Havana Syndrome: Embassy Intrigue
It began in Havana in 2016, when American spies and diplomats started experiencing mysterious symptoms, including dizziness and memory loss. Now, almost 200 of them suffer from the maladywith some unable to work. What is behind the most baffling series of attacks since the Cold War? Von Bernd Eberhart und Kerstin Kohlenberg
It was a sunny day in October 2016 when Robyn Garfield arrived in Shanghai with his family. A 31-year-old from the United States, Garfield was fluent in Chinese. He met his German wife 12 years earlier while they were both studying in Beijing. And he was excited to discover Shanghai. He would be responsible for economic ties between China and Washington at the U.S. Consulate. Together with their two young children, the couple moved into a breathtaking apartment on the 11th floor of the World Financial Center looking out on the iconic, golden façade of the Shanghai Exhibition Center, a temple – complete with fountains and colonnades – that was built to celebrate the friendship between Russia and China. In hindsight, Garfield says, though, the red star at the very top of the tower should have seemed like a bad omen.
He is telling his story while sitting in the peaceful courtyard of a building in an Eastern European city. Ivy clings to the walls and only the cooing of pigeons can be heard. He chose this spot himself, as a place where he feels safe, far away from his new posting at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. He asked that we not specify the location of the site. Indeed, it took three years before he finally agreed to speak with us. He took more precise notes about what happened to him in Shanghai than almost any other of the more than 200 American spies and diplomats who had similar experiences. But he also still works for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Next to him on this evening is a black backpack full of patient records and other documents that provide insight into the last four years of his life. They include information about the brain damage that Garfield and the others have sustained. As a consequence, they suffer from difficulties their balance, concentration and memory. Garfield says that it takes immense effort just to do his job in Brussels. He’s can no longer take in the necessary information as fast as he has to`. Some of his colleagues have had to abandon their careers altogether. The documents in the backpack provide some insight into the most mysterious wave of attacks launched against American diplomats and spies since the Cold War. Potentially committed using a largely unknown method by a hostile state, as plenty of evidence seems to suggest. But the documents in the backpack reveal something else as well. They show the complete helplessness with which the U.S. government has thus far responded to the phenomenon.
The first cases of so-called “Havana Syndrome” appeared in Cuba in 2016. A short time later, American diplomats in Russia and China were affected in a similar way. Since then, the list of victims has come to include four White House staffers and officials at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna. In summer 2021, it struck American diplomats in Berlin.
Since the Russian invasion in Ukraine, many are looking at the phenomenon from a new perspective. One of the victims in Berlin was responsible for Russian disinformation and cybersecurity, for the sanctions against Russia and, for a short time, also for issues related to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. Since the incidents, which always took place in her apartment on a central square called Leipziger Platz, she has had to cut back on her work, the diplomat told ZEITmagazin.
In summer 2020, the heads of German intelligence agencies informed Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, The methods used, they said, had grown more robust and the cyberattacks had become more sophisticated. In particular, they reported, Russian and Chinese intelligence services had become highly active. In 2019, an opponent of the Russian government had been murdered in broad daylight in Berlin, with the judge finding that the killing had been contracted by the Russian state. “All of that is part of an expansive foreign policy,” Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence service, said at the time.
After what happened to his colleagues in Berlin, Garfield was ready to talk, because he began wondering: Are the attacks against U.S. diplomats part of this expansive foreign policy? In the courtyard, he speaks for several hours. And the question that bothers him the most is this: Why isn’t the American government on the side of the victims?
When Garfield came home from the gym one day in 2018 in Shanghai so dizzy has bad to lie on the floor, he didn’t think much about it. He figured it was something he had eaten. When his eyes started getting worse in the ensuing weeks, he thought he probably just needed a new prescription. He didn’t yet see any connection between all that and the noise he heard in his bedroom at night, which he thought probably just came from the thermostat.
Garfield says that one of his strengths had always been his ability to quickly organize information in his head. At his desk in Shanghai, however, he suddenly had to write down all the aspects of a project to get an overview of it. His memory became less reliable. He began to worry. Was he experiencing early symptoms of Alzheimer’s? Or a brain tumor?
In late 2016 and early 2017, 25 CIA agents and diplomats in Cuba reported experiencing mysterious symptoms: sudden dizziness, acute headaches, earaches and problems concentrating. The symptoms appeared after the victims had heard a strange noise. Initially, Garfield didn’t identify a connection between his problems and those cases. Only once a colleague spoke to him about it did he report the noise and his health problems to the embassy’s medical team. As it turned out, Garfield wasn’t the only diplomat in China with these symptoms. He and his family were moved from their apartment to a hotel, and Garfield underwent numerous medical tests of the kind that had been carried out since the first cases were discovered in Cuba.
At night in the hotel, Garfield again heard the strange noise and felt a pulsating in his head. He heard sounds overhead like furniture being pushed back and forth. But he refused to let his problems drive him crazy. His work was extremely interesting at the time – U.S. President had launched a trade war with China to force the country into a deal – so he wanted to stay in Shanghai. He lay back down and tried to sleep. The next day, he had an earache, as did his wife.
