Suspected Culprit Emerges in Mystery 'Havana Syndrome'

Reports suggest Russia is behind alleged attacks on US diplomats around the world
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 20, 2020 10:15 AM CDT
Updated Oct 24, 2020 7:00 AM CDT
Those Mystery Cuba Ailments? They're All Over the World
A man fishes along the Malecon seawall near the US Embassy, left, in Havana.   (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)

Remember "Havana syndrome"? That's the term often used to describe the weird, inexplicable ailments that began affecting US diplomats in Cuba in recent years. Now two investigative pieces, one by the New York Times and the other at GQ, seek to shed more light on what's happening. Both make clear that these incidents haven't been confined to Cuba, but have been happening around the world. Some takeaways:

  • All over: The apparent attacks have taken place all over, including in China, Russia, Poland, Georgia, Australia, Taiwan, and even inside the US, per the GQ story. It focuses on the case of now-retired CIA official Marc Polymeropoulos, who fell ill with what he initially thought was severe food poisoning in his Moscow hotel room in late 2017. Ailments including debilitating headaches, which continue to this day, forced his early retirement.

  • The culprit? Evidence points to Russia, with GQ noting that CIA investigators were able to conclude (using location-tracking data) that Russian agents were in the vicinity when CIA officers were afflicted in some of these cases. The Times story: "Some senior Russia analysts in the CIA, officials at the State Department, and outside scientists, as well as several of the victims, see Russia as the most likely culprit given its history with weapons that cause brain injuries and its interest in fracturing Washington's relations with Beijing and Havana."
  • The weapon? GQ suggests that consensus is settling on some kind of "directed energy weapon," possibly using microwaves. Russia has a history with such weapons, both stories note. Forbes spins off the Times story with an explainer on these. "A minuscule but rapid rise in tissue temperature, resulting from the absorption of pulsed microwave energy, creates a thermoelastic expansion of brain matter," an expert tells Forbes, which likens the result to an "acoustic shock wave in the brain."
  • Different treatment: The Times story points out that the Trump administration referred to what happened in Cuba as "targeted attacks" and evacuated personnel. But it took a much "softer" approach when cases surfaced in China, eventually labeling them as "health incidents." For those affected, it meant they had to burn through their sick days and use unpaid leave while they recovered. No formal investigation was opened into the China cases
  • Why: "Critics say disparities in how the officers were treated stemmed from diplomatic and political considerations, including the president's desire to strengthen relations with Russia and win a trade deal with China," per the Times. The GQ story reports that CIA chief Gina Haspel rebuffed intel reports suggesting Russia was to blame and didn't bring them to the White House, given President Trump's reluctance to go after Vladimir Putin. Haspel may have found the evidence lacking, or she may have feared retribution in the form of cutbacks and wanted to protect the agency, according to the story.
(MRIs revealed alterations to victims' brains.)

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