Over the past five years, an alarming number of American diplomats, troops, and intelligence officers have been suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness. The symptoms vary, but range from headaches to ringing in the ears, as well as loss of hearing, memory, and balance. Some victims have suffered long-term brain damage.
Even more disturbing, reports have trickled out that the CIA and the Pentagon don’t believe this is a naturally occurring illness – it’s a deliberate act of aggression. A study commissioned by the State Department said the most likely source is a pulse of radiofrequency energy “directed” at US targets.
The Pentagon is reportedly developing a wearable sensor to help identify the attacks.
So what’s going on here? How is “energy” being used to attack US personnel? Who is attacking them? And why? Here’s what we know so far about these invisible assaults.
Who has been affected?
Since 2016, more than 130 American personnel have fallen ill with the syndrome, according to new reporting from The New York Times.
The first incident was in 2016 in Havana, Cuba. According to the State Department, at least 21 employees of the US embassy there reported the typical symptoms: headaches, tinnitus, and balance and memory problems. Some retired early because of the illness, which became known as the “Havana syndrome.”
American officials were stumped, and some accused the CIA of not taking the situation seriously enough. The Trump administration, eager to shut down diplomacy with Cuba anyway, removed more than half the staff of the Havana embassy, accusing the country of “specific attacks.” Cuba has denied any responsibility.
But before long the syndrome was popping up in other places. Intelligence officers reported the same symptoms in China and Russia. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, was in Moscow in 2017 when he was suddenly stricken.
“I was woken up in the middle of the night with an incredible case of vertigo,” Mr Polymeropoulos told The Guardian. “My head was spinning, incredible nausea, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom and throw up. It was just a terrifying moment for me. I had tinnitus which was ringing in my ears, and the vertigo was really what was incredibly debilitating and I really wasn’t sure what was happening. I couldn’t stand up. I was falling over.”
Four years later, Mr Polymeropoulos says his headache still hasn’t stopped. In 2019, he retired from the CIA because of his symptoms.
“I had a lot more to offer,” the former intelligence officer told GQ. “I was 50, but I had to retire because these goddamn headaches don’t go away.”
The cases kept coming. In 2018, almost a dozen staffers were evacuated from the US embassy in Guangzhou, China, after reporting a “medical incident” similar to the event in Havana. In the fall of 2020, a number of US troops in Syria developed mysterious flu-like symptoms, similar to those of the Havana syndrome.
There have also been suspected attacks on US soil. In 2019, a White House staffer reported being stricken with the Havana symptoms while walking her dog in Arlington, Virginia. And in November 2020, Defense officials have now told members of Congress, a suspected attack sickened a National Security Council official near DC’s Ellipse park – within walking distance of the White House.
On 7 June, the US Senate voted unanimously to provide financial support to victims of the mysterious syndrome.
Later in the summer, Vice President Kamala Harris’ flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, was delayed after US personnel in the Vietnam capital reported experiencing Havana Syndrome-related symptoms over the weekend ahead of her trip.
What is causing the illness?
“Directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” was the culprit found by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in a report on the illness commissioned by the State Department.
According to a New York Times analysis, that language is crucial. By using words like “pulsed” and “directed,” the report was saying the energy wasn’t randomly dispersed by a cellphone or other device. It was being aimed at people.
How does one aim “energy” at people? And who’s doing the aiming? The reports that have leaked from the CIA and other agencies have been vague, citing classified information and a need to avoid making unfounded accusations. But after a contentious CIA briefing earlier this month, some members of Congress were more blunt about what they think is going on.
“There’s a mysterious, direct energy weapon that is being used,” Senator Susan Collins, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN after the briefing. “And it is causing, in some cases, permanent traumatic brain injury.”
Who is responsible?
According to Politico, the Pentagon recently told top members of Congress that it suspects Russia is behind the suspected attacks. Russia has denied any responsibility.
If confirmed, the directed energy attacks would join a long list of non-military assaults Russia has waged against the United States in recent years, including its SolarWinds cyberattack and interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Most of the attacks so far took place when Donald Trump was still president, which some experts say explains why more hasn’t been done about them.
“The Trump administration did not demonstrate any level of urgency in confronting aggressions, Russian aggression of any sort,” Rep Abigail Spanberger, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN. “So alleged Russian aggression through a curious and not fully defined – be it sound attack, be it microwave attack on US personnel – is clearly not something that would rise to the top of their to-do lists when clear Russian aggression is not something that they were contending with.”
President Biden, however, has taken a more confrontational approach to Russia than his predecessor. His CIA director, William Burns, has also vowed to make investigating the directed energy incidents an “extraordinarily high priority.” What the new administration will do if Russia is proven responsible remains to be seen.
“Under Bill Burns, there seems to be a sea change,” Mr Polymeropoulos, who is now being treated at the Walter Reed military hospital, told The Guardian. “We have to see actions now, not just words. But I have hope.”