The piercing sound was so loud that night it awoke the official assigned to the US embassy in Cuba who was trying to sleep at home in Havana. Intense pressure to the face followed the stabbing noise as the civil servant ached in pain with nausea and dizziness.
When the mysterious commotion in the dark of night stopped, the symptoms didn’t go away and the dizziness and trouble concentrating lingered, making it hard to continue working at the embassy.
What exactly happened that night in Havana in 2016 is not known, but the same thing started occurring to other embassy staffers and US intelligence officers in Havana and elsewhere.
The symptoms weren’t always the same, but they typically started with a sudden onset of pain and pressure in the head and ears. Some people reported hearing a loud noise, like in that case in Havana, followed by nausea, dizziness, confusion, and feelings of disorientation. It usually happened in people’s homes, and some say it altered the way they could move their bodies afterward.
The next year, it happened again, this time at the US consulate in Guangzhou, China. And new incidents have also been reported in Russia and other unnamed countries in Europe and the Middle East, where diplomats and intelligence and military personnel, and sometimes their family members, have reported similar experiences. More than 130 people have been affected, including a couple of officials on US soil, and many report lingering health effects, to the point that some are unable to work.
The cases are sometimes collectively referred to as Havana syndrome, but Mark Zaid, a lawyer in Washington, DC, who represents several of those affected, says that is a misnomer because incidents like these had been going on long before the public became aware of the cluster of cases in Havana. One of his clients, a former National Security Agency employee named Michael Beck, was affected while he was working in a classified hostile country back in 1996.
Beck and a colleague both went on to develop an extremely rare forms of Parkinson’s disease that he attributes to an attack. “It started long before Havana,” says Zaid. “It was just those incidents that brought it to light.”
Many explanations for these incidents have been put forward: a reaction to a pesticide, a deliberate poisoning, an attack with a sonic or microwave weapon or covert spying device.
Pinning down a clear diagnosis has been difficult, says James Giordano, PhD, a neurologist at Georgetown University and senior fellow in biotechnology, biosecurity, and ethics at the US Naval War College who has consulted for the government on the syndrome and has access to data and medical records from attending physicians in Havana.
There have been so many different symptoms, and some of them are subjective and difficult to measure, he explains.
However, the overall “constellation of effects,” Giordano says, is consistent with what is often seen in head injuries, even though none of the people reported a blow to the head or any related pre-existing conditions.
There are some differences in the brain scans of affected and healthy people, but without preinjury tests, doctors aren’t sure what effect variances in the amount of grey and white matter in the brain, tissue structure, and connectivity could have.
Giordano dismissed the possibility that the effects are due to either accidental or deliberate exposure to a toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug. No traces of any such agent were ever found in the homes or bodies of those affected. Instead, he thinks the most likely cause is some kind of mechanical device that emits ultrasonic or microwave energy. “This is the primary possibility with high probability.”
The same conclusion was reached in a report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which states that directed pulsed, radio frequency energy is “the most plausible” explanation.
Exposure could potentially create bubbling in the fluid inside a person’s ear, and those tiny bubbles could then cascade through the blood to the brain, causing damage similar to the decompression sickness some scuba divers have experienced, Giordano says.
But damage like that could only be confirmed by an autopsy, he points out, and all of the people afflicted are still alive. Microwave energy could also penetrate the skull and disrupt the electrical and chemical activity in the brain. “That would essentially ‘rewire’ the brain,” he says. “It could lead to a variety of disruptive changes that could be profound and durable.”
A lot of research on directed energy weapons has been conducted by national governments and intelligence agencies around the world. An American company made a prototype of this kind of weapon for the Marine Corps back in 2004, called MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio).
The weapon, intended for crowd control and to keep people out of protected areas, used the microwave auditory effect to cause discomfort or temporarily incapacitate. It acted in much the same way as its namesake from Greek mythology, who had venomous snakes in place of hair and could stop people by turning them into stone when they gazed into her eyes.
Medusa and the Snake-Head Curse
The prototype of the MEDUSA weapon was intended to have “a low probability” of permanent injury or death, and it is not known whether that research ever advanced.
Zaid has copies of slides that he says show that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was looking into the technology as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. He says he also has a copy of a National Security Agency (NSA) memo from 2014 that confirms the agency has intelligence linking an unnamed hostile country — one his client Michael Beck traveled to in the 1990s — with “a high-powered microwave weapon system that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time without leaving evidence.”
Giordano says he has seen intelligence that suggests that microwave energy research has advanced to the point where it is likely that such weapons do exist. “The progress in the field was such that this device clearly became operational and represents a clear and present risk, if not threat,” he says.
But Robert Baloh, MD, a neurologist at UCLA Health in Los Angeles, says the cases in Havana and the subsequent reports of other incidents around the world could have another, less sinister explanation, and could represent more of a psychologic than physical illness.
Outbreaks like this are a well-known phenomenon, says Baloh, and the cluster that began in Havana fits the pattern. Episodes typically begin with a respected person and then tend to spread to people connected to that person. Stress is often a trigger and, as word spreads, in this case through a government warning to employees to be on the lookout for strange sounds or experiences, the symptoms start cropping up more and more. “People believe something and it becomes fact,” he says. “The human brain is so susceptible to this.”
The diversity of symptoms also suggests a psychogenic rather than physical cause, says Baloh. “It’s not really a distinct syndrome; there’s no highly reproducible symptom pattern,” he says. “The symptoms seem to be unrelated to each other and can come on at different times. And the early reports about hearing a noise are now fading into the background.”
But it is important to realize, Baloh emphasizes, that psychosomatic symptoms are just as real as physical ones. “These people are not malingering, they’re not weak, they’re not making it up,” he says. It is a phenomenon that involves real changes in brain activity, just not ones that will show up on an MRI, and the neural pathways affected are the same as the ones involved when damage is physical. The effects can continue for a long time after the initial trigger is gone.
But people can recover completely, he says. The most important thing is not to reinforce the idea that they have suffered irreversible brain damage. The process is often slow and can be hard work, but in some cases the reversal can be dramatic.
The Road to Recovery
Giordano and Zaid both agree that there is a big psychogenic component to the phenomenon, especially in the years since the cases in Havana came to light. Each of them gets multiple calls or emails every week from people who think they might have been targeted by the same kind of attack. Most have no plausible connection to any suspected threats. And Giordano has referred only two such cases for further study.
But he remains convinced that at least the first two dozen cases in Havana that he helped investigate are the result of a genuine attack.
Regardless of what the intelligence community knows or suspects, American public servants have had their careers cut short, and years of experience and expertise have been lost to the community. In some cases, their families have experienced symptoms, too, and they are left wondering if they will ever know what really happened.
On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to support “public servants who have incurred brain injuries from likely directed energy attacks.” The Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act will offer financial support to those injured while investigations are ongoing.