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A strange illness that has plagued US and Canadian diplomats for several years now. Originally occurring in Cuba; this strange illness has left people and governments stretching their heads and pointing fingers for half a decade now. We are not all that much closer to answers, leaving the Havana Syndrome an ongoing debate.

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Havana Syndrome General History

Havana syndrome is a set of medical signs and symptoms experienced by United States and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba. Starting August 2017, reports surfaced that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had suffered a variety of health problems. Dating back to late 2016.

The U.S. government accused Cuba of perpetrating unspecified attacks causing these symptoms. The U.S. reduced staff at their embassy to a minimum in response. In 2018, U.S. diplomats in China reported problems similar to those reported in Cuba. Additionally, undercover C.I.A. agents operating in other countries who were negotiating ways to counter Russian operations around the world.

Furthermore, subsequent studies of the affected diplomats in Cuba, published in the journal JAMA in 2018; found evidence that the diplomats experienced some form of brain injury, but did not determine the cause of the injuries. Additionally, a co-author of the JAMA study considers microwave weapons to be “a main suspect” for the Havana Syndrome.

Finally, a December 2020, a study by an expert committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, commissioned by the State Department. Releasing a report, concluding that “directed” microwave radiation was the likely cause of illnesses among American diplomats.


2016 and 2017

In August 2017, reports began surfacing that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had experienced unusual, unexplained health problems dating back to late 2016. The number of American citizens experiencing symptoms was 26 as of June 2018.

Some U.S. embassy individuals experience lasting health effects, including one unidentified diplomat who now needs a hearing aid. The State Department declared that the health problems were either the result of an attack. Or due to exposure to an as-yet-unknown device, and declared that they were not blaming the Cuban government; but would not announce who they suspected. Affected individuals described symptoms such as hearing loss, memory loss, and nausea. Early speculation centered around a sonic weapon, with some researchers pointing to infrasound as a possible cause. 

The health problems typically had a sudden onset; the victim would suddenly begin hearing strange grating noises that they perceived as coming from a specific direction. Some of them experienced it as a pressure or a vibration; or as a sensation comparable to driving a car with the window partly rolled down. The duration of these noises ranged from 20 seconds to 30 minutes. Always happening while the diplomats were either at home or in hotel rooms. Other people nearby, family members and guests in neighboring rooms, did not report hearing anything. The Associated Press release what it says is a recording of the sound embassy workers heard while in Cuba.

Havana Syndrome in the Main-Stream

In August 2017, the United States expelled two Cuban diplomats in response to the illnesses. In September, the US State Department stated that it was removing non-essential staff from the US embassy; warning U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba. Interestingly enough, another similar incident occurs with a USAID employee in the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017; the US State Department discounts the employee’s report.

 A month later in October, Donald Trump says the following,  “I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that…And it’s a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible.

After the incident became public, the Cuban Foreign Minister accuse the U.S. of lying about the incident. Denying Cuban involvement or knowledge in the health problems diplomats report.

Cuban Cooperation

The Cuban government offered to cooperate with the U.S. in an investigation of the incidents. It employed about 2000 scientists and law enforcement officers who interviewed 300 neighbors of diplomats. Examining two hotels, and also medically examined non-diplomats who could have been exposed. NBC reported that Cuban officials stated that they analyzed air and soil samples, and considered a range of toxic chemicals.

They also examined the possibility that electromagnetic waves were to blame. Even looking into whether insects could be the culprit, but found nothing they could link to the claimed medical symptoms. The FBI and Cuban authorities met to discuss the situation; the Cubans stated that the U.S. neither agreed to share the diplomats’ medical records; with Cuban authorities nor allowed Cuban investigators access to U.S. diplomats’ homes to conduct tests.


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2018 

In January 2018, the Associated Press reported that a non-public FBI report found no evidence of an intentional sonic attack. A November 2018 report in the New Yorker found that the FBI’s investigation into the incidents was stymied by conflict with the CIA and the State Department. The CIA was reluctant to reveal, even to other U.S. government agencies, the identities of affected officers; because of the CIA’s concern about possible leaks. Federal rules on the privacy of employee medical records also hindered the investigation.

January 2018, at the direction of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Department of State convened an Accountability Review Board; to review security incidents involving diplomatic personnel”. Retired United States Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde was chosen to lead the board.

On March 2, 2018, the U.S. State Department announced continuing to staff its embassy in Havana at minimum requirement to perform “core diplomatic and consular functions”; due to concerns about health attacks on staff. The embassy had been operating under “ordered departure status” since September, but the status was set to expire. This announcement served to extend the staff reductions indefinitely.

In March 2018, MRI scans and other tests taken by a chief neurologist in Pittsburgh, on an unspecified number of Canadian diplomats showed evidence of brain damage that mirrored the injuries some of their American counterparts had faced. In spring of 2018, Global Affairs Canada ended family postings to Cuba and withdrew all staff with families. Several of the Canadians who were impacted in 2017 were reported to still be unable to resume their work due to the severity of their ailments. 

