Discover more from Slow Boring
The suffering is real, but there is no "Havana Syndrome"
A cluster of mysterious symptoms, weird cricket noises and alarmist officials with no evidence of an underlying cause
American officialdom is abuzz with “Havana Syndrome” — the vaguely defined illness afflicting federal employees across the world, widely suspected to be inflicted by directed energy weapons wielded by a foreign adversary.
Since the first cases appeared in Cuba in late 2016 and early 2017, officials have identified hundreds more cases of what “do seem to be deliberate attacks,” per the Washington Post editorial board. For its part, the U.S. government appears to be taking this threat extremely seriously. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken just delivered a speech assuring the public that Havana Syndrome was an “urgent priority," putting two decorated diplomats in charge of his department’s response. President Biden just signed into law a bill passed unanimously by Congress granting victims compensation and healthcare coverage; media pressure and advocacy by patients themselves have gotten them access to treatment at Walter Reed. Meanwhile, Havana Syndrome has made its way into foreign policy; since the first outbreak in Cuba was seized on as a pretext for once again scaling back diplomatic presence on the island, CIA Director William Burns has explicitly described Havana Syndrome as “attacks,” and anonymous national security types are jonesing for retaliation against Russia.
Given all of the hullaballoo, anyone casually following the story might reasonably assume what has been heavily implied by certain members of the media, the foreign policy blob, or government agencies themselves: that we’ve pretty much put the pieces together on this and lack only the irrefutable smoking gun. But once you start digging into this stuff, the case that directed energy weapons caused acute and chronic illness among government employees is astonishingly thin. It’s not just that there’s no smoking gun; there’s no shell casings or bullet wounds or witnesses to any shooting. It’s ludicrous to even be looking for a gun to explain symptoms of general malaise at all.
The original “Havana Syndrome” narrative was a mistake about crickets
The suspicion that foreign aggression could be driving an outbreak of illness arose originally due to a goofy red herring. Per reporting in Vanity Fair, ProPublica and elsewhere, here’s what happened: in late December 2016, a 30-something CIA officer showed up at the embassy’s medical unit complaining of headaches and hearing loss, which he suggested might be related to strange, annoying sounds he and several neighbors had complained about hearing in their yards and homes. Within weeks, two more covert officers sought medical attention for similar symptoms, and so-called Patient Zero was diagnosed with a damaged inner ear by a military doctor in Miami. Upon his return to Cuba, he apparently began telling friends and colleagues about his suspicious malady, playing some a recording of the noise he was now convinced was emitted from the device that caused his injury. It was the screeching sound that many of them recognized, which quickly drove such a frenzy of rumors that Ambassador DeLaurentis called a meeting to inform everyone about the investigation into what was increasingly being seen as a sinister pattern of acoustic assaults, and asking them to come forward if they thought they’d also been targeted. Around 80 employees and family members did so, pushing confirmed cases of similar illness into the double digits. By that summer, reports began to leak that “sonic weapons” were believed to be behind the incidents.
But the “sonic weapons” theory didn’t last long, because it made even less sense than subsequent theories. Such devices do exist — “sound cannons” are used by law enforcement for crowd dispersal — but are by definition extremely loud and could hardly be targeted against one person at a time, and don’t cause chronic illness.
In 2018, some officials began to coalesce around a convoluted theory that the incidents were still attacks by novel weapons, but emanated microwaves rather than sound waves and that the noises victims reported hearing were merely the “Frey effect,” an auditory phenomenon caused by microwave exposure that makes people perceive sounds that aren’t there. Meanwhile, around the same time, three separate investigations — one Cuban, one independent academic study, one by a scientific advisory panel working on behalf of the State Department — determined the recordings of the eerie sound made by affected patients to be mating crickets. While these two roughly concurrent developments really should have called the assumptions made within government agencies into serious question, many people were happy to reconcile the two. As journalist Julia Ioffe put it, “Diplomats in Havana who heard a crazy sound went outside to try to record it on their phones. But because what they were hearing was not sound, their phones picked up crickets. What the diplomats ‘heard’ was the ‘Frey effect.’”
This is highly implausible! For one thing, we’re not talking about ambient noise inadvertently picked up on audio — the crickets were extremely loud, with mating calls that can top 70 decibels. Compare that to the Frey effect, which UPenn engineer Kenneth Foster notes “would be so soft that near silence would be needed for a person to detect it.” Ioffe also seems to misunderstand just how outsized a role the cricket noises played in entrenching the “weapons” thesis: much reporting has relayed how neighbors discussed the irritating noise with one another; multiple complaints about it to the embassy raised alarm early on. Meanwhile, patients made recordings themselves and confirmed it was what they heard, playing it for others who recognized it immediately. Several people leaked the audio to AP in 2017, and the outlet both confirmed that they all sounded similar and that multiple patients confirmed the clip indeed sounded like what they’d heard. After the first several cases, the State Department even played recordings while onboarding new employees so they’d know what to watch for. In short, the cricket noise drove a significant part of the reason that early cases were understood to be attacks, and why individuals came to seek medical attention. That all this played out while microwaves were frying brains in technical silence is very tough to believe.