What happened the next evening is documented in his wife’s patient files. Garfield was sitting on the couch writing an email when his wife sat down next to him. A short time later, she yelled in a fearful voice: “It just happened!” The files note that she had been struck by something that sent a kind of shockwave through her entire body and paralyzed her for four or five seconds. Afterward, she felt immense pressure in her ears. Garfield took his wife’s hand, grabbed their two children , and ran into the hotel lobby without shoes or socks. “We just wanted to be around people,” he says. At 11 p.m. that night, they were on a plane to America. At the university hospital in Philadelphia, the doctors found that Garfield and his wife were suffering symptoms similar to a concussion, but with no external injuries.
Is all this part of a new kind of warfare? Were these symptoms produced intentionally? Robyn Garfield finds it odd that he and a colleague, who was also working on trade relations with China, were affected. Who had an interest in preventing the trade deal from being completed? His only guess is Russia. As with much else in this case, however, that is merely speculation.
Even John Bolton can only speculate. From April 2018 to September 2019, Bolton served as Trump’s national security adviser. In a December 2021 Zoom call with ZEITmagazin, he said that after the Cuba cases, he suspected that China might be to blame, but he thought Russia was the more likely culprit. Russia, he said, had been tormenting U.S. diplomats for decades. For almost a quarter of a century during the Cold War, the Russians had beamed microwaves at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. In Washington, it came to be called the “Moscow Signal.” The U.S. government long kept it secret from embassy staff. They wanted to figure out why the Russians were doing it, and they believed that microwave radiation wasn’t harmful. Later, it would emerge that an unusually high number of former Moscow staffers came down with cancer.
When he heard about the cases in China, Bolton said he called a meeting with the State Department and the security agencies. But the experts, he said, couldn’t agree on what might be causing the problem.
One of those experts was James Giordano. On behalf of the State Department, he examined the 25 cases from Cuba in 2017. Giordano is a professor of neurology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and director of the Institute for Biodefense Research, a think tank that analyzes novel threats. He discussed the findings from those examinations in a video call. In addition to precise information about those affected and the possible sites of the attacks, says Giordano, he also had access to all their medical files. Doctors from the University of Miami tested their mental abilities, examined their equilibrium organs and performed hearing and vision tests. And they realized that the equilibrium organ in the inner ear and the nerve connections to those areas of the brain that control balance were damaged, says Giordano. “As such, we can say with certainty that something happened to these people in Havana.” He draws a comparison to a gunshot wound: “There is no entrance wound. And no exit wound. But something happened inside that suggests an impairment of the brain.” But what?
He says he approached his investigation like a forensics expert and, over time, he was able to rule out more and more hypotheses. Had it been environmental pollutants or drugs of a sufficient quantity, doctors would have been able to find traces in tissue samples, but they detected none. Another hypothesis was mass hysteria, except often the victims didn’t know one another. What remained for Giordano was the theory of an attack with some form of directed energy. At the time, James Giordano thought that a sonic or ultrasonic weapon, of the kind that have been under development for years in numerous countries, was the most likely culprit.
FBI investigators who had examined the sites where the symptoms first appeared, believed that the Cuba phenomenon was most likely the product of a mass hysteria. Many of the victims, they noted, knew of the symptoms that others had suffered and together, the FBI believed, they convinced themselves that they were sick. Like in 2006, when 300 schoolchildren at 14 schools in Portugal developed rashes, breathing difficulties and dizziness – as had the main character of a popular television show. The FBI believed that the diplomats in Cuba had succumbed to a mass psychogenic illness triggered by stress.
So, which is it? Was America facing a risk to national security, or just a case of stress for a few diplomats and agents? Were the cases triggered by a new kind of weapon, the origin of which has proven impossible to pin down? Or did the victims trigger their own illnesses? Is America under attack, or is it attacking itself? The very fact that numerous diplomats were suddenly unable to perform their work due to mysterious circumstances should have been enough to alarm the government. In the Trump administration, however, the fact that the experts couldn’t agree had the opposite effect. No extra personnel were brought in, no task force was formed. The system ultimately did nothing at all.
That almost cost Adam his life.
Back in the courtyard of the building in Eastern Europe, Robyn Garfield dials an American telephone number. The connection is terrible, just a voice, static noise, and then it breaks off completely. Before long, a text message arrives: “I’m far away from civilization. I’ll call back later.”
Adam is the first officially known victim. Patient Zero. He now lives an extremely reclusive life and doesn’t want anyone to find him. Adam is a pseudonym. Ever since the problems in Cuba, he has to wear a vest full of weights to help correct his balance problems. He is also blind in one eye, and a service dog helps him navigate everyday life. He gave up his job with the CIA and now lives on a disability retirement. We don’t end up speaking with Adam on this evening in the Eastern European city, but we are able to two weeks later.
