “It was as if I had been seized by some invisible hand and I couldn’t move.”
The onset of what is now called Havana Syndrome came at an inopportune moment for the outgoing Obama administration. A year-and-a-half earlier, it had re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba. That ended a nearly six-decade standoff with the Communist regime that included the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war.
Donald Trump, vying for the Cuban-American vote in Florida, had made clear on the campaign trail his opposition to the deal Barack Obama had cut with the Castros. Then, Trump won the election, and a few weeks later, Fidel Castro died.
State Department officials were determined not to let Havana Syndrome undermine the new détente. Nor did Pentagon higher-ups want problems. There was widespread agreement that the opening to Cuba was overdue and that politics had stopped it from happening sooner.
But over the course of 2017 more cases piled up: diplomats, CIA agents, U.S. military personnel. First in Havana. Then in China, where several staffers had to be evacuated from the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou. Then Russia, where a veteran CIA officer, Marc Polymeropoulos, was overtaken by a wave of nausea and recurring headaches that eventually forced him to retire. By the time Joe Biden was elected to the White House, there were at least 200 suspected cases worldwide.
The American diplomatic corps was angry.
Eric Rubin is president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents 17,000 foreign service officers spread across several agencies—including 13,000 in the State Department. “We are not sure what has caused this,” he told me, “but we’re quite sure that it’s serious and that the effects on our colleagues are real and very frightening.”
“Look, there are fair instances of fuckery,” a former State Department official now working in another government agency said. American military and intelligence personnel generally expect more aggressive harassment while on duty overseas. “But the targeting of diplomats is very different. Diplomats are, by definition, not supposed to be fucked with in that regard.”
Rubin said that diplomats affected by Havana Syndrome “have been treated shabbily and have not had sufficient attention paid to their really worrying situations and the real, potential lifelong consequences.” Diplomats who had reported Havana Syndrome-like symptoms were told they were being hysterical or cautioned against making too much noise, lest it derail their career.
Among foreign service officers—behind closed doors, in text chains, in WhatsApp messages, in private Facebook groups—there was a feeling that those at the highest echelons of the U.S. government were soft-pedaling the investigation.
“Under Trump and then, at the beginning of the Biden administration, there was an inadequate response,” a senior U.S. diplomat told me. “This is speculation—you can’t confirm this, because it’s not confirmable—but a lot of us read it as a desire not to get to the bottom of this because the consequences could be very grave.”
He explained that, just as the Warren Commission did not want to discover the Soviets had had a hand in John F. Kennedy’s assassination—which would have presumably triggered a war—the White House did not want to learn that the Russians were behind Havana Syndrome.
A Neurological Disorder? Or a Psychiatric One?
As if to force the White House to take action, State Department officials have portrayed Havana Syndrome in the most sinister light possible.
“They went for the most exotic hypothesis out there when they should have stuck to mundane explanations,” Robert Bartholomew told me. Bartholomew is a medical sociologist at the University of Auckland and co-wrote a book on the subject with Dr. Robert W. Baloh, a neurologist at UCLA: “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria.” (The book was published in 2020 by a small German academic press.)
Bartholomew pointed to a Senate hearing in which the assistant head of western hemisphere affairs at the State Department repeatedly referred to “attacks” on U.S. personnel in Havana. After he wrapped up, the department’s medical director added that his office had convened “a panel of academic experts” and that “the consensus was that the patterns of injuries that had so far been noted were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”
This significantly raised the stakes. It stoked diplomats’ fears about what was going on and their frustration with the White House for not doing more to stop it.
To Bartholomew, an expert in social contagions, it was overblown. “When you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the night, you first think horses. You don’t think zebras,” Bartholomew said. “They were going for unicorns. They were going for this thing people don’t even know exists.”
That uncertainty about what or whom we were up against was the crux of the problem. There were a lot of symptoms. And there was a lot of speculation about the cause of those symptoms. But there was no medical evidence proving that anything had actually happened—or been done—to anyone.
All that is known for sure about what is called Havana Syndrome is that Americans stationed not only in Cuba, Russia and China, but also in Austria, Australia, Colombia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan, among other countries, have complained of concussion-like symptoms such as nausea, blurred vision, hearing loss, headaches, short-term memory loss, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. In many cases, they have also said they heard clicking or cricket-like sounds.
A growing cadre of diplomats, CIA officers, and other officials in the American intelligence community blamed the Kremlin, which was undoubtedly alarmed by the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba. The Russians had also spent decades developing “directed-energy weapons” that could blast microwaves at unknowing targets, causing extensive brain damage. (Republican Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Russia “one of the key suspects.”)
But many neurologists, including those who reviewed the medical histories of the first CIA officers who complained of Havana Syndrome, are unsure whether anyone claiming to suffer from Havana Syndrome has sustained any neurological damage. They are unsure about what might have caused that damage, assuming there is any. And they are unsure about whether Havana Syndrome is a neurological disorder or, as neurologists say, “psychogenic”—meaning, originating in one’s mind. (Several neurologists were quick to add that people suffering from psychogenic illness are not “faking it,” and they noted that it can be hard to distinguish between neurological and psychiatric illness.)
Havana Syndrome was morphing into something of a foil for contemporary America: You either believed we were being preyed upon by invisible forces. Or you thought there was something wrong with those who did.
‘They Wanted to Believe’
In response to mounting pressure from diplomats, the State Department commissioned two studies—one with the top-secret JASON advisory group, the other with the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The JASON advisory group, which was founded in 1960 by Defense Department officials worried about Soviet technological prowess, released its report in 2018. (The report came to light in September only after BuzzFeed obtained a redacted copy.) Its most important finding was that Havana Syndrome was not the result of a directed-energy attack: “No plausible single source of energy (neither radio/microwave nor sonic) can produce both the recorded audio/video signals, and the reported medical effects.”
