Doctors, scientists, intelligence operatives, and government officials have all been attempting to determine what causes “Havana sickness,” a strange disease that has afflicted American diplomats and spies. Some individuals think it’s an act of war, while others believe it’s a new and covert kind of monitoring, and yet others believe it’s all in their heads. So, who or what is to blame?
It usually began with a sound that people couldn’t quite put their finger on. The closest they could come up with was “buzzing,” “grinding metal,” and “piercing squeals.”
A faint hum and strong pressure were reported by one lady, while another felt a pulse of agony. Heat or pressure was felt by those who did not hear a sound. Covering one’s ears, on the other hand, made no effect to those who heard the sound. For months, several of the individuals who had the condition suffered from dizziness and tiredness.
In 2016, the Havana syndrome was first noticed in Cuba. The earliest instances included CIA personnel, therefore they were kept under wraps. However, news finally got out, and panic grew. Twenty-six members of the military and their families would describe a broad range of symptoms. There were rumors that some coworkers believed the patients were insane and that it was all in their heads.
Five years later, reports number in the hundreds and, according to the BBC, cover every continent, posing a serious threat to the US’s capacity to operate internationally.
Uncovering the truth has suddenly risen to the top of the US national security priority list, with one official describing it as the most challenging intelligence task he or she has ever encountered.
Due to the lack of hard data, the condition has become a battlefield for opposing ideas. Some view it as a mental disease, while others see it as a hidden weapon. Microwaves, however, seem to be the most probable cause, according to a growing body of research.
After decades of animosity, diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba were restored in 2015. However, Havana syndrome almost brought the embassy to a halt within two years, as personnel were removed due to fears about their safety.
Initially, it was thought that the Cuban government – or a hardline element opposed to improved ties – was to blame, having used some kind of sonic weapon. After all, Cuba’s security forces had been concerned about an influx of US troops and had maintained a tight hold on the city.
As instances spread across the globe, that hypothesis would fall apart.
However, another option has lately emerged, one with roots in the Cold War’s darkest depths and a location where science, medicine, espionage, and geopolitics mix.
When University of Illinois professor James Lin heard the initial reports about the strange noises in Havana, he instantly believed microwaves were to blame. His conviction was founded not just on theoretical study, but also on personal experience. He had heard the noises himself decades before.
There have been stories of individuals hearing anything when a nearby radar was turned on and started blasting microwaves into the sky since its inception during World War Two. Despite the fact that there was no external noise, this was the case. The “Frey Effect” was coined in 1961 after a study by Dr. Allen Frey claimed that the noises were produced by microwaves interacting with the neurological system. However, the precise reasons – and their consequences – were unknown.
The Havana Syndrome Mysteries
Prof Lin began performing his studies at the University of Washington in the 1970s. With an antenna pointed at the back of his head, he sat on a wooden chair in a tiny chamber lined with absorbent materials. He had a light switch in his hand. Outside, a coworker transmitted microwave pulses at random intervals via the antenna. Prof Lin pushed the switch if he heard a sound.
The sound of a single pulse was similar to that of a zip or a clicking finger. A sequence of pulses that sound like chirping birds. Rather of sound waves originating from outside, they were created within his mind. Prof Lin theorized that the energy was absorbed by soft brain tissue and transformed to a pressure wave traveling within the skull, which the brain perceived as sound. When high-power microwaves were supplied as pulses rather of the low-power continuous form seen in contemporary microwave ovens and other devices, this happened.
Prof Lin remembers being cautious not to turn it up too loudly. “I didn’t want my brain to be harmed,” he told the BBC.
In 1978, he discovered he wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm when he got an unexpected invitation from a group of scientists who had been conducting their own tests to discuss his most recent article.
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During the Cold War, science was a hotbed of competition between superpowers. Fears of the opposing side gaining an advantage led to research into areas such as mind control, which used microwaves.
Prof Lin was shown the Soviet method at a scientific research center near Moscow called Pushchino. Prof Lin remembers, “They had a really sophisticated, extremely well-equipped laboratory.” However, their experiment was more rudimentary than his. The individual would sit with their head poking out of a drum of salty saltwater. Microwaves would then be directed towards their heads. The scientists believed that microwaves interacted with the neurological system, and they intended to ask Prof Lin about his opposing viewpoint.
