The US embassy in Havana, Cuba, in 2017. | Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
Experts offer more clarity on what might be behind “Havana syndrome” symptoms.
A new report from the National Academy of Sciences has found “directed” radio frequency energy to be the most plausible explanation for mysterious and debilitating neurological symptoms experienced by dozens of American diplomats and intelligence operatives in Cuba, China, and other countries starting in late 2016.
The State Department-commissioned report, reviewed by a number of journalists — including at NBC News and the New York Times — does not come to firm conclusions about the origins and nature of the affliction often referred to as “Havana syndrome,” but its account gives weight to theories that the illnesses are the results of deliberate attacks — which some members of the intelligence community suspect may have been carried out by Russia.
The symptoms suffered by those afflicted with Havana syndrome vary, but in reported cases, many experienced nausea, headaches, dizziness, and loss of hearing. These maladies were sometimes so severe and long-lasting that they caused officials to retire early.
As the New York Times explains, the language of the report suggests an intentional attack was behind the strange symptoms, and that they were caused by radio frequency energy — a kind of radiation that includes microwaves — since it describes the attacks as “directed” and “pulsed.” However, the report stated that the National Academy of Sciences “cannot rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others.”
The report concludes that “the larger issue is preparedness for new and unknown threats that might compromise the health and safety of U.S. diplomats serving abroad,” and notes that future instances may be “even more difficult to recognize quickly,” at least in part because attacks could be spaced farther apart, or used in a more targeted manner.
“These injuries have tormented those afflicted. Their illnesses and suffering are real and demand action from Congress,” tweeted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who led successful calls to have the full report given to Congress for review. “To start, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should hold a hearing on this ASAP so we can hear from Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo directly about what is being done to uncover the source of these attacks and protect our public servants.”
Speculation about Havana syndrome has been ongoing for years
Beginning in Cuba in November 2016, over a dozen American diplomats reported feeling ill with mysterious and severe symptoms like loss of hearing and loss of balance. Shortly thereafter, experts began to speculate that they may have been attacked by a sonic weapon wielded by Cuban intelligence.
Similar sets of symptoms also surfaced in other places. Americans at the US Consulate in Guangzhou, China, developed symptoms of Havana syndrome in 2017. As GQ and the New York Times have reported, in the last year, a number of new incidents have been reported by CIA officers in Europe and Asia.
The timeline of the incidents, the plausible explanation of microwave weapons, and the specific locations in which they occurred have raised questions of whether Russia is behind them.
In 2018, US intelligence officials described Russia as the primary suspect behind what they believed to be attacks in Cuba and China. Russia has denied any involvement. NBC News reports that, now or then, no conclusive intelligence has pointed to that explanation. However, the Times notes a number of Russia experts at the CIA believe that all evidence points to the country being behind the illnesses.
Still, concrete evidence remains elusive; to compile the new report, experts ranked how plausible various explanations are, using limited evidence and educated conjecture based on expertise.
And as the Times reports, these experts and others in national security have pointed out that Russia, as well as the former Soviet Union, have a history of working with microwave weapons — and of using them against the US:
The [National Academy of Sciences] report does not point to a perpetrator, though it mentions “significant research in Russia/U.S.S.R.” on pulsed radiofrequency technology, as well as the exposure of military personnel in Eurasian communist countries to microwave radiation. The Soviet Union bombarded the American Embassy in Moscow with microwaves in the 1970s and ’80s. In a 2014 document, the National Security Agency discussed a microwave weapon used by a hostile country, which people familiar with the document said was Russia.
NBC News reports that a source said that the CIA used mobile phone location data to determine that some Russian intelligence operatives who were involved in microwave weapons programs were present in cities at the same time that CIA agents began suffering from symptoms of Havana syndrome.
Some of the US personnel experiencing Havana syndrome have reported anger and frustration, claiming that their own government has done far too little to attend to their health care needs and to investigate the origins of their health problems.
For instance, Marc Polymeropoulos, a former covert CIA operative who was struck by symptoms matching Havana syndrome in Moscow in 2017, has said the CIA has not taken adequate care of him and other injured CIA officers.
“It’s incumbent on them to provide the medical help we require, which does not include telling us that we’re all making it up,” he told GQ. “I want the Agency to treat this as a combat injury.”
Mark Lenzi, a diplomatic security officer who showed symptoms in China, told the Times he thinks the Trump administration has overlooked “inconvenient scientific and medical facts” in its assessment of the situation.
For advocates of these public servants, there is now hope that the new report, which provides the clearest estimation of what may have happened to date, could result in more pressure on the agencies to attend more carefully to their injured personnel. And it is seen as an important first step toward solving the mystery of what has happened to these officials once and for all.