On August 6, U.S. security and intelligence officials met in Washington, D.C., to boost an interagency investigation of the so-called “anomalous health incidents” (AHI) that have been reported by hundreds of U.S. government officials and their families worldwide.
Hosted by the Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, the Joint Intelligence Community Council said it is a “top priority to identify the cause of AHI, provide the highest level of care to those affected, and prevent such incidents from continuing.”
First reported by the American and Canadian diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, the health incidents are popularly known as Havana Syndrome. Victims have reported a sudden illness with symptoms that include headaches, vertigo, disorientation, ringing in the ears, loss of vision and hearing. In some cases, brain damage and long-term illness were reported.
More recently, U.S. personnel in China, Russia, the U.K. and, last month, Vienna, Austria, have reported similar symptoms.
A U.S. State Department task force investigated after the initial Havana reports. In September 2018, Ambassador Peter Rode, who led that effort, told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that the department had “come to the determination that they were attacks.”
Evidence “based on communication intercepts” suggests that Russia is behind these attacks, NBC reported, citing U.S. intelligence sources. Officials have long suspected that some type of microwave or electromagnetic device could have been used to target the workers.
In Russia, state officials and top lawmakers have met the U.S. reports about the Havana Syndrome and suspected Russian involvement with denials and mockery.
Russian officials and state media have claimed that speculation about Russia’s knowledge or use of microwave weaponry or similar technology is fake, invented by “aging mentally unstable Russophobes,” and that the mysterious symptoms are more likely the result of “hangovers.”
On August 5, Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency quoted Aleksandr Bikantov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s media office:
“The Russophobic agitprop continues to propagate fakes. We sympathize with our colleagues and wish them good health. We believe that it is immoral and low to launch anti-Russian speculations, citing ailments. Fictions about some psi rays are beyond common sense.”
That claim is false. Although the cause of Havana Syndrome remains a matter of debate, evidence pointing to Russia’s weapons capability is more than mere speculation or science fiction. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, defense ministry, top military developers and experts all have hinted at or boasted about electromagnetic weapons.
In March 2018, Putin said in his annual address to parliament that Russia “has all reasons to believe that we are a step ahead” of other countries in creating “prospective weapons based on new physical principles.” Putin said it was too early to reveal the details, but that “specialists will understand” what he meant for Russia’s defense capabilities.
In October of that year, the Kremlin-controlled RT (Russia Today) news agency reported that “weapons based on new physical principles” referred to “SVCh-weapons.” “SVCh” is the Russian abbreviation for microwave.
The RT report said this class of electromagnetic weapons could destroy or temporarily incapacitate an enemy’s machinery and computers, and was also harmful to humans, causing a “degradation of the nervous and immune systems as well as metabolic failures.”
RT cited a representative of the Russian “Koncern Radio Electronic Technologies,” KRET, a major Russian defense contractor.
In November 2018, Zvezda, the Russia’s defense ministry’s official news channel, reported that the Russian army had been testing electromagnetic weapons both “in the lab and in the field.” Both the RT and Zvezda reports focused on “SVCh-cannons,” artillery and rockets.
The TASS state news agency reported in October 2018 that the SVCh weapons could be harmful to the soldiers operating them, and that the defense ministry had devised ways to isolate operators.
“Today we already have SVCh weapon models which can work with precision on machinery and human targets,” TASS quoted Air Force Gen. Vladimir Popov as saying. According to the news agency, Popov said that now is not the time to “show all the cards” because "there may be, you know, people who will say that these are not humane means of waging war. And on the other hand, they will say that here again we have taken a step towards another arms race.”
In July 2020, the Russian defense ministry’s research and special projects department declared a “breakthrough” in microwave weapons development, announcing it was funding and coordinating “field-research” in SVCh-weaponry, military robotics, hypersonic weapons and biotechnology as the “military confrontation between states spilled over into the military science and military technology.”
