Anomalies or attacks? Fear, uncertainty and politics of Havana Syndrome

Anomalies or attacks? Fear, uncertainty and politics of Havana Syndrome
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One December evening in 2016,  a U.S. embassy official was resting at home in Havana, Cuba, when suddenly they were awakened by an excruciating sound. Accompanying this sound disturbance were painful physical sensations — facial pressure, nausea, loss of equilibrium. Following this first-reported case, victims of the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” have exhibited a host of puzzling vestibular and cognitive dysfunction symptoms, writes the National Academy of Sciences in Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies

In a July 2021 interview with NPR, CIA Director William J. Burns announced that there have been over 200 reported potential cases of Havana Syndrome around the globe. Cases have even occurred domestically, “at the homes of United States personnel, at hotels, and on public streets, including in the immediate vicinity of the White House, in Washington, D.C,” according to the Havana Syndrome Attacks Response Act. In August, Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisEmhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony GOP becoming a cult of know-nothings Stowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami MORE’s trip from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed because of a possible anomalous health incident reported by U.S. embassy officials in Hanoi, Vietnam. On Oct. 21, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenAt least 20 Sudan troops dead after clash on Ethiopia border Germany calls on Congress not to sanction Nord Stream 2 pipeline: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to meet with U.S. embassy personnel who have suffered from Havana Syndrome.

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So, what is the Havana Syndrome? In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), published a retrospective case study on the Havana Syndrome, involving 21 U.S. personnel who experienced varying manifestations of neurological injury, such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, and difficulty with cognitive tasks, including “the ability to multitask, process information quickly with accurate recall, solve problems and perform rapid decision making.”  

The study concluded that “the Havana cohort appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” A significant caveat to the JAMA study’s findings, however, is that the Havana cohort may not be representative of the affected population because this was a referred sample size and “the actual number of individuals exposed is unknown, and the relative ‘dose’ of exposure that causes acute and chronic symptoms remains unclear.”

Until spring 2017, little was known about these anomalous health cases, writes the National Academy of Sciences. Reports of this mysterious physical phenomena as a form of sound and sensation — and, by some accounts, also a directional phenomena with location-specific attributes — began surfacing in “a handful of other cases” involving U.S. embassy personnel stationed in Cuba in 2016 and 2017. 

That began to change, however, as the number of cases and their geographical distribution increased. For example, in 2017, at the United States Consulate in Guangzhou, China, personnel reported hearing “unusual sounds” according to a declassified 2018 State Department and JASON Report.  Interestingly, the JASON Report presents several theories for the unusual sounds. 

One of the initial theories involved crickets — more precisely, the Indies short-tailed cricket, Anurogryllis celerinictus, whose call, according to JASON, “matches, in nuanced detail, the spectral properties of the recordings from Cuba once room echoes are taken into account. Other hypotheses are also plausible, such as generation by mechanical devices (e.g., a worn pump motor), or structure-borne vibrations.”

Crickets aside, the other theories involved intentional adversarial action: “It cannot be ruled out that the perceived sounds, while not harmful, are introduced by an adversary as deception so as to mask an entirely unrelated mode of causing illness in diplomatic personnel. In that case, the medical data must be most carefully assessed.” The National Academy of Sciences assessment notes that “no hypothesis has been proven, and the circumstances remain unclear,” but also cautiously advances the theory that the unusual symptoms and clinical signs appear to be consistent with directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.  

To be clear, there is limited publicly available information about the mysterious Havana Syndrome, whose true source of provenance remains undisclosed. That said, the Biden administration, Congress and the intelligence community are taking action to protect United States personnel.  

On Oct. 8, President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE signed into law the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act  to support CIA officers, State Department officials, and other United States personnel who suffered “injuries to the brain.” The Havana Act is named after the first-reported cases in Cuba. 

The administration also signaled its commitment to identify the source and ensure the highest-quality care is available for U.S. personnel who suffer from this neurological trauma: “We are bringing to bear the full resources of the U.S. government to make available first-class medical care to those affected and to get to the bottom of these incidents, including to determine the cause and who is responsible,” Biden said in a written statement.

During an Oct. 14 White House news briefing, press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiThe massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) Russian military buildup puts Washington on edge White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE was asked by a reporter, “So, on the assumption there is a ‘who,’ which is what this president said,” what would the consequences be? Psaki replied, “Why don’t we wait until there’s an assessment made and then we can have a further discussion about what the consequences will be.” 

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The Biden administration has chosen to categorize these mysterious health cases as “anomalous health incidents,” or AHIs, according to the White House. Describing Havana Syndrome cases as AHIs, rather than “attacks,” however, has drawn the ire of some members of Congress, such as Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai House GOP seek to block Biden from reopening Palestinian mission in Jerusalem MORE (R-Texas), the lead sponsor of H.R. 4914, the Havana Syndrome Attacks Response Act. McCaul’s proposed legislation was introduced on Aug. 3 and seeks sanctions against persons or governments in retaliation for covert attacks against U.S. personnel. 

“President Biden has refused to call these what they are — attacks on U.S. personnel,” McCaul said from the House floor in July. “We may not be able to fill in all the blanks yet, but we know too much to dismiss these attacks as unexplained health incidents.”   

In an Oct. 8 news briefing, Psaki said the administration takes the matter “incredibly seriously” and that Biden is the first president to recognize Havana Syndrome: “We have not made an attribution of the source. And what we want to do is ensure that our national security team is using every resource at our disposal — intelligence gathering, assessing, treating every incident seriously, ensuring people receive medical care. But without an attribution, and without an assessment of the cause or the origin, I just don’t want to go further than that.” 

Overall, whether we classify Havana Syndrome cases as AHIs or attacks, this is a deeply troubling matter. Continued bipartisan efforts, like the HAVANA Act of 2021, are instrumental to support and safeguard our U.S. personnel and their families. 

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith, JD, is a senior associate with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed here are solely the author’s and do not represent those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.