Adam says that the first thing he heard was the barking of dogs. There are a lot of stray dogs in Cuba, but it’s rare for so many to start barking at the same time, he says. It was the evening of Dec. 29, 2016, and Adam was in his bedroom in Havana. He’s not allowed to talk about what he was doing there, but other victims confirm that he was working undercover at the embassy for the CIA. After the barking, Adam heard a loud noise, then felt sharp pressure in his head and a jabbing sensation in his ear. “As if someone had jammed a pen into my ear all the way to the eardrum,” he says. The pressure became so severe that he lost consciousness. When he came to, he left his bedroom as quickly as he could and spent the night at the home of his American girlfriend, who also worked at the embassy. He experienced these attacks on a number of subsequent occasions in the ensuing weeks. They didn’t happen every day, but they always occurred in the evening and always when he was in his bedroom. He reported the incidents to the security department and learned that others at the embassy had also experienced similar symptoms. The head of the embassy was informed, but Adam says that he didn’t take the incidents seriously. He had been appointed by Barack Obama, and Adam believes that even though Obama was no longer president, the officials he had appointed were still at great pains to avoid endangering the newly established diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
In December 2014, after over 50 years of enmity, Obama had achieved détente with the communist country. He removed Cuba from the list of rogue states, lifted sanctions and reached an economic cooperation agreement with Havana. Once again, American airlines began flying to Cuba. Obama had succeeded in pulling the country a bit closer to the West and a bit further away from Russia. Adam says his health took a turn for the worse in February 2017. Whenever he entered a dark room, he would lose his balance, and he would frequently wake up at night with a bloody nose. When a high-ranking CIA official suddenly began experiencing similar symptoms during a visit to a Havana hotel, the CIA finally took action. They sent Adam to the University of Miami, where doctors found that his brain was no longer able to process the signals being sent by the equilibrium organ in his inner ear. He was only able to maintain his balance with the help of his right eye, which is why he would fall as soon as he entered a dark room. Information from his left optic nerve also wasn’t reaching his brain, which had been damaged. In reaction to the incidents in Cuba, newly elected President Donald Trumprecalled 60 percent of embassy staff from Havana, broke off the newly established economic ties and reintroduced the sanctions. It marked the end of détente with Cuba.
Following the examination in Miami, Adam was put back to work. He would go to the office in Washington twice a week, but he would get exhausted after two hours. He could only sleep two or three hours a night. Adam read that brain damage can be repaired through rehabilitation in the first 12 months, after which it becomes permanent, but he was unable to find a doctor willing to treat him. They all thought he was crazy, he says. After all, he wasn’t allowed to tell them that he worked for the CIA and how his symptoms began, all of which was classified information. He asked unsuccessfully for help from the CIA and also found out in the process that they wanted to fire him. In August 2017, he sent an email to his superior in which he announced that he would no longer be showing up for work. They could fire him or arrest him, he wrote, but he didn’t care, he needed help. He didn’t receive a response to that email either. “I felt like I had been cheated by my own government,” he says.
He was 33 years old and felt like a zombie. He couldn’t sleep anymore and was constantly falling. In mid-August, he wrote a farewell letter to his family with the intention of committing suicide. But before he could, his phone rang. A CIA colleague was on the line and told him that they could check him into a hospital at the University of Pennsylvania for a week and that he would be examined by all the necessary specialists. “I’m not a religious person, but something protected me at that moment,” says Adam.
Adam would end up staying in Philadelphia for eight months of treatment: Rehabilitation for his eyes, balance training, cognitive training and a whole battery of tests. In the months that followed, other victims from Cuba and China began appearing, one by one. Robyn Garfield and Adam met at the hospital in 2018. Slowly, a network began to form – a group of people willing to help each other. And they quickly realized that the government had but a single goal: To minimize the problem.
Following his return from China, doctors discovered that Garfield had connection problems between his eyes and his brain similar to Adam’s. His brain was no longer able to rapidly meld the images it received from his two eyes into one. One test found that Garfield’s reading speed was comparable to that of a fifth grader, while an MRI showed that the white substance in his brain that is primarily made up of neurotransmitters had changed.
The results were similar to those found in the patients from Cuba, who by then had been recognized as suffering from “Havana Syndrome” and been released from active duty, with full pay. The CIA also covered their medical and treatment costs, since most of them had worked for the intelligence agency. But the State Department, which had taken over oversight of the medical study at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, refused to recognize any of the diplomats from China as Havana Syndrome patients, other than the very first case.
In the courtyard, Garfield pulls his computer out of his backpack and starts looking for the audio file of a conversation he had with one of his doctors. He has a massive number of files stored on his computer full of correspondence, emails, medical reports, recorded conversations and invoices. They are essentially the ground beneath his feet, proving that everything he has experienced actually happened. In the recording, a doctor at the University Hospital in Pennsylvania assures Garfield that his case is comparable to those from Cuba. “Everyone here would say the same thing,” the doctor says. But he also says that the State Department had made clear that it has doubts about the alleged connection.
In summer 2018, the State Department told Garfield that it believed Garfield’s symptoms stemmed from an earlier injury he had sustained while playing baseball, back when he was 16. There was no mention of mass hysteria. Nor was there an attempt made to explain why Garfield’s wife was experiencing similar symptoms, even though she didn’t have a baseball injury. From one day to the next, Garfield lost almost all his rights to support, and the promised help with covering his medical bills likewise failed to materialize. That was the moment when Robyn Garfield began to share Adam’s doubts as to whether the government had his best interests at heart.
