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Monday, October 18, 2021

Explained: CIA officer on India trip reports Havana Syndrome; what is known about its symptoms and causes so far

Havana Syndrome refers to a set of mental health symptoms that typically involves hearing certain sounds without any outside noise being present, nausea, vertigo and headaches, memory loss and issues with balance.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 24, 2021 5:52:58 pm
CIA Director William Burns (AP Photo)

A US intelligence officer travelling with CIA director William Burns has reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome while the two were in India earlier this month. The development, as reported by the US media, has apparently angered the CIA director and could lead to an “egregious escalation” in case an adversarial power was found to be involved in the “attack”. This is the first instance of the phenomenon being reported in India, at least on record, and could have diplomatic implications.

What is Havana Syndrome?

Havana Syndrome refers to a set of mental health symptoms that are said to be experienced by US intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. It typically involves symptoms such as hearing certain sounds without any outside noise being present, nausea, vertigo and headaches, memory loss and issues with balance.

As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba. In late 2016, about a year after the US opened its embassy in Havana, some intelligence officials and members of the staff at the embassy began experiencing sudden bursts of pressure in their brain followed by persistent headaches, feeling of disorientation and insomnia.

According to a 2018 report by The New Yorker, between December 30, 2016, and February 9, 2017, at least three CIA officers working under diplomatic cover in Cuba had reported troubling sensations that seemed to leave serious injuries. When the agency sent reinforcements to Havana, at least two of them were found with similar symptoms.

The New Yorker article said specialists studied the brains of the victims and determined that the injuries resembled concussions, like those suffered by soldiers struck by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were no signs of impact.

As the mental health of its officials began to be impacted, the US withdrew them, dramatically reducing the strength in its embassy in Havana.

The Havana Syndrome has had lasting impact on mental health of some US intelligence officials with at least one officer being compulsorily retired for his inability to coherently discharge his duty and another needing a hearing aid.

Has Havana Syndrome been reported anywhere else?

Since the Cuban incident, American intelligence and foreign affairs officials posted in various countries have reported symptoms of the syndrome.

In early 2018, similar accusations began to be made by US diplomats in China. The first incident reported by an American diplomat in China was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate. The employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017.

In 2019 and 2020, such incidents have been reported from within the US — particularly in Washington DC. One incident was even reported at The Elipse, a lawn adjacent to the White House.

According to US media reports, in the past few years US officials have reported around 130 such attacks across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others.

According to a New York Times report last month, Vice-President Kamala Harris was delayed for three hours as she was about to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, after a US official in Vietnam reported Havana Syndrome symptoms.

What are the causes of Havana Syndrome?

No one is entirely sure. But, initially during the Cuban experience, being in a country that had been hostile to the US for over five decades, the suspicion was on Cuban intelligence or a section within the Cuban establishment that did not want US-Cuba relations to normalise. It was initially speculated to be a “sonic attack”.

However, further study by scientists in the US and medical examination of the victims began to suggest that the victims may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system. It was said to have built a pressure inside the brain that generated the feeling of a sound being heard. Greater exposure to high-powered microwaves is said not only to interfere with the body’s sense of balance but also impact memory and cause permanent brain damage.

It is suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves are sent through a special gadget that Americans have begun calling “microwave weapon”.

There are also theories that perhaps an adversarial power is using these weapons to actually either interfere with US surveillance systems in various countries or glean information from the same, with human victims being collateral damage.

After all, use of microwaves as a counter-intelligence tactic has been experimented with since the Cold War and both Russia and the US have made attempts to weaponise it. There have been reports of US embassy officials in Moscow experiencing mental health issues due to suspected use of microwaves in the 1970s.

Symptoms associated with Havana syndrome, which has afflicted Americans serving at diplomatic posts in several countries. (AP Graphic)

A BBC report this month quoted James Giordano, an adviser to the Pentagon and Professor in Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University, saying that China and Russia have been both engaged in microwave research and could have repurposed tools developed for industrial use.

However, after almost five years of data collection, experiments and medical examination of victims, the US has as yet not been able to come up with any conclusive evidence suggesting the “microwave weapon” is a reality. No one seems to yet have an idea what the mechanics of this weapon is and how it functions. There is also a question mark on how the so-called weapon is able to specifically target individuals and not affect all the people in its range.

Some medical experts in the US have begun to completely debunk this theory, calling the syndrome a psychological illness amplified by widespread fear of being targeted.

The BBC report quoted Robert W Baloh, a Professor of Neurology at UCLA, calling it “a mass psychogenic condition” where as opposed to the Placebo effect a mass of people when struck with anxiety of being targeted begin to feel sick.

Who is doing this in India?

Sources in the Indian security establishment say they are not aware of any such weapon being in the possession of an Indian agency. Even if there was one, it is unlikely the government would admit to having acquired such counter-espionage technology given the sensitive nature of intelligence work.

“But why would an Indian agency target the US? Given the geopolitics of today, they are our closest friends,” an intelligence official said.

So, could a foreign country use Indian soil to target US officials? Sources say it is highly unlikely. “Even if we were to assume that the Russians or the Chinese have been able to bring in such equipment without our knowledge, once such a thing comes out, it negatively impacts relations between our country and theirs. Why would they risk that unless they want to hurt us as well?” another intelligence official said.

Sources in the security establishment said as yet there has been no reporting of Havana Syndrome in Delhi. “We have not come across this in the past five years or earlier. None of our intelligence officials have either reported being a target of such a thing,” a senior intelligence official said.

A former R&AW officer, who was in service at the time Havana Syndrome was first reported, said, “At that time, or even after that, there were no reports of Indian officials suffering this at any of the embassies.”

Without discounting US anxieties over it, another former R&AW officer said, “If a foreign power is doing it, why will they target the US alone. Why aren’t other countries reporting the same? Barring the Canadian embassy in Havana, there have been no such reports from officials of any other country anywhere in the world. This is not to say that the US assertions may not be true. But it’s a curious case.”

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