In 2020, the NASEM group, which is chaired by David Relman, a Stanford professor of medicine and microbiology, completed its report. In contrast with the JASON findings, the NASEM report strongly suggested that those thought to be suffering from Havana Syndrome were victims of a directed-energy attack. It noted that “many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported” by various State Department employees “are consistent with the effect of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.”
But there were some odd things about the NASEM report.
First, it relied heavily on an independent University of Pennsylvania study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that had asserted there were “neurological manifestations” of Havana Syndrome. But the University of Pennsylvania study had come in for sharp criticism—and the NASEM study failed to acknowledge any of it.
Sergio Della Sala, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh and one of the most vocal critics of the University of Pennsylvania study, said in an email that the criteria used in the study had been so broad that virtually anyone would appear to be sick, “including you, me, the UPenn authors, the JAMA editors and of course the U.S. diplomats.”
Second, the NASEM group had access to very incomplete information about the Havana Syndrome patients. The report itself states that due to health privacy laws, they only got information provided “by a small number of affected employees.”
Finally, according to a State Department spokesperson, the NASEM group did not have access to the JASON report—this despite the fact that the JASON advisory group had access to classified information the NASEM group was unable to see and, no doubt, would have been greatly helped by.
Kenneth Foster, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pennsylvania who has criticized the NASEM report (Foster had no connection with the University of Pennsylvania study), said in an email: “It is shocking that State had also commissioned the JASON report (which destroyed the microwave theory), but did not show the report to NASEM.” He added: “NASEM should have been ashamed of itself for speculating in its report about microwaves with so little scientific support.”
“It is clear,” he concluded, “that they wanted to believe in some kind of directed energy attack.”
According to Foster, the question the NASEM group should have been asking was: Why are we jumping to the conclusion that Havana Syndrome is, in fact, a syndrome?
“I think a big challenge is we don’t even know how the people who developed Havana Syndrome are getting hurt,” Dr. Amit Sachdev, the medical director for neurology and ophthalmology at Michigan State University, told me. “And so, if you don’t know how they’re getting hurt, it’s very hard to study why they have their symptoms. What are they being subjected to to develop their symptoms?”
The Federal Government Goes (Mostly) All In
None of this has stopped the federal government from taking action.
In October, President Biden signed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (or HAVANA) Act into law. The law authorizes the government to cover the medical expenses for any CIA or State Department employees “who incur qualifying injuries to the brain.”
It has been a tricky political dance for the Biden administration. On one hand, the administration does not want to expose itself to Republican attacks that it’s not doing enough to support America’s spies and diplomats. On the other hand, it appears reluctant to antagonize needlessly the Russians, Chinese, Cubans or anyone else. It remains administration policy to refer to Havana Syndrome cases as “anomalous health incidents.”
In September, the CIA station chief in Vienna was recalled after voicing skepticism about Havana Syndrome. That same month, Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, who had been yanked out of retirement to oversee State’s handling of Havana Syndrome, was suddenly forced out of her new role. On a phone call with Havana Syndrome victims, Spratlen allegedly declined to rule out the possibility that the whole thing might be attributable to mass hysteria. “Ambassador Spratlen was not well received by some or many of the people who were affected and was perceived as not being willing to conclude that something was going on,” the senior diplomat said.
Late last month, CIA director William Burns warned Russian intelligence officials that they would pay a stiff price if the Americans determine, once and for all, that the Kremlin is responsible.
All this despite the fact that the science behind Havana Syndrome looks even more porous today than it did in late 2016.
A former State Department official, who was reluctant to speak openly and upset former colleagues, said there were some big outstanding questions. If this was really the work of a sophisticated foreign intelligence agency, why hadn’t they targeted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or the president? Or Mark Zuckerberg?
There was also the question of timing. Havana Syndrome arrived on the American scene at the end of a tumultuous presidential campaign that had left tens of millions of Americans feeling unsure of what came next: Was the country about to be taken over by fascists? How had we arrived at this juncture? Suddenly, every unexplained phenomenon seemed to point to something nefarious and shadowy. The deep state, Big Tech, Beijing, Moscow.
In this climate, Bartholomew said, it was hard to overstate the power of suggestion. He blamed the State Department, and Defense and the White House, for encouraging Americans to believe they had been attacked by a weapon that, he said, doesn’t exist.
“Havana Syndrome is reminiscent of the setup for many UFO and monster sighting flaps,” he said. “After an initial sensational report, residents begin to scrutinize their environment for evidence of the perceived anomaly. Given the inaccurate nature of human perception, people start to see what they expect to see. A rustling in the bushes becomes Bigfoot, the wake of a boat is mistaken for a lake monster, and Venus is taken for a UFO.”
Secretly, government officials have been communicating with their counterparts in other countries—issuing warnings, telling them to knock it off. These officials have been convinced—by their subordinates, a classified report—that something is being done to us. They wouldn’t be risking their professional reputations or, presumably, the security of the United States if they doubted as much.
But the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know why at least 200 American public servants have been seriously hurt and, in some cases, forced to retire—even though many insist on believing that we do.
The real fuckery, as it were, is not Russian agents causing American spies and diplomats a great deal of suffering. That’s awful, if it’s true. It’s awful no matter the cause. The real fuckery is that, five years after Havana Syndrome came to America, five years after America veered off its prescribed historical-political course, we remain convinced that the very bad thing that is happening to us is being imposed from the outside—a mysterious force infiltrating our homes and warping our brains. That whatever this is must be someone else’s fault. That it can’t be us.