Curiosity had a two-way effect, and US spies were keeping a careful eye on Soviet studies. According to a 1976 study obtained by the BBC, the US Defense Intelligence Agency found no evidence of Communist-bloc microwave weapons, but did learn about tests in which microwaves were pulsed into the throats of frogs until their hearts stopped.
The US was also worried that Soviet microwaves might be used to damage brain function or generate noises for psychological impact, according to the paper. “Their internal sound perception study has a lot of promise for turning into a system for confusing or disrupting military or diplomatic personnel’s behavior patterns.”
The United States’ involvement was more than defensive. James Lin would occasionally catch a glimpse of classified US weapons research in the same field.
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While Prof Lin was in Pushchino, another group of Americans living nearby were concerned that they were being blasted by microwaves and that their own government was covering it up.
For almost a quarter-century, a broad, invisible beam of low-level microwaves showered the 10-story US embassy in Moscow. It was dubbed “the Moscow signal.” For many years, however, the majority of people working within had no idea.
The beam originated from an antenna on the balcony of a neighboring Soviet residence and landed on the embassy’s top floors, which housed the ambassador’s office and more sensitive tasks. It was initially discovered in the 1950s and subsequently monitored from a 10th-floor chamber. But, with the exception of a few employees, the existence of the facility was kept a well guarded secret. “We were trying to find out what it was for,” says Jack Matlock, the embassy’s number two in the mid-1970s.
In 1974, however, a new ambassador, Walter Stoessel, came and vowed to quit unless everyone knew. Mr Matlock remembers, “That created something like hysteria.” Embassy employees with children in a basement nursery were particularly concerned. The State Department, on the other hand, downplayed any danger.
Then Ambassador Stoessel became sick, with one of his symptoms being eye hemorrhage. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger connected Stoessel’s sickness to microwaves in a now-declassified 1975 phone conversation to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, saying “we are trying to keep the issue secret.” Stoessel died at the age of 66 from leukemia. His daughter told the BBC that he “decided to play the good soldier” and not raise a fuss.
People have been protected by screens since 1976. Many ambassadors, however, were enraged, thinking that the State Department had first remained silent, then refused to acknowledge any potential health consequences. This assertion was subsequently backed up by the Havana syndrome.
What was the purpose of the Moscow signal? “I’m fairly confident the Soviets had other goals in mind than to harm us,” Matlock adds. They were ahead of the US in surveillance technology, and one theory was that they bounced microwaves off windows to pick up conversations, while another theory was that they were activating their own listening devices hidden inside the building or capturing information by microwaves hitting US electronic devices (known as “peek and poke”). The Soviets informed Matlock at one time that the goal was to disrupt American equipment on the embassy roof that was being used to intercept Soviet communications in Moscow.
This is the realm of surveillance and counter-surveillance, which is so well guarded that only a few individuals within embassies and governments are aware of the entire picture.
According to one hypothesis, Havana used a far more focused form of monitoring using higher-power, guided microwaves. Microwaves may be used to “illuminate” electronic gadgets to extract communications or identify and track them, according to a former UK intelligence officer who spoke to the BBC. Others believe that a gadget (perhaps an American one) was badly designed or malfunctioned, causing some individuals to experience a bodily response. According to US authorities, no device has been discovered or retrieved.
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After a brief respite, instances started to spread outside of Cuba.
Marc Polymeropolous awoke in a Moscow hotel room in December 2017. He was in town to meet with Russian colleagues as a senior CIA official. “My head was spinning and my ears were ringing. I felt like I was about to puke. I couldn’t get out of bed, “He told the BBC about it. “It was frightening,” says the narrator. Although it had been a year after the initial Havana instances, the CIA medical office informed him that his symptoms were unrelated to the Cuban cases. A lengthy fight for medical care started. The terrible headaches persisted, and he was forced to retire in the summer of 2019.
Initially, Mr Polymreopolous believed he had been targeted by a technological monitoring instrument that had been “turned up too high.” However, when additional CIA instances surfaced, all of which he claims were connected to individuals working on Russia, he began to think he had been targeted with a weapon.