It’s not clear if directed energy weapons exist
Directed energy has indeed been weaponized — but like the sound cannon, the purpose has often been for crowd control rather than individual sniping:
The Pentagon developed an electromagnetic device capable of beaming burning sensations that NYT once suggested could become the “rubber bullets of the 21st Century.”
The Marine Corps once commissioned a microwave pulse prototype that could briefly incapacitate a target but was not associated with chronic symptoms akin to those of Havana Syndrome patients.
From what we know of real-world directed energy weapon research, a weapon powerful enough to inflict the damage surmised by proponents would be likely to burn the skin or damage other organs — not to mention electronics and Wi-Fi signals in the vicinity, none of which was ever associated with these cases.
As for Russia, the widely suspected aggressor? Much has been made of the country’s history of research into microwaves, but it’s not clear how much it amounted to. (Andrei Pakhomov, a biophysicist who penned a review on the Soviet research on the topic, does not find the microwave theory plausible at all, let alone the contention that Russia is to blame.) And while the Soviets were discovered to have bathed the U.S. embassy in microwaves for several years beginning in the 1950s, comprehensive review studies have found no negative health effects.
Havana Syndrome skeptics often find ourselves accused of being apologists for the Russian government who refuse to acknowledge that this is exactly the sort of underhanded thing Moscow might resort to.
But there is no “this” for anyone to be behind.
This is not like the hacking of John Podesta’s laptop, the crash of MH-17, or the September 1999 apartment bombings where the thing definitely happened and there is some question as to whether or not the Russian government is responsible. There’s no reason to believe the Russian government is responsible for “Havana Syndrome” because there is absolutely no reason to believe that it’s a distinct, novel disease inflicted by an outside force of any kind.
The “Syndrome” is a mass sociogenic illness
Havana Syndrome is very likely a mass sociogenic illness. It’s an admittedly imperfect catchall to describe an extremely common phenomenon, and it certainly doesn’t mean that patients’ symptoms aren’t real.
It means that the perceived diagnosis spreads socially, almost like an infectious pathogen would, with symptoms either triggered, exacerbated or wrongly ascribed to a phony cause. Little girls in 17th Century Salem hurling into demonic fits is widely understood as a famous example; more recent ones include a 1962 “laughing epidemic” that tore through a girls’ boarding school in Tanzania and the “Gulf War Syndrome” experienced by a large cohort of soldiers whose bizarre symptoms were initially suspected to have been perhaps brought on by some unknown chemicals but has never been linked persuasively to any specific cause (and was found by one study to be a blend of PTSD, functional and unrelated symptoms.) People experience various maladies all the time and the cause is not always clear.
“Functional symptoms” is the medical term for symptoms with no discernible anatomic origin that can nonetheless drive immense pain and suffering. Once the suggestion takes hold that a cluster of symptoms shares an underlying cause, more people begin attributing their (real) ailments to the (fake) underlying cause and publicity can trigger further spread.
As Robert Bartholomew and Robert Baloh argue in their book “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria,” the cluster of cases that originated in Cuba in 2016 and 2017 bear the classic hallmarks of the phenomenon: they spread at a stressful time within a semi-insular community of victims who knew each other and were primed by their peers and higher-ups to vigilantly screen for any indication that they or their families had suffered blows from heretofore undiscovered weapons.
Indeed, the first reported cases of what would soon become known as “Havana Syndrome” surfaced just after Trump’s surprise election threw years of diplomatic strategy in Cuba into disarray. Employees who had just moved their entire families to Cuba suddenly faced disruptive uncertainty; standards and relationships set by the terms of the detente threatened to be upended. Once the “attacks” narrative took hold — particularly when linked to a spooky sound — cases, ominous warnings from colleagues and media reports skyrocketed. Since then, Havana Syndrome has spread among government employees around the world who are conditioned to militantly surveil themselves for symptoms that could indicate they’re being attacked. Some may be experiencing functional symptoms related to stress, anxiety or depression; others may simply be wrongly ascribing unrelated symptoms to weapons or becoming more attuned to and magnifying symptoms they would have shrugged off before being told their colleagues (and their colleagues’ spouses and children) are being hunted by high-tech snipers.
Patients who identify as “victims” of Havana Syndrome emphatically reject this notion and appear to be organizing against it. The exit of the State Department’s former investigator into the matter was believed to be brought on by patient pressure after she didn’t rule out mass hysteria. Moreover, former CIA operative Mark Polymeropoulos, whose public advocacy campaign was instrumental in winning Havana Syndrome patients access to Walter Reed, denied that mental health could be playing a role: “I can assure you that myself and other agency officers medically retired with permanent disabilities were not victims of a panic attack. I served in multiple war zones - I can assure you that panic is not in my DNA.” But no one is impervious to mental health issues, and it’s stigmatizing to insist that suffering driven by them is any less valid.
“Havana Syndrome” symptoms are very common
To claim that the so-called syndrome is sociogenic is not to deny that individual patients have real problems or that the difficulties they are experiencing are imagined. Many patients who believe they have Havana Syndrome are clearly suffering severely, with some still feeling sick several years after onset or even being forced into early retirement.
