Havana syndrome: The mysterious illness affecting US spies and diplomats

Washington is ramping up its effort to understand the condition, which has impacted agents in several different countries since 2016. A former CIA officer tells EL PAÍS about his experience

The US embassy in Havana in 2017.
The US embassy in Havana in 2017.Emily Michot/ (Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
Amanda Mars

Veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Marc Polymeropoulos did not consider going to Moscow a big deal. He had worked for the agency for 26 years, had experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan and had been shot at more than once. Polymeropoulos – the newly appointed head of the CIA’s secret operations in Europe and Russia – visited the Russian capital in December 2017. He was not undercover; he had gone to meet his Russian counterparts and get to know the country better, knowing however that he would be watched at all times.

On the third night of his trip, he went out to dinner with his colleagues. He remembers that he didn’t drink much: as a spy in a hostile territory you can’t let yourself get drunk, much less believe that you have really seduced an attractive stranger. He returned to the Marriott hotel near the US embassy, where he was staying, and went to bed early. Not long after that, he was hit by an attack of vertigo. He had never experienced anything like it. He woke up at once with a sharp pain in his head and the sound of jackhammers in his ears.

“I have been in very difficult situations in my life, but that was terrifying. I had lost control, the room was spinning nonstop; I knew that something bad was happening,” Polymeropoulos tells EL PAÍS from his home in Washington. “When I returned to the United States I could barely work two hours a day, I couldn’t drive and I would forget things all the time. Now I continue to have headaches.” In the summer of 2019, at the age of 50, he retired from the CIA.

Polymeropoulos is one of around 200 US diplomats, intelligence officers and family members who have been affected by Havana syndrome, a mysterious illness with no known cause and no known treatment that has left dozens of people with neurological damage. US authorities suspect that it could be a microwave attack from enemy states.

I could barely work two hours a day, I couldn’t drive and I would forget things all the time
Former CIA agent Marc Polymeropoulos

It’s known as Havana syndrome because the first cases were recorded in the Cuban capital of Havana at the end of 2016. Since then, however, more incidents have been detected in Austria, Colombia, Russia, Australia, China and Uzbekistan. Last August, US Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her trip to Vietnam after new suspected cases emerged in the capital, Hanoi. In early October, German police confirmed that they were investigating suspected sonic attacks against the staff of the US embassy in Berlin. And US Congress has just approved a law, supported by both the Democrats and the Republicans, to economically support the victims of Havana syndrome, some of whom have not been able to return to work.

When John Bolton, the national security advisor in the Trump administration, entered the White House in April 2018, he received news of the first cases of Havana syndrome outside of Cuba, specifically in China. This convinced him that, whatever it was, the condition was not a psychosomatic illness, nor was happening by chance. “A possibility was that it was some kind of energy weapon, we saw that it was fairly likely that it came from Russia. We know that during the Cold War, the Russians had already tried to overwhelm the communications of the US embassies by directing energy towards them. It could also have been China, but it seems stupid to me that Beijing would do that on its own territory,” Bolton tells EL PAÍS. “The danger of this is not just for American diplomats, but rather for the whole world, and it should be taken more seriously by the world.”

The syndrome started with all the intrigue of a spy film and in a location rife with suspicion. In 2015, the US government reopened its embassy in Havana, a historic step in the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States. But at the end of 2016, several staff members of the State Department and the CIA, as well as some of their family members on the island, reported suffering a strange illness. The symptoms were described as intense head pressure, headaches and hearing a loud cricket-like sound. Medical exams revealed damage in the brain tissue of some of the victims. The government of then president Donald Trump decided to evacuate all non-essential personnel from the embassy and began to investigate what was then suspected to be a “sonic weapon” – a theory that was later ruled out.

Some scientists argued that what was happening could be a case of mass psychogenic illness. This refers to when a group of people in a situation of stress, as was the case with Cuba, experience the same symptoms by suggestion. In these cases, the symptoms are real but arise from stress or emotional causes, not external ones. Two experts, Robert W. Baloh and Robert E. Bartholomew, published a book supporting this hypothesis called Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria.

But as time passes and more cases are detected in different areas of the world, this theory is losing ground. One of the last officials to experience Havana syndrome is a CIA officer who traveled to India with William Burns, the director of the intelligence agency. In December 2020, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy” was the most likely explanation for these cases, and named Russia as one of the main suspects. The goal may not have been to target individuals, but rather US facilities and their computer systems, and that these attacks ended up affecting the people working there.

One thing is clear: they are attacks
Thomas Shannon, former deputy secretary of state

Thomas Shannon, the deputy secretary of state under the Obama and Trump administration, who retired in 2018, has no doubt that the syndrome is the result of some kind of foreign aggression. “One thing is clear: they are attacks,” he tells EL PAÍS journalist Íker Seisdedos. “This has to be understood. Although we don’t know exactly what it consists of, they are without a doubt intentional.”

This hypothesis is also considered the most plausible by many lawmakers in Washington. But neither scientists nor US authorities can formally rule out other theories. At the beginning of this year, the CIA opened a specific investigation to find the cause of the strange conditions. This team is being led by one of the agents who helped find the terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

Officially and for logical reasons, the US State Department is saying little about the number of people affected, the security measures established and the progress of the investigation. A spokesperson from the department says that the different public agencies involved are “working to try to identify if these incidents can be attributed to a foreign entity and are focused on giving support to those affected.”

Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer representing several of the victims, is upset that the condition is still being called Havana syndrome. “It’s a name that blames the Cubans and no one that I know suspects them. What’s more, it’s not a type of attack that began in 2016, it’s a type of attack that dates back to the 1960s.” Among his clients, he says, “there are some who are well, whatever it was they suffered, and have recovered,” while others are in “daily agony,” suffering from migraines, nausea and vertigo.

When Marc Polymeropoulos returned to the US, he was treated at the Walter Reed military hospital, which is where the CIA sends most of the agents affected by Havana syndrome. He ended up retiring and focused his efforts in writing, something he describes as “cathartic. Last summer, he published the book Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA. He says: “Once it’s worked out who is behind all this, President Biden will be in a difficult situation, because if there is an adversary attacking US officials, sanctions and withdrawing diplomats won’t be enough, a much stronger response will be needed, but you can’t start a third world war.”

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