What is ‘Havana syndrome’ and what causes it? Inside the creepy ‘directed energy’ attacks on US diplomats

Since 2016, more than 130 Americans are believed to have been sickened by an unknown ‘directed energy’ weapon

Megan Sheets
New York
,Nathan Place
Thursday 13 January 2022 17:03 GMT
Hear the sound heard by US diplomats at the Havana embassy when the alleged energy attack occurred

Over the past five years, an alarming number of American diplomats, troops, and intelligence officers have been suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness. The symptoms vary, but range from headaches to ringing in the ears, as well as loss of hearing, memory, and balance. Some victims have suffered long-term brain damage.

Even more disturbing, reports have trickled out that the CIA and the Pentagon don’t believe this is a naturally occurring illness – it’s a deliberate act of aggression. A study commissioned by the State Department said the most likely source is a pulse of radiofrequency energy “directed” at US targets.

And those targets aren’t just in far-flung embassies and CIA safehouses anymore, such as Havana or Moscow. Officials say at least two incidents occurred near the White House.

The Pentagon reportedly began developing a wearable sensor to help identify the attacks last spring. But many months later, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admitted on 13 January that US intelligence agencies still have yet to nail down the cause of Havana Syndrome as it was revealed to have spread to roughly 200 people.

So what’s going on here? How is “energy” being used to attack US personnel? Who is attacking them? And why? Here’s what we know so far about these invisible assaults.

Who has been affected?

Since 2016, roughly 200 American personnel have fallen ill with the syndrome, according to the latest reports.

The first incident was in 2016 in Havana, Cuba. According to the State Department, at least 21 employees of the US embassy there reported the typical symptoms: headaches, tinnitus, and balance and memory problems. Some retired early because of the illness, which became known as the “Havana syndrome.”

American officials were stumped, and some accused the CIA of not taking the situation seriously enough. The Trump administration, eager to shut down diplomacy with Cuba anyway, removed more than half the staff of the Havana embassy, accusing the country of “specific attacks.” Cuba has denied any responsibility.

But before long the syndrome was popping up in other places. Intelligence officers reported the same symptoms in China and Russia. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, was in Moscow in 2017 when he was suddenly stricken.

“I was woken up in the middle of the night with an incredible case of vertigo,” Mr Polymeropoulos told The Guardian. “My head was spinning, incredible nausea, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom and throw up. It was just a terrifying moment for me. I had tinnitus which was ringing in my ears, and the vertigo was really what was incredibly debilitating and I really wasn’t sure what was happening. I couldn’t stand up. I was falling over.”

Four years later, Mr Polymeropoulos says his headache still hasn’t stopped. In 2019, he retired from the CIA because of his symptoms.

“I had a lot more to offer,” the former intelligence officer told GQ. “I was 50, but I had to retire because these goddamn headaches don’t go away.”

The cases kept coming. In 2018, almost a dozen staffers were evacuated from the US embassy in Guangzhou, China, after reporting a “medical incident” similar to the event in Havana. In the fall of 2020, a number of US troops in Syria developed mysterious flu-like symptoms, similar to those of the Havana syndrome.

There have also been suspected attacks on US soil. In 2019, a White House staffer reported being stricken with the Havana symptoms while walking her dog in Arlington, Virginia. And in November 2020, Defense officials have now told members of Congress, a suspected attack sickened a National Security Council official near DC’s Ellipse park – within walking distance of the White House.

On 7 June, the US Senate voted unanimously to provide financial support to victims of the mysterious syndrome.

Later in the summer, Vice President Kamala Harris’ flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, was delayed after US personnel in the Vietnam capital reported experiencing Havana Syndrome-related symptoms over the weekend ahead of her trip.

And in December, a State Department employee reportedly filed a lawsuit against Mr Blinken and the agency for alleged disability discrimination.

Mark Lenzi, a member of the diplomatic security services, claimed in court that his employer failed to adequately investigate him falling ill in 2017 when he was based in Guangzhou, China.

Mr Lenzi said he and his wife and children all began experiencing “sudden and unexplained mental and physical symptoms” in November 2017, but were not evacuated.

What is causing the illness?

“Directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” was the culprit found by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in a May 2021 report on the illness commissioned by the State Department.

According to a New York Times analysis, that language is crucial. By using words like “pulsed” and “directed,” the report was saying the energy wasn’t randomly dispersed by a cellphone or other device. It was being aimed at people.

How does one aim “energy” at people? And who’s doing the aiming? The reports that have leaked from the CIA and other agencies have been vague, citing classified information and a need to avoid making unfounded accusations. But after a contentious CIA briefing earlier this month, some members of Congress were more blunt about what they think is going on.

“There’s a mysterious, direct energy weapon that is being used,” Senator Susan Collins, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN after the briefing. “And it is causing, in some cases, permanent traumatic brain injury.”

Months later, Secretary Blinken suggested little progress has been made on identifying the cause.

“To date, we don’t know exactly what’s happened and we don’t know exactly who is responsible,” he told MSNBC on 13 January.

He went on to say that the admission was not an indication that the federal government was not taking the symptoms seriously, and said that his department was working “overtime” to find answers.

“There is no doubt in my mind that people have been directly and powerfully affected,” he said.

“We are working overtime across the entire government to get to the bottom of what happened, who’s responsible. And in the meantime to make sure that we’re caring for anyone who’s been affected and to protect all of our people to the best of our ability.”

Who is responsible?

According to Politico, the Pentagon last year told top members of Congress that it suspects Russia is behind the suspected attacks. Russia has denied any responsibility.

If confirmed, the directed energy attacks would join a long list of non-military assaults Russia has waged against the United States in recent years, including its SolarWinds cyberattack and interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Most of the attacks so far took place when Donald Trump was still president, which some experts say explains why more hasn’t been done about them.

“The Trump administration did not demonstrate any level of urgency in confronting aggressions, Russian aggression of any sort,” Rep Abigail Spanberger, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN. “So alleged Russian aggression through a curious and not fully defined – be it sound attack, be it microwave attack on US personnel – is clearly not something that would rise to the top of their to-do lists when clear Russian aggression is not something that they were contending with.”

President Biden, however, has taken a more confrontational approach to Russia than his predecessor. His CIA director, William Burns, has also vowed to make investigating the directed energy incidents an “extraordinarily high priority.” What the new administration will do if Russia is proven responsible remains to be seen.

“Under Bill Burns, there seems to be a sea change,” Mr Polymeropoulos, who is now being treated at the Walter Reed military hospital, told The Guardian. “We have to see actions now, not just words. But I have hope.”

What’s being done in response to the attacks?

Mr Biden signed legislation to help US government workers affected by Havana Syndrome by increasing medical support and financial aid in October.

Weeks later, under increased pressure from congressional leaders, the State Department named a new coordinator for its investigation into the illness.

Jonathan Moore, a high-ranking deputy, was assigned to coordinate the department’s task force on the cases. He replaced Pamela Spratlen, a retired diplomat temporarily called back into service by Blinken before leaving in September. She had faced criticism from some victims.

Blinken also appointed retired ambassador Margaret Uyehara to lead efforts to directly support care for State Department employees.

Later that month, it emerged that Mr Burns, the CIA director, had privately warned Russian intelligence they will face “consequences” should his agency find proof they are behind the illnesses.

The Washington Post reported Mr Burns raised the issue during meetings with the heads of Russia’s two top intelligence agencies during a visit to Moscow earlier in November.

While he did not directly blame Russia’s FSB or the SVR, its foreign intelligence agency, Mr Burns told leadership the attacks went far beyond the normal actions of a “professional intelligence service”, an official told The Post on condition of anonymity.

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