“Havana Syndrome”: Biological Attacks against U.S. Government Employees or a Mass Mental Health Crisis?

“Havana Syndrome”: Biological Attacks against U.S. Government Employees or a Mass Mental Health Crisis?

By Sarah Cahn '22, Illustration by The New York Times

On his podcast, Pod Save the World, former Deputy National Security Advisor to Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes, has discussed a puzzling phenomenon called “Havana Syndrome,” in which first American intelligence officers and diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba reported experiencing painful neurological symptoms in December 2016. In the first chapter of his book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Rhodes discusses a 2016 conversation he had with a U.S. diplomat in Cuba who mentioned a “mysterious illness that had struck employees of the embassy,” and that there were “theories about sonic attacks.” Since then, more than 200 U.S. government employees have complained of symptoms such as nausea, sensitivity to sound, dizziness, inability to sleep, cognitive issues, and headaches while stationed abroad. Since July 2021, the U.S. government has enhanced its efforts to discover the causes of this illness and potential attacks on its employees. It is still unclear, as of December 2021, who and what is to blame. So, what is “Havana Syndrome” and why should we care about it? 

Syndrome Origins and Current Status

Cases of Havana Syndrome were first detected in the U.S. Embassy in Havana on December 30, 2016, with symptoms of nausea, sensitivity to sound, dizziness, and headaches. As of December 2021, over 750 cases of “analogous health incidents” have been reported by federal government employees at the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Council relating to symptoms related to “Havana Syndrome.” However, only about 200 of those cases have been verified cases of the disorder. An unofficial list of symptoms related to concussions and brain damage include vertigo, headaches, fogginess, vision problems, ear pain, fatigue, insomnia, and sluggishness, with symptoms lasting for days up to months and even years.  A 2018 report by Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania stated that the 21 diplomats surveyed displayed signs of brain damage that could have been caused by a perplexing “immaculate concussion.” 

Havana Syndrome cases have been reported from at least 12 countries, including Cuba, China, Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Berlin, Germany, Austria, Colombia, Serbia, India, Vietnam, and even in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, one difficulty of determining a full list of symptoms associated with the disorder is the wide range of experiences of those who reported symptoms. While some government employees experienced symptoms as an instantaneous blast, some faced them progressively overtime, leading to a lack of scientific clarity and ability to diagnose the problem. 

As of December 2021, investigations into Havana syndrome have not led to any evidence pointing to a cause or culprit for the disorder. The New York Times highlighted that absent a large breakthrough, getting answers will be difficult and contentious for those afflicted and for the federal government. Furthermore, medical personnel working on this issue have been unable to develop a concrete diagnosis or scientific test to determine who has been a victim, stalling the federal government’s ability to create a further plan of action to mitigate the threat. 

“Havana Syndrome” Potential Causes and Controversy

One of the most popular and repeated potential causes of “Havana Syndrome” is directed energy or microwave attacks launched by an enemy intelligence service. Since the rise in microwave technology research in the 1960s, microwave weapons have been distributed to multiple actors, leading to a number of potential suspects with capabilities to carry out an attack. An early 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argued that microwave radiation is the most likely cause, which could theoretically lead to similar symptoms exhibited by employees reporting the syndrome. The same report also documented that Russia has studied technology related to microwave energy attacks more than any other country, leading to the most popular working hypothesis that Russian intelligence agents have been aiming microwave radiation devices at U.S. government facilities abroad to potentially steal data located on computers and cellphones. Claims of bioterrorism have been adamantly supported by those who have experienced the symptoms associated with “Havana Syndrome,” with one person stating that “Whatever it is, it is a form of terrorism–it has caused serious injuries that have been life-altering for some of us.” Theories of foreign intelligence attacks also became more popular after a steep rise in reported cases in Austria, a country that is permissible to foreign-intelligence operations on its own soil. 

However, the evidence for microwave attacks is very weak, as microwave attacks tend to show obvious wounds, such as the burning of human flesh, which has not been discovered on any of the victims. Additionally, no evidence was found of tampering on the devices of any of the victims, lending no evidence for attacks to steal information. Furthermore, a 2012 Nature article cited years of U.S. military research into microwave weapons as “wasted energy” as the weapons were determined as unreliable. To date, the CIA has been unable to collect hard evidence of people contracting Havana syndrome being hit by an energy pulse, as no microwave attacks nor intercepts detailing adversarial attacks have been detected. Ultimately, while the theory of microwave attacks against U.S. government officials abroad seems intriguing and potentially logical given the deep tensions between the U.S. and Russia, there is limited hard evidence that supports these claims. 

However, if directed energy attacks are not the cause of these mysterious and debilitating symptoms, what could possibly be the cause of this trauma? One of the original investigations into the syndrome by the F.B.I. ‘s Behavioral Analysis Unit discussed the possibility of “Havana Syndrome” as mass psychogenic illness, an archaic term for what is now known as functional neurological disorders. A functional neurological disorder is an experience in which a person is not directly exposed to an attack, but a feedback loop develops between sensations, perceptions, anxiety, that cause negative, potentially harmful symptoms. The theory of “Havana Syndrome” as a functional neurological disorder has gained traction in recent weeks, especially as the federal government is unable to find evidence for other causes. The disorder could be triggered by extreme levels of anxiety that can lead to “obsessive anticipation of danger,” leading towards physical manifestations. 