However, China intervened, including in early 2018 at the embassy in Guangzhou.
Some of those in China who were afflicted contacted Beatrice Golomb, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has long studied the health consequences of microwaves and other inexplicable diseases. She told the BBC that in January 2018, she wrote to the State Department’s medical staff, detailing why she believed microwaves were to blame. The noncommittal answer was, “This makes for fascinating reading.”
Prof. Golomb claims that family members of troops in Guangzhou detected significant amounts of radiation using commercially accessible equipment. “The needle had risen beyond the available readings.” However, she claims that the State Department informed its own workers that the measures obtained from their own backs were classified.
Early studies were beset by a slew of issues. There was an inconsistency in the data collection. The State Department and the CIA failed to communicate with one another, and their own medical teams’ skepticism created friction.
The State Department originally concluded that just one of the nine cases from China met the criteria for the syndrome based on Havana instances. Others who had symptoms were enraged, and they felt as though they were being accused of making it up. They started a fight for equitable treatment, which continues to this day.
As their dissatisfaction increased, several of individuals impacted sought help from Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer. He currently represents around a half-dozen federal employees, half of whom are from the intelligence community.
“This isn’t the Havana effect. It’s a blunder “Mr. Zaid, whose customers were impacted in several places, disagrees. “What’s been going on has probably been known by the US government since the late 1960s, based on material I’ve seen.”
Since 2013, Mr. Zaid has represented a US National Security Agency employee who believes they were harmed in 1996 at a secret area.
Mr. Zaid wonders why the US administration is so adamant about denying a larger past. One potential, he claims, is that it may unlock a Pandora’s Box of past instances that have been overlooked. Another reason is that the United States has created and perhaps deployed microwaves and wants to keep it a secret.
The country’s interest in weaponizing microwaves lasted even after the Cold War ended. According to reports, the US Air Force had three projects in the 1990s: “Hello” to explore whether microwaves could generate unpleasant noises in people’s minds, “Goodbye” to see if they might be used for crowd control, and “Goodnight” to see if they could be used to murder people. According to reports from a decade ago, they had not been effective.
However, the military and security worlds have been paying more attention to the study of the mind and what can be done to it.
“The brain is being viewed as the 21st Century battle-scape,” says James Giordano, a Pentagon advisor and Georgetown University Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry who was requested to investigate the first Havana instances. “The study of the brain is a worldwide endeavor. It isn’t simply a province in what was once known as the West.” He told the BBC that he is working on ways to both enhance and impair brain function. However, it is a sector with minimal regulation or transparency.
He claims that China and Russia have been involved in microwave research, and that instruments created for industrial and commercial purposes – such as testing the effect of microwaves on materials – may have been repurposed.
But he wonders whether the goal was partly to cause chaos and promote terror.
This kind of technology may have existed for some time, and it may have even been utilized selectively. However, something would have to change in Cuba to get it recognized.
When the Havana cases broke, Bill Evanina was a top intelligence officer, and he stepped down as the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center this year. He is certain of what occurred in Havana. “Was it a lethal weapon? It was, I think, “He told the BBC about it.
Microwaves may have been used in recent military battles, he thinks, but he cites particular conditions to explain the change.
Cuba, located 90 miles off the coast of Florida, has long been a popular location for gathering “signals intelligence” through intercepting communications. It was home to a significant Soviet listening station during the Cold War. It was reported that it was being re-opened when Vladimir Putin visited in 2014. According to one source, China has established two outposts in recent years, while Russia has put in 30 more intelligence personnel.
However, the United States returned to town in 2015. The US was just getting its bearings, gathering information and fighting back against Russian and Chinese spies, thanks to a newly established embassy and a beefed-up presence. One individual remembers, “We were in a ground battle.”
Then the noises started.
Mr Evanina wonders, “Who benefited the most by the closure of the embassy in Havana?” “Having the US in Cuba was probably not helpful for the Russian government if they were expanding and promulgating their intelligence gathering.”
Russia has consistently denied any involvement or possession of “directed microwave weapons.” Its foreign ministry said, “Such provocative, unfounded conjecture and imaginative ideas can’t truly be regarded a serious issue for discussion.”
