Havana Syndrome: Why is the mysterious illness plaguing US officials?

It’s a mystery epidemic that leaves sufferers exhausted, divides the scientific community, and set alarm bells ringing at the highest levels of the US government.

But the health crisis at the top of the CIA’s priority list is not Covid-19.

Havana Syndrome – a sudden on-come of headaches, vertigo, tinnitus, nosebleeds, and hearing and memory loss – has affected about 200 American diplomats and spies since it was first reported at the US embassy in Cuba in 2016.

After initial complaints by some diplomats that they were being ignored, top American officials have declared in public that they believe the victims – it is not, they say, a psychosomatic condition.

William Burns, the director of the CIA, and Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, in 2021 both publicly promised to make the phenomenon a priority.

So far, investigators have failed to come up with a conclusive explanation.

A report by the US National Academy of Sciences in 2020 said the syndrome was likely caused by “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy,” but did not rule out other mechanisms.

Nonetheless, a political consensus is building in Washington: agents of a foreign intelligence service are using some kind of portable weapon to zap US officials with microwaves.

“We know that there are several nations that have the capacity to do those kind of attacks. Russia is one of those and that also have the global footprint that would allow them to have people working in countries where we have seen attacks,” Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic Senator told MSNBC this month.

Russia denies any involvement.

The US government has not blamed Moscow.  

2212 Havana Syndrome

There also remains widespread scepticism in the global intelligence and security community.

If you had developed a top-secret science-fiction death ray, why give up the advantage of secrecy for the sake of intimidating a few diplomats?

The Russians, pointed out one sceptical British security expert who asked to remain anonymous, have plenty of tried and tested techniques for doing that.

Then there is the inconsistency.

Other than several Canadian government employees sharing a compound with US staff in Cuba, there are no reported incidents of the syndrome affecting any other country’s employees.

Why would the Russian secret services, assuming they are behind the attacks, spare close US allies, including the UK, who they have targeted relentlessly in the past?

The Telegraph asked the Foreign Commonwealth and Development office if British diplomats had been affected. It said it was not aware of any.

But it is the method that has confounded many experts.

“It is the science that is throwing me completely. It could be done, but it would be really difficult. Really, really difficult,” said Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer who has studied the weaponisation of directed energy.

Cold War-era research established that targeted microwaves can induce individuals to hear sounds inside their heads, a phenomenon that matches some cases of Havana syndrome.

The Soviet Union and the United States both experimented with the potential military applications, but never worked out how to effectively weaponise it.

However, Russia, the US, and China are also known to have restarted such research in more recent decades.

In 2003, the US Navy even awarded just under $100,000 to a Californian firm called Waveband to build a “breadboard prototype” of a weapon exploiting exactly that phenomenon.  

The “Medusa” device was described in a summary report written the following year as a non-lethal perimeter-protection weapon designed to deter trespassers, but cause them no lasting damage.  

The requirements laid out in the document – portable, low power, and able to switch from crowd to individual coverage – would also fit a more offensive hypothetical Havana Syndrome weapon.

There is no evidence the United States ever built more than a very basic prototype. The existence of Russian or Chinese equivalents remains speculative.

The US Embassy in Cuba

Credit: Emily Michot/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Mr Burns in February said he would “get to the bottom of who is behind the attacks” – leaving little doubt that he believes the cause is malignant activity.

He reportedly warned Russian officials during a visit to Moscow last month that the United States would respond if it emerged Russia was responsible.

It is not clear how, though.

Like so many contemporary security concerns, zapping US government personnel with non-lethal microwave weapons is new territory.

Does it reach the threshold of war? Does it warrant tit-for-tat microwave attacks, or sanctions, or something else?

None of that is clear.

Havana Syndrome may yet also become a domestic headache for Mr Biden’s administration.  

Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that Joe Biden’s administration is developing plans to provide compensation and improved medical care to government employees affected by Havana Syndrome.

A triage unit has been formed to identify new cases and recommend them for treatment.

But it may be too late to prevent some very expensive days in court.

Mark Lenzi, a security engineer who came down with the condition while posted to the US Consulate in Guangzhou in China in 2017, earlier this month filed a law suit accusing the State Department of first refusing to take his ailment seriously, than illegally discriminating against him following his diagnosis.

If a judge agrees with him, it could open the case for hundreds of similar claims.

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