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In late 2016 and early 2017, 21 American diplomats stationed in Cuba started to report serious and in some cases debilitating neurological symptoms with no ready explanation, including headaches, nausea and hearing loss, brought on, most of them said, by a piercing, high-pitched sound, as though they had been caught in “an invisible beam of energy.”
The episodes, the White House soon became convinced, were the result of “targeted attacks”: The Trump administration responded by expelling 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington and withdrawing most of its staff members from the embassy.
Five years later, more than 200 U.S. government officials in countries around the world have claimed affliction with what is now known as the “Havana syndrome.” Reports of an outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam, delayed Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit in August by a few hours. In September, President Biden signed into law a bill to compensate victims.
The cause, however, remains shrouded in mystery, speculation and doubt: The leading theory among American intelligence officials reportedly ascribes the illness not just to “targeted attacks,” but to targeted attacks executed with secret microwave weapons wielded by agents of hostile foreign powers — Russia, in particular. If this sounds to you like something out of a James Bond movie, you’re not alone:
How plausible is the “directed energy weapon” hypothesis, and are there simpler, perhaps even stranger explanations for the phenomenon? Here’s what people are saying.
‘The immaculate concussion’
In 2018, the well-regarded Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of the 21 diplomats, led by Douglas H. Smith, the director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith and his team said they found signs of brain damage, but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls — a trauma they referred to as an “immaculate concussion.”
“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” Smith said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.”
Government officials initially suggested that the “something” was caused by some sort of sonic weapon. But that theory has been more or less discredited: “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms,” Dr. Jürgen Altmann, a physicist and expert on acoustics, told The Times. “Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.” Moreover, sounds in recordings of the supposed weapon were later identified by biologists as the song of an exceptionally loud species of cricket.
In December 2020, the National Academy of Sciences offered an alternative explanation that attributed the illness not to sound but to light, in the form of microwaves. Proponents of this theory point to what’s known as the Frey effect: In the early 1960s, Allan H. Frey, a neuroscientist, documented that microwaves could trick the brain into “hearing” sounds that do not actually exist — a discovery that led to an arms race of sorts between the Soviet Union and the United States to create microwave weapons.
“It’s plausible that at just the right wavelength, an electromagnetic beam could be projected over hundreds of yards to create the symptoms seen in Havana syndrome incidents,” Iain Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering, writes. “If this is the case, it’s likely that these beams are interfering with the electrical functions of the brain and central nervous system.”
[“‘Seized by some invisible hand’: What it feels like to have Havana Syndrome”]
The State Department stressed, however, that “each possible cause remains speculative.” No evidence of such a weapon has been found, and Cuba and Russia have denied that they were behind any such targeted attacks.
‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’
Many scientists have argued that the microwave weapon theory is implausible. While the U.S. military has tested crowd-control devices that use powerful microwaves that can travel long distances, they are exceedingly large and work by heating people’s skin from the outside in; a microwave weapon capable of injuring the brain, even if it could be concealed, would presumably first fry the victim’s flesh.
“The idea that someone could beam huge amounts of microwave energy at people and not have it be obvious defies credibility,” Kenneth Foster, an emeritus professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the Frey effect, told The Times. “You might as well say little green men from Mars were throwing darts of energy.”
Cheryl Royfer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has taken a similar view. “The evidence for microwave effects of the type categorized as Havana syndrome is exceedingly weak,” she wrote in Foreign Policy. “No proponent of the idea has outlined how the weapon would actually work. No evidence has been offered that such a weapon has been developed by any nation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”
So what might have caused the “Havana syndrome” brain damage, if not sound or light? That turns out to be something of a trick question, Dan Hurley reported for The Times in 2019: Many neurologists and psychologists assert that the JAMA paper provided no convincing evidence of any brain damage at all.
The diagnosis was based on the diplomats’ symptoms and their performances on tests of balance, hearing, memory and eye movement. But most of those test results — almost none of which are strictly objective, critics say — were within the range of normal; the threshold for impairment had simply been set “inexplicably high.”
When Robert Baloh, an emeritus professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, was given the JAMA manuscript for peer review, he recommended rejection and described its claims as “more like science fiction than science.”