Garfield had wanted to become a diplomat from a young age, ever since a high school teacher told him about the field. Garfield was extremely ambitious, studying economics at an elite university in France and later focusing on international relations at Johns Hopkins University, one of the best such programs in the U.S.. He was particularly fascinated by China, the emerging. He founded a company for intercultural exchange in China, placed English teachers from the U.S. in the country and worked for Samsung in South Korea before joining the Foreign Service.
Darkness has fallen in the courtyard. “I love America,” he says before a long pause. Garfield says he even would have understood if his government had told him: Robyn, we have our reasons for why we are classifying you differently. We can’t talk about it, but it has to do with national security. Indeed, Garfield, Adam and the other diplomats thatZEITmagazin spoke to for this piece emphasized over and over again just how deeply committed they had been to their jobs. For all of them, the physical complaints they are suffering seem less difficult to bear than the fact that their government doesn’t believe them. Garfield has spent considerable time agonizing over why that may be the case. Is Washington simply unwilling to pay for their medical treatment? Garfield also doesn’t think it impossible that the decision to ignore the cases from China was made to avoid making waves. Everyone knew that China was important for Trump’s foreign policy. He was hoping for a trade deal and for China’s support in his negotiations with North Korea. Perhaps, Garfield thinks, State Department officials didn’t want to annoy the president with a problem that had the potential to upset the China policy apple cart. “But that, too, is just speculation,” he says, exhausted.
Perhaps he’s on to something, though. National Security Adviser Bolton said that he also tried to avoid ruffling Trump’s feathers. Following the inconclusive meeting with the State Department and the intelligence agencies, Bolton said he tried to find out more about the Havana Syndrome cases but didn’t tell Trump about it. “If there had been evidence pointing to Russia, he would have immediately discounted it and potentially put a stop to my efforts altogether,” he said. Trump had a fascination for Putin, and Bolton didn’t have much time — Trumped fired him in September 2019. In Philadelphia, there was no peace and quiet for Adam and the others either. One day, as Adams came back from one of his doctor’s appointments, he noticed an unknown person taking pictures of him. At home, he found that his surveillance camera had recorded a woman in a ponytail and blue shirt coming into his apartment and leaving again – though it wasn’t clear from the images, which ZEITmagazin has seen, what exactly she did while on the premises. Adam reported everything to the FBI, but they did nothing, Adam says, claiming they didn’t have sufficient personnel to follow up.
Robyn Garfield had similar experiences. But when the incident with his children took place, he decided he had had enough.
He says he heard noises coming from their rooms one night and got up to check on them. The children were tossing and turning in their beds – it seemed like they were having nightmares at exactly the same time. He says he held his head close to his daughter’s head and suddenly heard a loud hissing, like a waterfall or insects. He picked her up and carried her out of the room before returning and holding his head close to his son’s – and heard the same noise. At that point, he says, he panicked. Suddenly, he no longer felt safe in his own country, and neither the police nor his employer was helping him out. He bought a few pre-paid cell phones and on July 4, 2018, Garfield and his family went underground for a few weeks.
A long series of questions are necessary in the courtyard before Garfield gets through the whole story. He is afraid of being pulled back into the dark tunnel he found himself in back then. And he is concerned that his story is just too crazy to be believed. As such, he takes pains to relate everything chronologically and to substantiate it all with documents – and he tries not to get bogged down in the details.
When diplomats and agents are injured or even die in the line of duty, the State Department is required by law to launch an investigation within 60 days. But an investigation into the Cuba cases was only opened more than a year later, and then only under pressure from Congress. The results of that inquiry, however, were withheld from Congress, aside from a meager summary. Finally a Freedom of Information Act suit filed on behalf of a Cuba victim in 2021 – almost three years later –yielded a heavily redacted version of the report. The results can be summarized as follows: The State Department showed no leadership, was disorganized and communicated ineffectively. “No government official ever had responsibility for the problem,” the report reads. Furthermore, excessive secrecy prevented the necessary exchange of information between the CIA and the Department of Defense, the report found. All of which meant that the United States State Department proved unable to react appropriately to the threat – a staggering verdict. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected an investigation of the cases in China. Even today, such an inquiry has yet to take place.
The largest scientific study thus far conducted into the phenomenon also disappeared into the State Department file cabinet. Two dozen prestigious scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – specialists in fields ranging from neurology and ophthalmology to epidemiology and electrical engineering – were involved in the study. It was completed in July 2020, but was only made public in December, after copies were leaked to the New York Times and broadcaster NBC. At the time, the media was again full of the mass hysteria theory, pushed by an American sociologist in New Zealand. Prior to that, the ideas of an English biologist made the rounds, according to which the noises the diplomats had heard in Cuba was the chirping of crickets. The scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, a team led by Stanford University microbiologist David Relman, confirmed the findings from the doctors in Miami, the results found by James Giordano and the study conducted by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania. Relman and his team also ruled out the possibility of mass hysteria as the origin of the phenomenon. They, too, found that the most likely cause was directed energy. Not, though, as sonic energy, but as so-called pulsed microwaves. In the public debate, however, all of the theories were essentially treated as equals.
