National Security & Defense

The Havana Syndrome: Unraveling the Mystery

U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, October 5, 2017. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)
Why are U.S. diplomats abroad being attacked with directed-energy weapons?

The State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon have stepped up efforts to investigate a series of health incidents, deemed “directed-energy attacks,” which have injured American officers in Cuba, China, Russia, and elsewhere. Now we have learned that the U.S. is also probing suspected attacks in Miami and Alexandria, Va., as well as near the White House.

This deeply troubling and unresolved mystery, with both human and national-security implications, spans more than four years. The first attacks occurred in November 2016 in Cuba. American diplomats and CIA officers there started suffering what was dubbed “Havana syndrome.” The debilitating symptoms — severe vertigo, fatigue, headaches, and loss of hearing, memory, and balance — led Washington to evacuate the victims for extended treatment and, in some cases, early retirement.

By the end of 2017, more than two dozen American-embassy personnel in Cuba had shown symptoms. The Trump administration recalled more than half of the embassy staff and their family members and issued a travel warning. In response to Cuba’s failure to protect American officials in accordance with the Vienna Convention, the State Department expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S.

In addition, from the spring of 2017 to at least 2019, more than 14 Canadian officials stationed in Cuba reportedly “got hit” and experienced similar symptoms. Some of them sued their government for downplaying and mishandling the mysterious illness. Through it all, Raúl Castro’s minister of foreign affairs denied any knowledge of the reported health incidents. He dismissed the symptoms as “science fiction” and called Washington’s move “eminently political.”

Initial theories of what caused the ailment ran the gamut: a stressful environment, a virus, toxic pesticides, and exposure to acoustic or sonic waves. After examining 21 of the affected U.S. officials from Cuba, a medical team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair ascribed the symptoms in March 2018 to “an unknown energy source” that was highly directional. The center’s director, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, later said microwaves were considered a main cause of the affliction, adding that the team was increasingly sure the officials had suffered injuries to widespread brain networks.

According to the 1961–62 discoveries of American biologist Allan H. Frey, high-intensity microwave beams can produce a sensation of odd, loud noise and cause brain damage without any head trauma. As explained by intelligence experts, to launch an attack, a satellite dish mounted on a small van could possibly be used to direct microwave beams at a target — through walls and windows, and from as far away as a couple of miles.

Then, in mid 2018, some 11 American diplomats and security officers based in China, most assigned to the U.S. consulate in the city of Guangzhou, were evacuated after developing the same symptoms that had been reported in Havana.

The prime suspect behind these attacks, according to current and former intelligence officers, is Russia — a U.S. adversary, armed with radiofrequency-energy technology, that under Putin, has engaged in poisoning, injuring and incapacitating its foes.

During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was turning microwave radiation into a covert weapon that could produce neural impact. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned in 1976 that Soviet research on microwaves showed great promise for “disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel.” Brain-damage symptoms experienced by CIA officers on intelligence missions in Russia, Poland, the former Soviet satellite of Georgia, Taiwan, and Australia from 2017 to 2019 only reinforced the suspicion of Russia’s involvement.

One of the affected officers, Marc Polymeropoulos, who was the CIA’s deputy chief of operations for the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center, shared his experience in an interview with GQ. Following a brief Moscow visit, he suffered round-the-clock migraine from a brain injury and was forced to retire at 50. He and several of his intelligence colleagues joined the Havana victims’ ranks.

A December 2020 report commissioned by the State Department and compiled by 19 experts in medicine and other fields added weight and clarity to the earlier findings. They found strong evidence that the mysterious ailment was caused by radiofrequency energy, a type of microwave radiation. They added that the attacks were the result of “directed” and “pulsed” energy, implying that the victims had been targeted.

The experts were not privy to classified intelligence, so they did not point to a possible perpetrator. However, they mentioned “significant research in Russia/U.S.S.R.” on pulsed radiofrequency technology, as well as the exposure to microwave radiation of U.S. intelligence and military personnel in Eurasian countries.

After more than four years of vile attacks against dozens of American officials, it behooves the Biden administration to conclude the investigations as soon as possible and hold the perpetrators accountable. If it’s not Russia, as the evidence seems to indicate, then who?

In the case of Cuba — a police state with surveillance on every block — it’s unlikely that the multiple attacks on the island could have been carried out without the complicity of Castro and his politburo. If the CIA confirms the involvement of the Cuban regime, that nation should not be given a pass with another one-sided détente. Experience tells us that condoning evil only invites more evil.

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