Reports of mysterious health incidents that have led to brain injuries and caused a range of symptoms among government personnel continue to stream in. One of the latest cases occurred just within the last few weeks, and the total number of US personnel affected is now over 130, according to reports.
The New York Times reported earlier this week that at least three CIA officers have suffered serious health effects from enigmatic episodes that occurred overseas since last December, one of them within the last few weeks. All three of the CIA officers required outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other medical facilities, the Times noted.
Officials told the Times that the number of cases is now topping 130, up from the previously reported 60 cases, which were mainly among diplomats and their families stationed in Cuba and Guangzhou, China.
Beginning in 2016, diplomats in Havana began experiencing unexplained sounds and sensations that sometimes seemed directional in nature and were accompanied by an abrupt onset of varied symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, balance problems, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), nosebleeds, difficulty concentrating and recalling words, permanent hearing loss, and speech problems. Doctors who examined some of the diplomats reported troubling data suggesting “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” While some of those afflicted have recovered, others have been left with long-term debilitating effects.
The condition has been informally dubbed “Havana syndrome,” but it appears it may now be widespread among US personnel.
The new, larger case total includes personnel in the CIA, the State Department, the Defense Department, and elsewhere. The cases also involve more locations in which the mysterious incidents reportedly occurred. In addition to reporting incidents in Cuba and China, personnel have now reported bizarre episodes in Europe, Russia, elsewhere in Asia, and even the US.
As Ars reported last month, US agencies are investigating at least two incidents in which government officials in the Washington, DC, area experienced similar sensational episodes followed by symptoms. In one case, a National Security Council official reported being sickened last November while near the Ellipse, the White House’s large, oval-shaped southern lawn.
“The numbers are definitely increasing,” Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing some of the diplomats sickened in Cuba, told The Guardian.
The Biden administration is now increasing the intensity of its investigation into the growing number of cases. The CIA has formed a targeting cell, similar in rigor to a group the agency formed to hunt Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, the Times notes. Federal officials are also streamlining medical treatment for victims and trying to standardize incident reports.
It’s clear already that the newly publicized cases are not entirely fresh incidents—some are older cases that were newly reported to officials after publicity of the incidents made US personnel reexamine past episodes and symptoms. It’s possible that some of the cases may be unrelated to the incidents in Havana and elsewhere. Officials are now examining all the reports to identify patterns.
However, some of the newly publicized cases seem clearly connected. The Times outlined a 2019 case, which had not been previously reported, involving a military officer serving overseas.
According to the Times, the military officer was driving in an unnamed location when he:
pulled his vehicle into an intersection, then was overcome by nausea and headaches, according to four current and former officials briefed on the events. His 2-year-old son, sitting in the back seat, began crying. After the officer pulled away from the intersection, his nausea stopped, and the child stopped crying.
Both received medical attention from the government, though it is not clear whether they suffered long-term debilitating effects.
Pentagon officials believe the military officer was targeted, and according to the Times, they believe Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was behind the incident. The officials also told the Times that there is evidence that Russia is behind other cases as well.
Russia has been a consistent suspect behind the incidents, which have often been described as attacks. However, the Biden administration has not determined whether they constitute attacks, let alone who might be behind them.
“As of now, we have no definitive information about the cause of these incidents, and it is premature and irresponsible to speculate,” Amanda Schoch, the spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Times.
If the incidents are attacks, it’s still unclear what is causing the sensations, symptoms, and injuries reported by US personnel. One of the leading hypotheses points to a potential covert microwave weapon that beams pulsed radio frequencies at targets, causing auditory sounds and brain injuries. A committee of experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in a report last year that directed, pulsed RF energy is the “most plausible mechanism” to explain the incidents.
Many doctors and scientists have supported the microwave-attack hypothesis. Among them is Dr. Allan Frey, who in 1961 discovered the “Frey effect,” aka the microwave auditory effect. Frey not only thinks it’s possible that a microwave weapon could explain the cases; he also has reason to think Russia may have developed such technology—or at least tried to.
Shortly after Frey identified the auditory phenomenon, he was invited to visit and lecture at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. “They had me visiting the various labs and discussing the problems,” including the neural impacts of microwaves, Dr. Frey told the Times in a 2018 interview. “I got an inside look at their classified program.”
But Russia wasn’t the only country looking into this type of technology. The US Navy funded the development of a crowd-control device called the MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio), which relied on the Frey effect. The Pentagon developed a related weapon called the Active Denial System, which it touted in a video as a “non-lethal weapon system which disrupts hostile activities.”
Still, some scientists are skeptical that a microwave weapon could explain the mysterious incidents reported by US personnel. Cheryl Rofer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote this week in Foreign Policy that the public evidence backing the hypothesis is “exceedingly weak.” University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto J. Espay told the Washington Post in 2018 that “microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news.”
In addition to microwaves, scientists have speculated that the cases could be explained by mass psychogenic illness—essentially a collective delusion—as well as irritating noises from crickets, malfunctioning surveillance equipment, or overexposure to pesticides.