When one scientist who conducts research into pulsed microwaves published a short text about how microwave weapons work, the military immediately intervened. A significant chunk of his research budget comes from the Defense Department, and they threatened to suspend funding if he continued discussing his research.
ZEITmagazin caught up with the scientist – an engineer and plasma physicist – on the sidelines of a conference in California. Because of the threat from the military, he asked that his name not be used. But Manfred Thumm, professor emeritus and head of the pulsed power and microwave technology department at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has known the man personally for years and considers him to be one of the world’s foremost experts on pulsed high-power microwaves, a niche focus in the research community.
Essentially, the technology involves high-powered microwaves that are only beamed in pulses just a few nanoseconds long, turning on and off again extremely quickly. These waves produce strong electrical fields, such as in mobile telephones or drones, which is why this technology is primarily being pushed by the military – for the purpose of destroying electronic devices, for example. That energy can also impair the human brain, though. One way it does so is with the Frey Effect. In just a split second, the beams of energy can slightly warm brain tissue, expanding it. Pressure waves through the brain are the result, which are interpreted by the inner ear as sound. The Frey Effect itself is harmless, but if the intensity of the energy is raised to such an extent that the tissue expands extremely rapidly, it can cause brain damage.
James Giordano has come to believe that a microwave weapon is actually able to combine a variety of different effects. Besides the Frey Effect, one of those could be the cavitation effect, whereby the microwaves produce bubbles in the brain fluid, which then burst and can cause tiny injuries. A third effect could manipulate the electrical activity of nerve cells. To do so, a certain rhythm in the nano-second-long microwave pulses would be necessary. “That could be enough to get networks out of sync and rewire certain structures,” says Giordano. “Over time, that could disrupt communication within the brain.”
With the knowledge of global research activities in this area that he has amassed over the last decades, the scientist in California believes that it would be possible to produce a small device, potentially battery powered. “The size of a laser printer.” He says that it would be possible to cover a distance of around 10 meters, such as through the wall from a neighboring room. The microwave devices produce extremely high energy spikes, but only for an incredibly short period of time, and thus don’t require much power. “Such a device, though, could only have been developed with state resources,” the researcher says, since production is extremely complicated. He says Russia, in particular, has invested considerable amounts in microwave research.
The researcher has an older microwave device produced by the Soviets in his laboratory. Photos show that it is several meters long and looks not unlike a rocket. Following the end of the Cold War, he says, there was a significant amount of interaction with Russian institutes. But cooperation slowed to a stop under Putin. In 2018, one of his Russian counterparts published a report from a conference in Tomsk in the Journal of Physics. In the report, he describes experiments conducted on laboratory mice involving pulsed microwaves. The mice were exposed for 10 days, each time for between three and 20 minutes. The researchers were able to identify changes in the mice’s brain activity and striking behavioral patterns – including reduced activity, emotional stress and anxiety.
More than 200 American diplomats and CIA employees now exhibit symptoms of Havana Syndrome, and almost all of them were affected while in their apartments or in a hotel, and sometimes, even their children. And it has had an effect: Several diplomats in Washington say that the Foreign Service is receiving far fewer applications than in the past and is thus having trouble filling positions – and that people simply don’t want to take the risk. The CIA is having similar problems, they say. America’s diplomats, it would seem, are intimidated, something that the victims’ lawyer, Tim Begreen, confirms. The State Department, however, wrote to ZEITmagazin that the reports about the Havana Syndrome have had no effect whatsoever on hiring.
On Jan. 21, 2021, Robyn Garfield and several other victims founded an organization called Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome, which fights for recognition of the plight they face. It was the first day of Joe Biden’s presidency, an indication of the high hopes the victims have for the president and his administration. Since then, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held numerous video calls with the victims and promised to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. He appointed a former ambassador to lead a task force, and, when she refused to meet with victims and insisted in a conference call with Blinken and the victims that the mass hysteria theory hadn’t yet been disproven, she was replaced. In October 2021, Joe Biden signed the Havana Act into law, according to which all victims, including those in Moscow, China, Berlin and Vienna, must be provided with the assistance they need and at least some of the medical and rehabilitation costs. Negotiations, though, are ongoing regarding how that assistance will be provided in practice and what conditions must be met in order to receive it.
At a meeting in June 2021, Biden even brought up the cases with the Russian president. In September 2021, a CIA agent traveling in India with CIA Director Bill Burns was affected and developed the typical symptoms. During a December visit to Moscow, Burns warned the Russians that there would be consequences if additional evidence was discovered that Russia was behind the attacks.
According to a report in the New Yorker, the theory the government is currently operating under is that Russian intelligence agents are seeking to use the microwaves to copy data from the victims’ mobile phones or computers and that the physical symptoms are unintentional side effects. The State Department declined to confirm this theory when contacted, but did not exclude the possibility of “foreign actors.”
