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Monday, January 17, 2022

The Havana Syndrome Mystery: An Attack by Russia or a Mental Disorder? (2)

A bunch of problems plagued early investigations – failed consistent data collection, poor communication between the State Department and the CIA, and the skepticism of their internal medical teams caused tension.

Only one in nine cases from China meets the criteria for the syndrome based on the cases in Havana, according to the State Department. This made others who were experiencing symptoms angry and felt as if they were being accused of fabricating. They began a battle for equal treatment that continues to this day.

As frustration grew, some of those affected turned to Mark Zaid, a lawyer specializing in national security cases. He now works for about two dozen civil servants, half of whom are from the intelligence community.

“It’s not Havana Syndrome. It’s a misnomer,” said Zaid, whose clients have been attacked in various parts of the world. “What is happening is known to the United States government, based on evidence I’ve seen since the late 1960s.”

Since 2013, Zaid has been an employee of the US National Security Agency who believes he was attacked in 1996 in a place that remains secret. Zaid wonders why the US government did not want to acknowledge the history of symptoms for a longer history. One possibility, he says, is that this could open a Pandora’s Box with incidents that have been ignored over the years. Another reason is because the United States has also developed and may even have deployed such weapons and wants to keep them secret.

The country’s interest in weapons microwaves continued after the end of the Cold War. Reports say the US Air Force has had a project codenamed “Hello” since the 1990s to see if microwaves could make disturbing noises in people’s heads.

Another project, called Goodbye, is testing their use to control the crowd, and a third, codenamed Goodnight, is examining whether they can be used to kill people. Reports from a decade ago show that the experiments have not been successful.

But the study of the mind and what can be done with it is gaining increasing focus in the military and security worlds.

“The brain is seen as a battleground in the 21st century,” said James Giordano, a Pentagon adviser and professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, who was asked to look into the initial cases in Havana.

“Brain science is global. We are working on ways to increase and damage brain function,” he told the BBC, adding that it was a field with little transparency or rules.

He says China and Russia have been involved in microwave research and raises the possibility that tools designed for industrial and commercial use – such as testing the effects of microwaves on materials – have been redirected. He also wonders if breaking and spreading fear was also part of the goal.

This type of technology may have been around for some time – and even used selectively. But that would still mean that something has changed in Cuba to be noticed on such a large scale.

Bill Evanina was a senior intelligence officer when the first cases occurred in Havana, and resigned as head of the National Center for Counterintelligence and Security this year. He has no doubt about what happened in Havana. “Was it an offensive weapon? I believe it is,” he told the BBC.

He believes that microwaves may have been used in recent military conflicts, but points to specific circumstances to explain the change.

Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, has long been the perfect place to gather “intelligence signals” by intercepting communications. During the Cold War, it was home to a large Soviet listening station. When Vladimir Putin visited the country in 2014, reports suggested the station would reopen. China has also opened two sites in recent years, according to one source, while the Russians are sending 30 additional spies.

But from 2015, the United States returned to the city. With its newly opened embassy and increased presence, the United States is just beginning to establish itself, gather intelligence, and repel Russian and Chinese spies. “We were in a ground battle,” one man recalled.

Then come the sounds.

“Who benefited the most from the closure of the embassy in Havana?” Evanina asks. “If the Russian government wanted to increase and disseminate a collection of intelligence methods in Cuba, it probably wasn’t good for them to have the United States in Cuba.”

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations of involvement or “targeting microwave weapons.” “Such provocative, unfounded speculations and imaginary hypotheses cannot, in fact, be considered a serious matter for comment,” the foreign ministry said.

There are also skeptics who deny the existence of Havana syndrome. They claim that the unique situation in Cuba supports their claim.

Infectious stress

Robert W. Baloch, a professor of neurology at UCLA, has long studied unexplained health symptoms. When he saw the reports of Havana Syndrome, he concluded that they were a mass psychogenic condition. He compares this to the way people feel bad when they are told they have eaten contaminated food, even if there is nothing in it – the opposite of the placebo effect. “When you see a massive psychogenic illness, there is usually some underlying stressful situation,” he says. “In the case of Cuba and the group of embassy staff – especially the CIA agents who were affected first – they were certainly in a stressful situation.”

