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U.S. investigates mounting reports of mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' malady

Reports of the illness continue to emerge, with some claiming it is caused by directed-energy attacks, including on American soil.

Updated: May 12, 2021 - 10:54pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As reports continue to emerge about mysterious "Havana Syndrome"-type directed energy attacks against westerners, U.S. agencies are directing their own energies toward solving what is behind the debilitating ailments.

Officials at the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon reportedly are working to uncover the cause of incidents that may have occurred in Australia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Poland, Russia, and Taiwan. Most recently, claims emerged that Havana Syndrome incidents took place on American soil, including in Alexandria, Va., Miami, Fla., and near the White House in Washington, D.C. 

The syndrome according to its victims includes severe vertigo, fatigue, crushing headaches, and hearing loss. The malady is named for the locale where it first was reported by American officials stationed abroad.

The first known incidents took place in November 2016, when American diplomats and CIA officers in Havana, Cuba, said that they fell strangely ill. The symptoms were so extreme and so widespread, afflicting more than two dozen people, that Washington eventually brought home more than half the embassy staff and their families, and banned family members from joining future assignments. 

Citing the malady, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Americans.

"Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees suffered demonstrable and sometimes debilitating injuries during their service in Havana," the department wrote on its website. "Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping. We continue to investigate how the health of our diplomats and their family members was severely and permanently damaged."

The department noted that the symptoms occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana.

Increasingly alarmed by a bevy of similar reports, American officials — including CIA Director William Burns and former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller — have said that the syndrome and its cause must be addressed. Among action by other agencies, the CIA launched a task force to investigate Havana Syndrome.

Not everyone is convinced. Scientist Cheryl Rofer, who retired 20 years ago as a chemist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week expressed doubt that a malevolent actor could inflict a microwave attack.

"Aside from the reported syndromes, there's no evidence that a microwave weapon exists — and all the available science suggests that any such weapon would be wildly impractical," Rofer wrote in a Monday essay for Foreign Policy. "It's possible that the symptoms of all the sufferers of Havana Syndrome share a single, as yet unknown, cause; it’s also possible that multiple real health problems have been amalgamated into a single syndrome."

Microwaves that are strong enough to debilitate a human are easy to detect, one Defense Department scientist told Just the News. If delivered in short pulses and quickly shut off, though, random waves might not immediately be noticed, the scientist added.

A report last year from the National Academies of Sciences found that "no hypothesis has been proven, and the circumstances remain unclear." The report also gave credence to the suggestion that pulsed attacks could cause Havana Syndrome.

"The committee finds that many of the acute, sudden-onset, early phase signs, symptoms and observations reported by [State Department] employees are consistent with [radio frequency] effects," the report authors wrote.

The White House meanwhile acknowledged the mounting reports of the unexplained malady.

"The health and wellbeing of American public servants is a paramount priority for the Biden administration," spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters last month during an airborne press gaggle. "The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unexplained health incidents and ensure the safety and security of Americans serving around the world."

Jean-Pierre gave no details on new incidents, however, nor on what the White House has found.

"Given that we are still evaluating reported incidents and that we need to protect the privacy of individuals reporting incidents, we cannot provide or confirm specific details at this time," she said.

Among the unresolved questions are motive. Experts so far have not emerged to say why the attacks would be launched. And so far, no one openly has claimed responsibility.

Moscow last year announced that Russian scientists were working on directed energy weapons that are powerful enough to destroy enemy targets. The announcement in the government-run Tass news agency described electromagnetic pulse [EMP] weapons that "physically destroy electronics beyond repair."

The weapons were designed to fell systems by generating ultrahigh-frequency electromagnetic beams that destroy targets in less than a second. These weapons likely are not connected to Havana Syndrome, the U.S. Defense Department scientist noted, because they are dangerous to both perpetrator and victim.

Moscow seemed to agree.

"EMP cannons are unfit for manned aircraft, because high-level EMP signals can be harmful for the pilot," Tass wrote.

The report last year from the NAS found that Havana Syndrome also can be explained by a range of other causes, including psychological problems, diseases, and chemical exposure.