Still, not all is well. In January 2022, the CIA published an interim report claiming that the vast majority of the cases aren’t actually Havana Syndrome at all, adding that it is only the cases in Cuba that cannot be explained. As such, the report noted, it is unlikely that the syndrome is caused by attacks from a hostile state. After the report’s release, CIA Director Burns gave interviews in which he sought to play down its findings. And in February, the final report was released, in which pulsed microwaves were again discussed as the most likely cause. Once again, confusion reigns, and what’s left is a sense of an institution working counter to its own interests and those of its employees.
It has grown late in the Eastern European courtyard. Garfield has to head into work tomorrow. When he began his position in Brussels, he says, he would have liked to start working halftime and slowly increase his hours, just as his doctors had recommended. But his request was denied, he says. Garfield stops and tries to hold back the tears. All of his time, he says, is now devoted to work. Usually, he just doesn’t have any energy left over for his friends, or even for his family, he says, burying his face in his hands.
With additional reporting by Holger Stark
Translated by Charles Hawley
UPDATE: HAVANA SYNDROME TELEVISED NEWS REPORTS
HISTORY AND THE INFAMOUS “MOSCOW SIGNAL”
The Moscow Signal was a reported microwave transmission varying between 2.5 and 4 gigahertz, directed at the Embassy of the United States, Moscow from 1953 to 1976, resulting in an international incident.
Ambassador Walter Stoessel fell ill in 1975 with symptoms including bleeding from the eyes. He later died of leukemia. In a 1975 phone call US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger linked Stoessel’s illness to the microwaves and stated “we are trying to keep the thing quiet”. Multiple other ambassadors and embassy staff died of cancer, but there has never been any scientifically plausible link demonstrated between non-ionizing radiation and elevated cancer risk.
The Secret History of Diplomats and Invisible Weapons
The alleged use of a “sound weapon” against U.S. Embassy officials in Cuba harks back to a Cold War medical mystery.
This month, the State Department revealed that American diplomats based in Cuba have suffered from possible hearing damage. Since then, hysteria over “sonic weapons” has exploded, and the number of diplomats said to be experiencing health effects, which may include brain damage, has also now increased. “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. The device, or possible weapon, that was used to cause these effects apparently made no sound. Yet there is no credible evidence that such a non-audible device could cause the damage described. It turns out, this isn’t the first time the U.S. government suspected a foreign country of targeting its diplomats with a secret, invisible weapon.
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In 1965, medical workers began showing up at the American embassy in Moscow, drawing blood from the employees inside. The American diplomats were told that doctors were looking for possible exposure to a new type of virus, something not unexpected in a country known for its frigid winters.
It was all a lie. The Moscow Viral Study, as it was called, was the cover story for the American government’s top secret investigation into the effects of microwave radiation on humans. The Soviets, it turned out, were bombarding the embassy in Moscow with low-level microwaves. The “Moscow Signal,” as officials in Washington called the radiation, was too low to do any obvious harm to the people in the building. At five microwatts per square centimeter, the signal was well below the threshold needed to heat things, as a microwave oven does. Yet it was also a hundred times more powerful than the Soviets’ maximum exposure standards, which were much more stringent than those of the United States. That was cause for alarm.
The intelligence community was worried that the Soviets knew something about non-ionizing radiation that the United States did not. With research into the effects of low-level radiation still in its infancy, one of the first theories forwarded by the CIA was that the Soviets were trying to influence the behavior or mental state of American diplomats, or even control their minds. The United States wanted to figure out what was going on without tipping off the Soviets that they knew about the irradiation, and so the diplomats working in the embassy—and being exposed daily to the radiation—were kept in the dark. The State Department was responsible for looking at biological changes associated with microwaves, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects, a division of the Pentagon, was assigned to look at the possible behavioral effects of microwaves.
In October 1965, Richard Cesaro, the DARPA official in charge of the project, addressed a secret memo to the agency’s director, Charles Herzfeld, explaining the justification for this new research effort. The White House had charged the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon to investigate the microwave assault in secret. The State Department was the lead on the program, code-named TUMS, and DARPA’s responsibility, Cesaro explained, was “to initiate a selective portion of the overall program concerned with one of the potential threats, that of radiation effects on man.”
Thus was born DARPA Program Plan 562, better known by its code name, Project Pandora, an exploration of the behavioral effects of microwaves and one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of Cold War science.
With the passage of time, the government’s concerns about microwave-induced mind control might sound like something born of the worst sort of Cold War paranoia—the sort of thing easily parodied as a tin-foil-hat conspiracy—but set in the landscape of the 1960s, it seemed a plausible concern. The discovery of the Moscow Signal came amid a flurry of American and Soviet research reports on the possible biological effects of low-level microwave radiation. Anecdotal reports of fatigue and confusion fueled theories that microwaves could be used as a weapon for behavior modification, or even mind control.
Anecdotal reports of fatigue and confusion fueled theories that microwaves could be used as a weapon for behavior modification, or even mind control.