But while the symptoms associated with Havana Syndrome can be debilitating, they’re also incredibly common:
Approximately 25% of Americans ages 18–44 report experiencing a severe headache within the past three months.
Over 10% report experiencing extreme fatigue and exhaustion.
Among people experiencing stress, some 77% report experiencing “physical symptoms.”
Moreover, patients with unexplained symptoms that have no discernible cause make up some 25-50% of all primary care visits.
Per one estimate, up to a third of patients who consult a neurologist have symptoms that are functional in nature.
Given that poorly explained symptoms are reasonably common, it’s not surprising that if you prime a discrete population (U.S. government personnel serving abroad) to be on the lookout for symptoms that might be caused by a mysterious directed energy weapon, lots of people will report that they are attack victims. By the same token, if government officials started saying that alien abductions of people with blue eyes are causing severe headaches and extreme fatigue, they would swiftly find lots of blue-eyed people with symptoms that fit the alien abduction pattern.
What’s missing from the Havana Syndrome narrative is any evidence independent of the symptoms themselves to suggest a joint cause of any kind. Once upon a time, that independent evidence was the mysterious noise that we now know to be crickets. Without the noise, there is nothing beyond the brute fact that medical science unfortunately lacks adequate explanations for many symptoms experienced by many people.
The academic research on Havana Syndrome is weak
Two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, led by Dr. Douglas Smith through his Brain Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania, have been widely touted as proof that “something happened” to these patients, an interpretation Smith himself has repeated widely in media interviews.
But the common ailments listed above are all compatible with those studies. It’s not as if the MRI scans spell out “a ray gun was here.” One set of standard clinical MRIs showed nothing amiss; another that used a complex research technique suggested differences between patients and controls, but such nonspecific findings have also been observed in conditions ranging from depression to stress to alcohol use. In the first study, cognitive impairment was defined so broadly as to encapsulate some 40% of the population. One of the original peer reviewers recommended rejecting the first paper for publication, contending it was a work of science-fiction. And after it ran, over three dozen neurologists signed a letter arguing that the illnesses were likely functional. The case that the pair of JAMA studies substantiate much of anything is weak!
Even more wobbly are the papers published by the earliest clinical team in Miami that insist they’ve presented “objective” clinical findings measured using a proprietary device rarely used in clinical medicine. The first was published in the obscure and seldom cited journal Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology, on which lead author Dr. Michael Hoffer is an editorial board member; the second ran in Frontiers of Neurology, part of a network of open access journals notorious for “fringe science” resulting in major retractions, scant peer review and an arguably predatory publishing model. Moreover, the 2018 report by the JASON scientists expressed serious concerns with Hoffer himself, noting that his comments in the press wildly outpaced what was supported by his published research and that he’d been previously investigated for research misconduct by the Pentagon. That these findings are uncritically treated as robust evidence of brain injury by proponents of the weapons theory is cause for skepticism.
Similarly, there are serious issues with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on Havana Syndrome.
The NAS report was prepared by an interdisciplinary panel of scholars, who evaluated four posited causes of Havana Syndrome — infectious agents (like the Zika virus,) chemicals such as pesticides, social and psychological factors, and directed energy.
No experts on functional disorders were involved, and the panel was not provided with research commissioned by the State Department in 2018 that declared the fabled noise around the time of symptom onset to be crickets and explicitly rejected microwaves as a cause. The NAS panel determined directed energy to be the “most plausible” (although it didn’t entirely rule out social and psychological factors), but Chair David Relman of Stanford has appeared cautious in recent interviews. When asked last month by NPR how confident the NAS was about microwaves, he replied, “we were not confident. And I have to be clear. We view this as plausible, but, again, we didn’t have any direct evidence that this could explain the entire story for sure or even parts of it.”
The State Department stressed a similar point to BuzzFeed News: “Among a number of conclusions, the report notes that the ‘constellation of signs and symptoms’ is consistent with the effects of pulsed radio frequency energy. We would note that ‘consistent with’ is a term of art in medicine and science that allows plausibility but does not assign cause.”
And the report doesn’t realistically weigh probability into its equation, acting instead as if it were assessing the most plausible of several equally likely options. But it wasn’t! If my wallet is not where it usually is, that’s consistent with “it suddenly vaporized” along with “I lost it.” But we have to consider the baseline probabilities at work here. If we had independent reason to believe that a Russian-directed energy weapon was being used on U.S. government personnel, the fact that a given person’s symptoms are consistent with ray-gun injury would be meaningful diagnostic information.
But people involved in the Havana Syndrome fracas have failed to deliver any such evidence or calibrate their assessments rigorously.
Agency investigators, their contracted experts, and credulous journalists won’t stop reaching for the far-fetched imaginary explanation when there’s an utterly pedestrian one that ought to be the default. To recap, there is no persuasive evidence for “Havana Syndrome”: no unambiguous injuries, no witnesses, no revealing intelligence, no reason to believe microwaves should be involved at all beyond patient testimony about noises whose real source has long been uncovered. What we know is that the Russian government does shady stuff sometimes and that several hundred people over a period of five years have reported severe but not-uncommon symptoms with no clear cause. Case closed.