There have also been those who question the existence of Havana syndrome. They believe that Cuba’s unique circumstances justifies their position.
Stress that is ‘contagious’
Professor of Neurology at UCLA, Robert W Baloh, has long been interested in unexplained health problems. He decided that the Havana syndrome claims were a widespread psychogenic disorder after seeing them. He compares it to how individuals feel ill when they are informed they have eaten contaminated food despite the fact that there was nothing wrong with it – the placebo effect in reverse. “There’s typically some stressful underlying condition when you witness widespread psychogenic disease,” he adds. “They were definitely in a difficult position in the case of Cuba and the majority of diplomatic workers – especially the CIA operatives who were initially impacted.”
Everyday symptoms like brain fog and dizziness, he believes, are reframed as the condition by patients, the media, and health professionals. “The symptoms are as genuine as any other symptoms,” he claims, claiming that when word spread about the incident, people became hyper-aware and frightened. He thinks that this then spread to other US diplomats stationed overseas.
There are still a lot of things that aren’t explained. Why did Canadian ambassadors in Havana report symptoms? Were these unintended consequences of the targeting of neighboring Americans? What’s more, why haven’t any UK authorities reported any symptoms? “The Russians have attempted to murder individuals on British soil with radioactive materials in recent years, but there have been no documented instances,” Mark Zaid said. Bill Evanina, who claims the US is now sharing information with allies to identify instances, replies, “I would definitely put on hold the assertion that no one in the UK has had any symptoms.”
It’s possible that some of the incidents are unconnected. One former official adds, “We had a group of military people in the Middle East who claimed to have carried out this assault, but it turned out they had food sickness.” “We need to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says Mark Zaid, who claims that members of the public, some of whom have mental health problems, come to him claiming to be victims of microwave assaults. According to one former official, approximately half of the instances recorded by US authorities may be related to enemy strikes. Others believe the true figure is much lower.
A crucial event came in December 2020, when the US National Academies of Sciences released a study. Scientists and doctors, as well as eight victims, provided testimony to the experts. Professor David Relman of Stanford, who headed the panel, remembers, “It was very spectacular.” “Some of these individuals were forced to flee their homes for fear of retaliation from whoever. In order to guarantee their safety, we had to take certain measures.” The panel considered psychological and other factors, but came to the conclusion that focused, high-energy, pulsed microwaves were most likely to blame in some of the instances, which was comparable to James Lin’s testimony.
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Despite the fact that the research was funded by the State Department, authorities say the conclusion is just a possible theory, and they haven’t discovered any more evidence to back it up.
The Biden administration has made it clear that it is serious about the problem. Officials from the CIA and the State Department are given instructions on how to react to events, including ‘getting off the X,’ which means physically moving away from a location if they believe they are being attacked. The State Department has formed a task group to assist employees who have had “unexplained health problems.” Attempts to categorize instances based on whether or not they fulfilled certain criteria have been abandoned in the past. However, counting becomes more difficult without a definition.
A fresh wave of cases came this year, including one in Berlin and another in Vienna. A trip to Vietnam by US Vice-President Kamala Harris was delayed by three hours in August due to a suspected case at the Hanoi embassy. Concerned diplomats are increasingly asking concerns before sending their families on foreign postings.
“If we believe the Russians are doing things to our intelligence people who are traveling, this is a huge diversion for us,” says former CIA operative Polymreopolous, who finally got the medical care he needed this year. “Our operating footprint will be hampered as a result of it.”
The CIA has taken over the search for Osama bin Laden, with a veteran of the Osama bin Laden hunt in command.
The blood contains markers.
An allegation that another country is causing damage to US officials is serious. Mr Polymeropolous replies, “That’s an act of war.” As a result, it’s a high bar to clear. Policymakers will want concrete proof, which is now missing, according to authorities.
After five years, some US officials believe they don’t know much more than when the Havana syndrome began. Others, though, disagree. Microwave evidence, they claim, is now considerably stronger, though not yet definitive. New evidence is being gathered and analyzed more systematically for the first time, according to the BBC. This year, particular indicators in the blood indicated brain damage in some of the patients. After a few days, these marks fade away, and it was previously too late to notice them. People are being seen for the first time now that they are getting tested much more promptly after reporting symptoms.