October 11, 2021

IntelBrief: Havana Syndrome Continues to Frustrate U.S. Intelligence Community

(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. government and intelligence community are desperately seeking to determine the cause of ‘Havana Syndrome,’ five years after reports began.
  • The CIA has created a task force to find the source of numerous cases where U.S. government employees report neurological ailments that some believe are being caused by directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy weapons.
  • More than 200 U.S. government personnel have reported a range of neurological symptoms at various overseas postings, which should be enough to highlight the sense of urgency to the U.S. government to determine the source.
  • The issue is a destructive one, both in terms of physical ailments and the concern and mistrust it is generating throughout the intelligence community.

The world of spying and espionage is always opaque, ambiguous, and uncertain, by design. But the ongoing investigation into what is causing an array of neurological ailments and symptoms among U.S. government personnel overseas has yet to pinpoint a cause or a culprit. “Havana Syndrome” is the unofficial name for what is reported to be a pattern of “possible anomalous health incidents” among personnel in overseas postings and on travel. The issue has generated not just health concerns and fears among overseas personnel and family, but also mistrust and division between all involved. In short, “Havana Syndrome” has become, whatever its origins, a perpetual generator of mistrust in a field where trust remains mostly elusive to begin with. Claims of physical effects related to the possible use of a high-powered microwave system weapon date back over a decade, if not longer, according to a 2014 declassified statement from the National Security Agency (NSA).

In 2016, U.S. personnel in Havana began to report symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to memory loss and measurable cognitive decline. There was no definitive cause to these episodes, though the location and personnel are obvious targets for intelligence agencies ranging from the Cubans to the Russians. Moscow in particular has demonstrated a willingness to engage in egregious and brazen attacks against targets on foreign soil, including the use of deadly nerve agents, as seen in Salisbury, UK. Serious medical issues arose and speculation abounded, with the issue of espionage and the deliberate targeting of intelligence personnel and their families at the top of the list. Making matters more contentious was that the symptoms were neurological, and despite all the advances in awareness of the physical nature of neurological ailments, there appears to have been an underwhelming institutional reaction that downplayed the severity of the incidents. In the five years since, more than 200 U.S. personnel across the globe have reported similar episodes and symptoms. Some personnel reportedly had to retire due to the severity of their symptoms and there were reports that the U.S. government was not taking their claims seriously.

The issue now has the attention of the U.S. government at the highest levels, but the investigations take time and must avoid looking for a culprit before finding a cause. In December 2020, a panel from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report with the findings that “directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy” was the most likely cause for the various symptoms. Yet in September 2021, Buzzfeed reported on a declassified U.S. State Department report from 2018 entitled “Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba” that concluded that of the twelve episodes it studied, eight were likely caused by loud crickets. It noted that during these reported episodes, electronic equipment continued to work, leading to their conclusion that “no plausible single source of energy (neither radio/microwaves nor sonic) can produce both the recorded audio/video signals and the reported medical effects.”

In September 2021, the CIA removed the Station Chief in Vienna, reportedly over how the issue was being handled. Also in September 2021, the U.S. Congress passed legislation appropriating funding for personnel stricken by these symptoms. CIA Director Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have both created task forces to investigate the issue, with the DNI report to be completed before the end of 2021. Last week, the Department of Defense issued a statement to its employees to evacuate their surroundings if they experience an onset of pressure, sound, or heat in the head. Meanwhile the number of personnel reporting symptoms, as well as the locations of these reports, continue to increase. Getting some clarity as to what is happening is no small task, but it is imperative to do so and to do so immediately.