According to him, everyday symptoms such as brain fog and dizziness are reformulated – by sufferers, the media and health professionals – as a syndrome.

“The symptoms are as real as any other symptom,” he said, arguing that people become overwhelmed and frightened when such information is spread, especially in a closed community. He believes it has become contagious among other US officials abroad.

Many elements remain inexplicable. Why do Canadian diplomats report symptoms in Havana? Were there concomitant damage from the attack on nearby Americans? And why have representatives of the United Kingdom not reported symptoms? “The Russians are literally trying to kill people on British soil in recent years with radioactive materials, but why aren’t there any reported cases?” Mark Zaid asked.

“I would probably pause the claim that no one in the UK has experienced any symptoms,” said Bill Evanina, who said the United States was now sharing details with its allies to find cases.

Some cases may be unrelated. “We had a group of soldiers in the Middle East who claimed to have been the victim of a similar attack – it turned out that they had food poisoning,” said a former employee. “We need to separate the wheat from the chaff,” said Mark Zaid, who said members of the public, some with mental health problems, contacted him, claiming they were suffering from symptoms of a microwave attack. One former employee estimates that about half of the cases reported by US officials are likely related to enemy attacks. Others say the actual number may be even smaller.

A December 2020 report by the US National Academy of Sciences is the key moment. Experts are taking evidence from scientists and clinicians, as well as from eight victims. “It was quite dramatic,” recalls Professor David Relman of Stanford, who heads the panel. “Some of these people were literally hiding, for fear of further action against them by anyone. In fact, there were precautions we had to take to ensure their safety.” The panel looked at psychological and other reasons, but concluded that directional, high-energy pulsed microwaves were most likely responsible for some of the cases, similar to the opinion of James Lynn, who also testified.

But although the State Department sponsored the study, it still considers the conclusion to be a plausible hypothesis, and officials say they have found no further evidence to support it.

The Biden administration has signaled that it is taking the issue seriously. CIA and State Department officials are already receiving advice on how to respond to such incidents. The State Department is setting up a working group to help staff on so-called “unexplained health incidents.” Previous attempts to categorize cases to meet specific criteria have been abandoned. But without a definition, it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide which case is due to the Havana syndrome.

There was a new wave of cases this year – including in Berlin and with a larger group in Vienna. In August, US Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Vietnam was delayed by three hours due to a reported incident at the embassy in Hanoi. Worried diplomats are now asking questions before taking on foreign assignments with their families.

“It’s a big hurdle for us, if it’s true, that the Russians are doing things with our traveling spies,” said the former CIA officer Polymeropolos, who finally received the medical care he needed this year.

Markers in the blood

The allegation that another country harmed US officials is a follow-up. “It’s an act of war,” says Polymeropolos. And that makes politicians demand hard evidence, which officials say is still missing.

Five years later, some U.S. officials say little is known about the days of Havana Syndrome. But others disagree. They say the evidence for microwaves is now much stronger, if not conclusive. The BBC has learned that there is new evidence. Some of this year’s cases show specific markers in the blood showing brain trauma. These markers decrease a few days after the injury, so they cannot be detected in older cases, but now that people are being tested much faster after reporting symptoms, they have been spotted for the first time.

The debate remains divisive and the answer may be complex. There may be a core of real cases, while others may be just fantasy. Officials raise the possibility that the technology and intent have changed over time. Some even worry that one country may be supported by the activities of another. “We like to have a simple diagnosis,” says Professor Relman. “But sometimes it’s hard to achieve. And when we can’t, we have to be very careful.” The mystery surrounding the Havana Syndrome may be its true power. The ambiguity and fear it spreads acts as a multiplier, making more and more people wonder if they are suffering from it and making it difficult for spies and diplomats to act abroad. Even if it begins as a strictly defined accident, the syndrome may have developed its own life.

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