The Kremlin website’s archives of Russian government and Russian Security Council meetings with the president include several mentions of SVCh weapons technology. In the earliest, dated March 19, 2007, then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov reported to Putin that the development of “SVCh-electronics has been effectively launched,” and “not only for military but for civilian use as well.”
In November 2013, during an unclassified portion of a meeting on Russia’s defense and space developments, Pavel Sozinov, constructor-general of the state-owned Almaz-Antey arms manufacturer, told Putin: “Those new electronic technologies I’ve mentioned earlier” are “unfolding.” Asked by Putin when they would start being produced for sale, Sozinov answered “in 2016.”
A book written by a team of Russian experts and published in 2009, titled “Parallel weaponry, or with what and how killing will be done in the 21st Century,” reported that the former Soviet Union launched a SVCh-weapons program in 1977, with the first models created by 1982.
According to the book, a Soviet commission ultimately killed the big weaponry part of the project but nonetheless found that precision SVCh weapons were very effective against telecommunication systems. “Thus, the new direction has emerged and has been successfully developing since, that is the use of SVCH-weapons to cause functional harm,” the book says.
The U.S. National Security Agency reportedly has evidence that at least one country possesses microwave weapons.
In September 2018, The New York Times obtained and released an NSA memo from 2014. In it the agency confirmed, based on 2012 intelligence, that an unnamed “hostile country” was in a possession of “a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence.”
“This weapon is designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system,” the NSA memo stated.
The Times report said several countries, including the U.S., China and Russia, have been developing microwave weapons, but that Russia was the most likely culprit behind the attacks against the American officials in Havana. That conclusion was based on an analysis of the travel logs of the Russian intelligence operatives prior to and during the Havana attacks. The Times interviewed American scientist Allan H. Frey, whose research papers on the topic published in 1960s drew much attention from the Soviets.
“Not long after his initial discoveries, Mr. Frey said, he was invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to visit and lecture,” the Times reported. “Toward the end, in a surprise, he was taken outside Moscow to a military base surrounded by armed guards and barbed-wire fences.”
“ 'They had me visiting the various labs and discussing the problems,' including the neural impacts of microwaves, Mr. Frey recalled.”
Initially, U.S. intelligence and other officials viewed the Havana Syndrome reports with skepticism, and an early FBI investigation dismissed the “attack” theory, according to news reports.
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit’s initial investigation concluded that the “Havana patients” were suffering from a “mass psychogenic illness” – “a condition in which a group of people, often thinking that they have been exposed to something dangerous, begin to feel sick at the same time.”
But with the newly reported cases, the FBI is now “reassessing” its conclusion, The New Yorker reported in July, citing an unnamed U.S. official.
A 2020 book, “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria” by Robert W. Baloh, professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Robert E. Bartholomew, medical sociologist and author in New Zealand, fueled skepticism about a weapons attack.
Its authors claimed that the American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba had mistaken the “mating calls of insects for a sonic weapon” causing a mass psychosis.
Critics say the book is flawed, noting that the Havana Syndrome has been reported in places and seasons with no mating insects. Also, the victims did not always know what symptoms others were experiencing.
As to the Russians’ mocking “hangover” claims? In fact, the Havana Syndrome symptoms are real and unusual, scientists concluded.
A multidisciplinary medical examination of Havana Syndrome victims published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences in 2018 found that they had suffered from “persistent cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction, as well as sleep impairment and headaches.”
“These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma,” the report said.
Another National Academies of Sciences report in 2020 reached two conclusions: the reported syndrome was both unique and credibly consistent with electromagnetic wave exposure.
“First, the committee found a constellation of acute clinical signs and symptoms with directional and location-specific features that was distinctive; to its knowledge, this constellation of clinical features is unlike any disorder in the neurological or general medical literature...”
“Second, after considering the information available to it and a set of possible mechanisms, the committee felt that many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported by DOS employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy. Studies published in the open literature more than a half century ago and over the subsequent decades by Western and Soviet sources provide circumstantial support for this possible mechanism.”