The high-pressure environment of the U.S. Embassy in Havana throughout 2016 and 2017 fits into the descriptions of stresses that have caused previous functional disorders. One such example were outbreaks of dizziness and shortness of breath in communities following World War I due to fears of chemical gas attacks. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the continuous chaotic nature of his foreign policy actions, and coupled with the advent of COVID-19, U.S. representatives abroad experienced extreme levels of stress and anxiety. Furthermore, frightening media coverage that claimed the threat of an invisible weapon, could have caused widespread panic within the small diplomatic community, manifesting into very real, and very harmful symptoms of brain injury. In New York Magazine, Adam Gaffney highlights the negative consequences of constant fear of attack without proof, arguing that “The spreading conviction of attack by microwave that should be seen as socially contagious, not the underlying illness itself.” It is important to note that previous functional neurological disorders have carried symptoms that are severe and debilitating, but can improve with rehabilitation and psychological support.

Thus, while it is still possible that “Havana Syndrome” develops as a result of attacks, it is also equally likely that the extreme stressors and anxiety associated with serving the federal government abroad in the midst of a pandemic and political turmoil has led to the manifestation of physical harm and trauma for many public servants. 

Federal Government Responses 

Ultimately, with all of the uncertainty and harm experienced by the victims of “Havana Syndrome,” what has the U.S. government done to service its employees? Reports investigating the federal response to the issue indicate that the Trump administration failed to respond effectively to the issue, especially as foreign policy became more isolationist and adversarial over the course of the presidency. Despite Cuban denial of involvement and their cooperation with American intelligence agencies to investigate the issue, the Trump administration’s first response was to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington and withdraw the embassy staff, leading to heightened tensions between the two states. Gina Haspel, the former Director of the CIA under President Trump CIA initially was skeptical about the syndrome, yet sent a message asking employees to report possible cases in December 2020.  Investigations by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee into the issue found serious concerns from some employees that were not able to access needed benefits and medical care. 

However, the committee highlighted that the approach taken by William Burns, the current Director of the CIA, is a significant and welcome change from his predecessors. In July 2021, Burns redoubled the CIA’s efforts to investigate Havana syndrome, establishing a taskforce to investigate the issue and the agency’s response that is led by a veteran office who helped lead the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Burns has also helped to enhance the CIA’s healthcare response and dedicated additional resources, such as a baseline testing program for diplomatic and intelligence officers before leaving for field assignments. 

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also tapped two senior state department officials to lead a further investigation into “Havana Syndrome” after staff and family members in Bogota, Colombia experienced symptoms. Blinken also implemented a similar baseline testing program for foreign service officers to the CIA initiative. Additionally, in September, the Pentagon asked all military personnel, civilian officials, and contractors to report any symptoms related to Havana syndrome, and issued a guideline to quickly move away from an area in which symptoms are experienced, a potential endorsement of the theory that the syndrome is caused by a weapons attack. Furthermore, the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is leading a panel of analysts and outside scientists to determine the mechanism used in a possible attack and investigate other causes. 

One of the strongest and most helpful responses for victims includes the passage of the HAVANA or the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, which authorizes the CIA director and the Secretary of State to provide employees and their family members financial support for medical healthcare under detailed criteria and also mandates agencies to report to Congress on how payments are made and if more action is needed. While a vote was delayed in July due to partisan fighting, the act was finally signed in October. While the bill does not provide answers to questions about the syndrome’s cause, it does provide U.S. government employees the support they desperately need to either return to work or lead comfortable lives. 

Potentially the most inflammatory response came in late November when William Burns delivered a deterrent warning to top Russian officials at the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Services of consequences if they are behind attacks causing “Havana Syndrome.” While the warning did not assign blame for the incidents, it did indicate CIA suspicion of Kremlin culpability, increasing tensions between the already conflictual states. While the Russians have since denied responsibility for any attacks, the warning sent a powerful signal to convey the Biden administration’s seriousness about the issue. 

Why We Should Care

First, the possibility of directed neurological attacks against U.S. public servants living abroad is highly concerning, and those that suffer with harmful symptoms deserve answers if they can receive them. Particularly if cases of the syndrome continue to grow and if federal government and intelligence agencies are unable to provide solutions, the federal government’s ability to hire and retain effective employees may decrease, leaving vital positions vacant that are necessary to protecting U.S. national security. Furthermore, if U.S. representatives continue to be afflicted with the symptoms, productivity and attention to detail in these agencies could decrease, continuing to lead to potential national security risks. 

However, if “Havana Syndrome” is determined as a functional neurological disorder, it could signal the need for increased mental health support for federal employees due to the increased stress of the last five years. The adamant rejection by the federal officials that Havana Syndrome is a “functional neurological disorder” potentially shows stigmatization of mental illness and anxiety within the government. In order to increase access to healthcare and mental health support, it is important that the federal government highlights that these issues can develop no matter one’s intelligence, occupation, or security clearance, as high levels of stress can lead to severe consequences for all. 

Finally, sending consequential warnings to a powerful adversary without complete evidence of attacks, in this case Russia, could lead to unnecessary mass chaos and war. Just as when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 based on “medium confidence” and ultimately false claims about WMDs, the U.S. foreign policy establishment must remember past lessons learned when engaging with adversaries on this issue. In the coming months once investigations are completed into “Havana Syndrome’s” origins and causes, it will be essential for the U.S. government to use caution in its response to prioritize the health and safety of its employees and to protect U.S. national security.

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