The Great Havana Syndrome Mystery

Reprinted with kind permission from Morning Brew online newsletter

BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 28:  The U.S. Embassy (R) stands near the Reic...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This summer, at least two officials at the US embassy in Germany felt so sick they couldn’t work.

They complained of ear pain, splitting headaches, dizziness, insomnia, and fatigue. It felt like they were just sacked by Michael Strahan, or had stood close to a massive explosion. 

Turns out, they were suffering from an illness experienced by dozens of US diplomats and intelligence officers around the globe in recent years: Havana syndrome. 

Havana syndrome first showed up in—no surprise here—Havana, Cuba, in 2016, when CIA officers and State Department employees first reported distress. In the years since, reported Havana syndrome cases among US foreign officers have popped up in Moscow, China, London, Virginia, and, most recently, Vienna and Germany.

  • In July, the New Yorker declared Vienna, which has a long history as a playground for spies, the new “Havana syndrome hotspot.” About 24 US spies and diplomats have reported symptoms since Biden took office. 

What’s causing it? Health officials aren’t sure, but they’ve suggested what’s happening to these victims is not unlike what happens to a Hot Pocket when you heat it up. Last year, a committee of 19 experts said their best guess was that victims were hit with “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” that includes microwaves.

Who’s behind it? Let’s see…mysterious microwaves directed at American officers in cities all over the world…sounds like something straight out of the Cold War playbook. Bingo. Officials working for both the Biden and Trump administrations have privately blamed Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, whom they suspect may be using the pulsed energy attacks to steal data from computers or smartphones. 

  • Russia has a history of using microwaves to mess with American diplomats. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Soviet Union pelted radiation at the top floors of the US embassy in Moscow from nearby transmitters. 
  • One recent victim, who was working at a US embassy in Europe, told the WSJ it was “striking” that some people hit with the attacks were working on Russia-related issues.

Russia has denied all involvement in the radiofrequency attacks. 

Looking ahead…we wish this story had a neat and tidy conclusion, but there remain many questions and few answers. Lawmakers are putting increased pressure on the White House to solve this mystery, or risk putting more US foreign officers in harm’s way. 

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In this episode of my MTN Story, I tell how the EMF from the illegal masts affected me.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.

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