One theory that officials floated was the Soviet Union might be using microwaves to influence the behavior of embassy workers, perhaps to induce clerks to make mistakes on encrypted messages, allowing Soviet cryptographers to crack American codes. In fact, DARPA-sponsored translations of Russian-language research at the time indicated that the neurological effects of microwaves fascinated the Soviets, which American officials took as possible evidence that the Moscow Signal was some sort of weapon.
DARPA’s role in Pandora immediately evoked concerns among the few Pentagon scientists who were cleared to review the program. Bruno Augenstein, a German-born physicist who worked for the Defense Department, sent a top secret memo to Harold Brown and Gene Fubini, two of the Pentagon’s top technology officials, to let them know that DARPA was evaluating proposals looking at the neurological effects of microwaves. In his note, Augenstein alluded to “past unsavory history of experiments of this kind in this country, which has made a number of people rather leery of further experiments in this field,” likely a reference to the CIA’s infamous MKULTRA mind control experiments begun in the 1950s, in which agency officials tested the effects of LSD as a possible mind control agent on humans. Augenstein wrote that there did appear “to be some internal resistance in DARPA to the suggestion that DARPA proceed with these experiments, probably because there is a feeling that at one time it certainly attracted a number of crackpots.”
If the DARPA program was supposed to avoid the mistakes of prior scandals in human experimentation, then Cesaro was an inauspicious choice to lead Pandora. A propulsion expert, he had no apparent expertise in the biological sciences, but he relished running a top-secret project that had high-level attention from the White House and the CIA. He embraced the assignment with an enthusiasm that might have been admirable, had it not been quite so morbid. It soon became clear Cesaro’s primary interest was pushing forward with actual microwave weapons, rather than understanding the underlying biology.
To see if the Moscow Signal really affected human behavior, DARPA first started by testing microwave radiation on monkeys.
To see if the Moscow Signal really affected human behavior, DARPA first started by testing microwave radiation on monkeys.
Because Pandora was top secret, the primary research had to be run at government laboratories rather than at universities. The air force was assigned to provide electromagnetic equipment needed to generate the microwaves, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research was responsible for selecting the monkeys and running the experiments. The initial tests were designed to see how primates performed work-related tasks when exposed to radiation that matched the Moscow Signal, which was beaming every day at the men and women inside the American embassy in Moscow.
By December 1965, Cesaro was already enthusing over the results. The normal process for accepting any new, significant scientific phenomenon would have involved submission of the results for peer review, publication in a respected journal, and eventually replication by an independent group. Pandora, on the other hand, operated in the world of classified science, where results were conveyed not by the researchers conducting the experiments but by the manager in charge, in this case Cesaro.
In December 1966, Cesaro reported that the first monkey involved in the tests had demonstrated “two repetitive, complete slowdowns and stoppages” as a result of exposure to the Moscow Signal. “There is no question that penetration of the central nervous system has been achieved, either directly or indirectly into that portion of the brain concerned with the changes in the work functions and the effects observed,” Cesaro wrote.
The radiation results were so convincing to him that he recommended the Pentagon immediately start to investigate “potential weapon applications.” He initiated a new phase of Pandora intended to move toward human testing, taking the DARPA program dangerously close to the very work that Augenstein, the Pentagon scientist, had warned of. Cesaro also wanted to make Pandora even more secretive than it had been previously. “The extremely sensitive nature of the results obtained to date, and their impact on National Security, has resulted in establishing a special access category for all data results and analysis, under codename Bizarre,” he wrote. Bizarre, as it turns out, was an appropriate name for the project, because at this point the number of monkeys involved in the testing stood at one.
Initially, the Pandora scientific review committee seemed to go along with Cesaro’s enthusiastic proposal to move directly to human testing. The committee even suggested recruiting human subjects from Fort Detrick, Maryland, home to the army’s biological research program (the conscripts assigned to Fort Detrick have been a continuous source of human subjects for Defense Department research for decades; subjects there have been exposed to everything from yellow fever to hallucinogenic drugs). In minutes from a May 12, 1969, meeting to discuss human testing, the Pandora scientific committee discussed plans to move forward with eight human subjects. The human subjects would be exposed to the Moscow Signal and then given a full battery of medical and psychological tests.
The committee was aware of the potential for a conflict of interest involved in classified human testing; the idea of informed consent becomes hazy when the subjects are not even aware of the true purpose of the test. To address this problematic issue, the committee recommended having medical personnel on hand to assure the “medical well being” of the subjects. Yet even those medical personnel would not be told the reason for the testing and would instead be given a cover story. Humanely, at least, the committee did recommend “gonadal protection be provided” to the male test subjects.
Fortunately for the would-be recruits and their gonads, the human tests were never pursued.
Fortunately for the would-be recruits and their gonads, the human tests were never pursued.
The committee’s views on Pandora quickly began to change as they reviewed the actual data, which eventually included more primates and additional testing. The scientific committee’s minutes, declassified and released years later, demonstrate increasing doubts about the testing protocol, in particular the lack of controls used in testing the monkeys. Among the concerns was that there was never a solid baseline established to compare how the monkeys’ performance allegedly degraded after exposure to radiation, the members noted. In other words, it was never established how well monkeys performed the tasks during a test period when not exposed to any periodic bouts of radiation.