Within the same month, Kevin Fu and a team of computer scientists at the University of Michigan reported in a study that ultrasound—specifically, intermodulation distortion from multiple inaudible ultrasonic signals—from malfunctioning or improperly placed Cuban surveillance equipment could have been the origin of the reported sounds.

University of Pennsylvania Havana Syndrome Study

At the request of the U.S. government, University of Pennsylvania researchers examined 21 affected diplomats. The preliminary results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in March 2018. The report “found no evidence of white matter tract abnormalities” in affected diplomats. Beyond what might be seen in a control group of the same age. Describing “a new syndrome in the diplomats, that resembles persistent concussion”.

While some of those affected recovered swiftly, others had symptoms lasting for months. The study concluded that “the diplomats appear to have sustained an injury to widespread brain networks.” Some experts criticized the study, arguing that there was “no proof that any kind of energy source affected the diplomats, or even that an attack took place.

Havana Syndrome Microwaves to Blame?

In a 2018 interview, Douglas H. Smith, a co-author of the JAMA study, said that microwaves were “considered a main suspect” underlying the Havana Syndrome. A 2018 study in the Neural Computation by Beatrice Alexandra Golomb, rejects the idea a sonic attack was to blame. Concluding that facts were consistent with pulsed radiofrequency/microwave radiation (RF/MW) exposure as the source of injury.

Golomb wrote that: Firstly, the nature of the noises reported by the diplomats was consistent with sounds caused by pulsed RF/MW via the Frey effect. Secondly, the signs and symptoms reported by the diplomats matched symptoms from RF/MW exposure (problems with sleep, cognition, vision, balance, speech, and headaches; sensations of pressure or vibration; nosebleeds; brain injury and brain swelling).

Thirdly, “oxidative stress provides a documented mechanism of RF/MW injury compatible with reported signs and symptoms“. Fourthly, in the past, the U.S. embassy in Moscow was subject to a microwave attack. Neuroscientist Allan H Frey, considers the microwave theory to be viable. Some other scientists, including physicist Peter Zimmerman and bioengineer Kenneth R. Foster, disagreed, considering the microwave hypothesis to be implausible.

A 2018 study published in the journal Neural Computation identified pulsed radiofrequency/microwave radiation (RF/MW) exposure via the Frey effect as a source of injury. Noting that a microwave attack against the U.S. embassy in Moscow has been historically documented.

Surprisingly enough, similar accusations to those reported by diplomats in Cuba began to be made by U.S. diplomats in China. The first incident reported by an American diplomat in China was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate; the largest U.S. consulate within China. The employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Several individuals came to the United States for medical examinations.

2018 State Department Updates

Answering questions from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 23, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that U.S. diplomatic staff in Guangzhou had reported symptoms “very similar” to, and “entirely consistent” with, those reported from Cuba. On June 6, 2018, The New York Times report two additional US diplomats at the Guangzhou consulate flee from China. Reporting that “it remains unclear whether the illnesses are the result of attacks at all. Other theories have included toxins, listening devices that accidentally emitted harmful sounds or even mass hysteria.”

In June 2018, the State Department announced that a task force is assembled to investigate the reports. Expanding their health warning to all of mainland China; amid reports, some US diplomats outside of Guangzhou had experienced the same symptoms resembling a brain injury. The warning told anyone who experienced “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises” to “not attempt to locate their source.”


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2019

In January 2019, biologists Alexander L Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the University of Lincoln, analyze a recording of a sound made by U.S. personnel in Cuba and released to the Associated Press. Stubbs and Montealegre-Z conclude that the sound was the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket; rather than a technological device. Moreover, the scientists matched the song’s “pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse” to the recording.

Stubbs and Montealegre wrote that “Although the causes of the health problems reported by embassy personnel are beyond the scope of this paper and called for more rigorous research into the source of these ailments. Similarly the potential psychogenic effects, as well as possible physiological explanations unrelated to sonic attacks“.

This conclusion was comparable to a 2017 hypothesis from Cuban scientists; that the sound on the same recording is from Jamaican field crickets. Reuters reported that JASON, a group of physicists and scientists who advise the U.S. government, determined that “a rare jungle cricket” was the cause of the sounds in Havana.

In 2017, 2018, and 2019 sociologist Robert Bartholomew and neurologists wrote the attacks represent episodes of mass psychogenic illness. However, the co-lead author of the 2019 study published in JAMA, Ragini Verma of the University of Pennsylvania Perlman School of Medicine, considered a “wholly psychogenic or psychosomatic cause” to be very unlikely, given the researchers’ findings, and State Department medical director Dr. Charles Rosenfarb testified that the department had “all but ruled out ‘mass hysteria” as a cause.

A month following, in February, there still remained no knowledge of the cause of “Havana syndrome”. Making it difficult for the RCMP, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to run their own investigation.