A second JAMA study from 2019 that employed neuroimaging technology found no evidence of injury, only “differences” between the brain scans of 40 embassy workers in Cuba and healthy controls. Even those differences, some brain scientists say, are not evidence of any abnormality and could be easily explained by random variation.
Many scientists say that the “Havana syndrome” is much more likely a mass psychogenic illness, a phenomenon whereby people become sick because they think they have been exposed to a health threat. The exposure as imagined isn’t real, but the symptoms — and the suffering — very much are, the result of changes in brain chemistry and neural connections that can last for years.
“Such illnesses have occurred for centuries and continue to occur on a regular basis around the world,” says Baloh, who co-wrote a book on the topic. “For example, as telephones became widely available at the turn of the 20th century, numerous telephone operators became sick with concussion-like symptoms attributed to ‘acoustic shock.’”
Once called mass hysteria, mass psychogenic illnesses are now also called functional illnesses because they trouble the conventional medical dichotomy between the brain and the mind. “I wince when I hear the word ‘psychogenic,’” Jon Stone, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, told Hurley. “It creates a false impression about what these disorders are. They’re like depression or migraine. They happen in that gray area where the mind and the brain intersect.”
Months after the first JAMA paper was published, Stone co-wrote a letter to the editor critiquing its dismissal of functional illness as a potential explanation. “In many functional neurological disorders, initial sensory discomfort together with anxiety and heightened attention trigger maladaptive processes that lead to persistent symptoms,” the letter stated. “Although diagnostic caution is warranted, functional neurological disorders are common genuine disorders that can affect anyone, including hardworking diplomatic staff.”
[“Evidence Mounts that Mass Suggestion Caused ‘Havana Syndrome’”]
The case for skepticism
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that U.S. officials were victims of “targeted attacks,” much less of secret microwave weapons deployed by a foreign power, many intelligence officials and journalists seem increasingly convinced of the narrative. The latest big story on the “Havana syndrome,” published in the media outlet Puck News, led with the following admission from the author, the national security reporter Julia Ioffe: “I always suspected that these illnesses were the product of deliberate attacks and that the Russian government was behind them — it was exactly the kind of weird thing they’d be both into and capable of.”
Americans should be wary of how the “Havana syndrome” is being framed in this way as a warrant for retaliatory action, Natalie Shure argues in The New Republic.
In May, she notes, former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller referred to the “Havana syndrome” as an “act of war.”
More recently, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has reportedly begun marking up a bill calling for sanctions against whoever “directed or carried out the Havana Syndrome attacks.”
This month, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida accused skeptics of the targeted microwave attack theory like Baloh of being “influence agents” paid by foreign powers.
Perhaps most shocking, in Shure’s view, an anonymous member of the intelligence community quoted in Ioffe’s story seemed to call for punishing the alleged culprits, alluding to intelligence of “medium confidence” that the alleged culprits were Russian.
“Of course, we also invaded Iraq with ‘medium confidence,’” Shure writes. “If ‘Havana syndrome’ has mercifully yet to be used to agitate for war as concretely as the imaginary nukes of Iraq were, it’s clearly been seized on by a national security apparatus formidably expanded since 9/11 — and if more people don’t come to their senses, harm will surely result.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Havana Syndrome or a Case for Eliminating the Implausible” [McGill]
“Are U.S. Officials Under Silent Attack?” [The New Yorker]
“Challenging the diagnosis of ‘Havana Syndrome’ as a novel clinical entity” [Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine]
“Scientists Are Still Fighting Over What Made U.S. Diplomats In Cuba Ill” [BuzzFeed]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what a reader had to say about the last debate: Will Covid really change the way we work?
Rhonda from Massachusetts: “One thing which I did not see in the article was any mention of the fact that a large number of people in the work force have died as a result of Covid-19. Another statistic which I have never seen anywhere is the number of people who survived Covid-19 but are disabled for the short term, the long term or maybe even permanently. These people are now out of the work force for some amount of time or forever, and that number can’t be small either. Both of the above will enhance the ability of those who are able to work to get a better position. I wish them good luck in getting a better place in the work force.”