While Pandora never progressed to testing on humans, it did look at the effects of occupational radiation exposure on humans. One experimental protocol, called Big Boy, examined sailors on the USS Saratoga, comparing those who worked above deck, and were exposed to radiation from the radar, to those who worked below deck (the sailors were not told that they were part of a human radiation study; an unspecified cover story was used). The conclusion was that there were no psychological or physical effects as a result of exposure to low-level microwave radiation.
In 1968, Joseph Sharp, the lead Pandora researcher at Walter Reed, left the program. Major James McIlwain, a medical doctor who had been drafted into the army, was selected to replace him. It took almost a year before McIlwain was cleared for Project Pandora, but once that happened, he got to work on a rigorous review of the data, poring over the computer printouts detailing each animal’s behavior. Within a year, McIlwain completed the statistical analysis, and what he found was not encouraging for the prospects of microwave mind control weapons. The basic question, he recalled in an interview years later, was whether it was more likely that the animal would stop working when the radiation was on compared with when it was off. “The answer to that was no,” he said. The Pandora scientific review committee agreed, concluding, “If there is an effect of the signal utilized to date on behavior and/or biological functions, it is too subtle or insignificant to be evident.” In other words, microwaves could not be used for mind control.
By 1969, Stephen Lukasik, then the deputy director of DARPA, had some serious doubts about Cesaro, whom he regarded as a serial liar. The impresario of DARPA’s black programs acted as if he reported to no one, alluding to orders from high-level intelligence agencies but refusing to provide any specific information. “He was all over the place, cloaked in special access programs,” Lukasik said, a reference to highly classified national security programs.
Pandora, the mind control project, was particularly worrisome. At that point, the research had been going on for almost five years, and millions of dollars had been spent for construction of a new microwave laboratory. Lukasik asked Sam Koslov, a former DARPA official, to review the Pandora file and let him know what he thought. Koslov was an old hand at intelligence projects and less likely to be snowed by claims of secrecy and overwrought concerns about the potential for Soviet exotic weapons. Koslov, then at the Rand Corporation, reviewed the materials and discussed the results with McIlwain, at Walter Reed, and reported back to Lukasik in November 1969.
Like other review committee members, Koslov criticized the original experiments for having almost no baseline and noted the experimental procedure changed over time. Also, if the question was whether a modulated microwave beam, such as the Moscow Signal, was causing deleterious effects, why was it never measured against a continuous wave? he asked. Simply zapping monkeys with the Moscow Signal was an entirely wrong approach, if the goal was to understand whether the effects were associated with a specific signal. “One should start with an examination of various basic wave forms and then the combinations resulting in possible intermodulations and demodulations by biological tissue,” Koslov wrote.
Koslov also rightfully questioned whether the entire program truly needed to be secret.
One could much better run a more open program that looked at the health effects of microwaves generally and then have a secret program looking at technology or weapons, if it was warranted, he argued. “In brief, I am forced to conclude that the data do not present any evidence of a behavioral change due to the presence of the special signal within the limits of any reasonable scientific criteria,” Koslov wrote to Lukasik.
In 1969, DARPA ended its support for Pandora, and the remaining work was transferred to Walter Reed. A couple years later, Lukasik fired Cesaro for “general dishonesty.”
By the end of the 1960s, the intelligence community concluded that the Soviets were using the pulsed radiation to activate listening bugs concealed in the embassy’s walls, and not to control diplomats’ minds.
By the end of the 1960s, the intelligence community concluded that the Soviets were using the pulsed radiation to activate listening bugs concealed in the embassy’s walls, and not to control diplomats’ minds.
Yet concerns about the Moscow Signal lingered even after the scientific testing ended, though mind control was generally ruled out. A State Department doctor in charge of the blood tests, Cecil Jacobson, asserted that there had been some chromosomal changes, but none of the scientific reviews of his work seemed to back his view. Jacobson achieved infamy in later years, not for the Moscow Signal, but for fraud related to his fertility work. Among other misdeeds, he was sent to prison for impregnating possibly dozens of unsuspecting patients with his own sperm, rather than that of screened anonymous donors as they were expecting.
Richard Cesaro never attained that level of personal notoriety, but he asserted, even after he retired, that the Moscow Signal remained an open question. “I look at it as still a major, serious, unsettled threat to the security of the United States,” he said, when interviewed about it nearly two decades later. “If you really make the breakthrough, you’ve got something better than any bomb ever built, because when you finally come down the line you’re talking about controlling people’s minds.”
Perhaps, but Pandora resonated for years as the secrecy surrounding the project generated public paranoia and distrust of government research on radiation safety. Project Pandora was often cited as proof that the government knew more about the health effects of electro- magnetic radiation than it was letting on. The government did finally inform embassy personnel in the 1970s about the microwave radiation, prompting, not surprisingly, a slew of lawsuits.
In the end, the government found that the best method for dealing with the incessant Moscow Signal was to build an aluminum screen to shield the building from microwaves. “The lesson learned,” Koslov later told a reporter, “is to treat your people as if they have some intelligence.”
This article is adapted from Sharon Weinberger’s book, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World.
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