Briefing

The mystery of 'Havana syndrome'

U.S. officials are investigating possible 'directed energy' attacks on government officials. Who's behind them?

U.S. officials are investigating possible 'directed energy' attacks on government officials. Who's behind them? Here's everything you need to know:

What is Havana syndrome?

It's the name given to a mysterious constellation of symptoms that first surfaced among American officials in Havana in 2016. Dozens of diplomats and CIA officers stationed in the U.S. Embassy there began falling ill with vertigo, headaches, fatigue, hearing loss, visual disturbances, cognitive impairment, and other symptoms. Some said at the outset they heard clicking and other odd sounds and felt intense pressure in the head. The following year, diplomats and other U.S. officials in Guangzhou, China, reported similar problems. Numerous CIA officers in Asia, Europe, and Australia have been afflicted over the past couple years, according to news accounts; CBS reports that more than a dozen CIA officials have returned to the U.S. for medical care so far this year, many requiring emergency evacuation. In a worrying development, two National Security Council officials reported being struck by Havana-like symptoms near the White House in November. One later told The New Yorker he fell to the ground, couldn't speak, and suddenly felt as if "I was going to die."

How many people have been affected?

The New York Times reported last month that more than 130 Americans have been sickened. The Senate Intelligence Committee said in April that the pattern of attacks "appears to be increasing"; that same month, Pentagon officials told the House Armed Services Committee they're increasingly worried about possible attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East and elsewhere. "We have failed to take it seriously as a threat," said Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican on the committee. 

Do victims' symptoms last?

Some say their illnesses faded, but others have suffered lasting damage. Doctors at the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Philadelphia, who've treated dozens of victims, published a study describing "sustained injury" to cognitive, balance, motor, and sensory functions, similar to what's seen in a severe concussion. Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year CIA veteran, was forced to retire by injuries suffered on a trip to Moscow in 2017. He awoke in his hotel room with an intense feeling of nausea and vertigo, "like I was going to both throw up and pass out at the same time," he said. A former covert operative who'd spent years hunting terrorists in the Middle East, he's suffered constant, debilitating headaches ever since, and was treated for traumatic brain injury at Walter Reed Hospital. "It incapacitates you," he said. "Ultimately, it's a pretty brilliant terror weapon."

How are these attacks carried out?

It's still not known for sure, but the general consensus is that the attacks involve targeted radio frequency energy, a type of radiation that includes microwaves. A team of experts from the National Academies of Sciences convened by the State Department concluded in a report released in December that "directed, pulsed radio frequency energy" was "the most plausible mechanism" to explain the syndrome. Some skeptics have suggested mass hysteria is behind the symptoms, pointing out that no known directed-energy weapon exists and that there's not even a solid theory about how one might work. "All the available science suggests that any such weapon would be wildly impractical," wrote Cheryl Rofer, a former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, at Foreign Policy last month. "No evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon."

If the weapon is real, who is wielding it?

The U.S. has not officially blamed anyone yet — but all indicators point to Russia and its military intelligence unit, the GRU. The recent National Academies of Sciences report noted there's been "significant research in Russia/USSR" on pulsed radio frequency technology. The CIA has used mobile-phone data to locate Russian intelligence agents who worked on microwave-weapons programs in the same cities where CIA officers were afflicted, according to news reports. These weapons could be small enough to fit inside a van or even a backpack, and could target an individual up to 1,000 yards away, officials believe. "It looks, smells, and feels like the GRU," an official involved in the investigation told Politico

How is the U.S. responding?

Amid growing pressure from lawmakers and victims, the Biden administration has vowed to step up the investigation. CIA Director William Burns, who was queried about the attacks during his confirmation hearings, has met with victims and established a task force on the attacks. The Pentagon and State Department each have their own task forces, and the White House says it's coordinating the agencies' studies. Leaders "across the intelligence community" are "focused on this issue," said Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. With the attacks causing growing anxiety among U.S. diplomats and soldiers around the world, "it is absolutely critical that we find out who did this," said Polymeropoulos. "The idea of dismissing it outright is just not acceptable anymore."

A possible 'guinea pig'

Were a pair of National Security Agency operatives targeted in a directed energy attack in 1996, two decades before the Havana cases? Mike Beck, a retired NSA officer, believes he and a colleague, Charles Gubete, were attacked that year while on assignment in a "hostile country" he's not allowed to name. Beck awoke one morning intensely groggy and disoriented in his hotel. The symptoms passed, but 10 years later, at 45, he lost control of the right side of his body and was diagnosed with a rare, nontremor form of Parkinson's. Gubete, then 55, developed the same form of Parkinson's. "I thought this is not coincidental that we're both presenting the same variant of Parkinson's at the same time," Beck said. In 2013, Beck filed a worker's compensation claim saying he'd been injured on the job, citing a classified report that the country he'd visited was thought to have a "high-powered microwave system weapon" that could injure without evidence. Intelligence sources told the Washington Examiner they believe Beck and Gubete were "guinea pigs" for a Russian directed-energy program. The Labor Department has denied Beck's claim because he can provide no evidence he was attacked, but he continues to press his case. "I'm just looking for what's right out of this," he said. 

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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