Canada Joins the Conversation

In 2019, the government of Canada announced that it was reducing its embassy staff in Havana after a 14th Canadian diplomat reported symptoms of Havana syndrome in late December 2018. Within February, several Canadian diplomats sued the Canadian government. Arguing that it failed to protect them or promptly address serious health concerns. The government has sought to dismiss the suit.

Stating in November of the same year, it was not negligent and did not breach its duties to its employees. In court filings, the government acknowledges that several of the 14 plaintiffs in the suit suffer from concussion-like symptoms. Saying that no definitive cause or medical diagnosis had been ascertained. Finally, in a November 2019 statement, Global Affairs Canada said, “We continue to investigate the potential causes of the unusual health symptoms.”

2019 Studies

A 2019 study commissioned by Global Affairs Canada of 23 exposed Canadian diplomats, completed in May 2019. Finding “clinical, imaging, and biochemical evidence consistent with the hypothesis; over-exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors such as pyrethroids and organophosphates (OPs) as a cause of brain injury.

Furthermore, the embassies and other places in Cuba spray frequently as an anti-Zika virus mosquito control measure. Meanwhile, the study concludes that other possible causes could not be left out.

The University of Pennsylvania team continued to publish further findings after their original 2018 research. July 2019, the team found that compared to a healthy control group.

The diplomats who had reported injury had experienced brain trauma; advanced MRI scans (specifically res-fMRI, multimodal MRI, and diffusion MRI) revealed “differences in whole-brain white matter volume, regional gray and white matter volume, cerebellar microstructural integrity, and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks” but found no differences in executive functions.

In conclusion, the U.S. government personnel were physically injured in a way consistent with the symptoms that they describe. Expressing no conclusion on the cause or source of the injury. The New York Times report, “Outside experts split on the study’s conclusions”. Some saw important new evidence. However, others say it is merely the first step toward an explanation. In conclusion, it remains difficult to interpret given the small number of patients.


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2020 – Recent Havana Syndrome

The New York Times report in October 2020 that CIA director Gina Haspel and State Department leaders were unconvinced that Russia is responsible or even whether an attack occurred. However, some believe there is a high-level and deliberate cover-up by the Trump-led State Department; as a result of a US Office of Special Counsel investigation “found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by State.

Additionally, in December 2020, a 19-person committee of medical and scientific experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine at the request of the State Department published a Consensus Study Report, An Assessment of Illness in US Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies, based on its review of the incidents and injuries. The report concluded that “Overall, pulse RF energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considers.

Prior to 2019, some researchers posited other possible causes for the injuries. Including ultrasound via intermodulation distortion caused by malfunctioning or improperly placed Cuban surveillance equipment; cricket noises, and exposure to neurotoxic pesticides. Early speculation of acoustic or sonic causes is now unlikely.

Additionally, some suggestions have the symptoms represent episodes of mass hysteria. The 2018 JAMA researchers considered a “wholly psychogenic or psychosomatic cause” to be very unlikely, given the physical evidence of brain trauma. However, within the 2020 National Academies report, they began to consider “chemical exposures, infectious diseases and psychological issues as potential causes or aggravating factors of the injuries“. Determining that these are not likely the cause of the injuries.

National Academies Study

The 2020 National Academies study found that that it was unlikely that “acute high-level exposure to OPs and/or pyrethroid contributed” to the illnesses. Due to a lack of evidence of exposures to those pesticides or clinical histories consistent with such exposure; however, “the committee could not rule out the possibility, although slight, that exposure to insecticides, particularly OPs, increases susceptibility to the triggering factors that caused the Embassy personnel cases“. The 2020 National Academies study also found it “highly unlikely” that an infectious disease is to blame for the illnesses. 

The 2020 National Academies Study, proposes a targeted microwave attack is the most likely culprit for the studied claims. It also reiterates that it is far from conclusive. The outcome is still in extreme debate, however, most agree that it is worth further research in order to determine. At the least, to prevent future incidents.


Havana Syndrome Theories and Culprits

Above all, US State Department employees who consider themselves victims, and some senior CIA Russian analysts; as well as some outside scientists believe Russia is the most likely culprit. Furthermore, the U.S State Department accused Russia of using directed microwaves in the past. During the Cold War, the U.S. accused Russia of directing a microwave signal at the American embassy in Moscow.

A 2014 NSA report raised suspicions that Russia used an energy weapon to “bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves”; which caused nervous system damage. The purported targets in the 2016-2018 events include undercover CIA agents, working on ways to counter Russian operations. Furthermore, the U.S. diplomats in China and Cuba report ailments while working to increase cooperation with those countries. In conclusion, CIA analysts suspect Russia was trying to disrupt all those activities.




Resources

Havana Syndrome Timeline – Not Really Established Fully Elsewhere in Sources. Structure from Wikipedia, but compiled from places like the New York Times, Business Insider, Buzzfeed News and FOX.




Credits

EP 47 – The Havana Syndrome | Mysterious Targeted Illness. Produced by Shane Cummings; Audio Editing & Research by Shane Cummings.
Intro & Outro music “Creepy Regrets” by AnMo.


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