|Symptoms||Hearing strange grating noises, headache, hearing loss, memory loss, and nausea|
|Causes||Likely caused by directed microwaves, although not definitively determined|
Havana syndrome is a set of medical signs and symptoms reported by United States and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba dating back to late 2016 as well as subsequently in some other countries, including the United States, Austria, Germany, and Vietnam.
In 2017, Donald Trump accused Cuba of perpetrating unspecified attacks causing these symptoms. The U.S. reduced staff at their embassy to a minimum in response. In 2018, U.S. diplomats in China reported problems similar to those reported in Cuba, as did undercover CIA agents working in other countries with partner agencies to counter Russian covert operations.
Subsequent studies of the affected diplomats in Cuba, published in the journal JAMA in 2018, found evidence that the diplomats experienced some form of brain injury, but did not determine the cause of the injuries. While there is no expert consensus on the cause of the symptoms, a co-author of the JAMA study considered microwave weapons to be “a main suspect” for the phenomenon. U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine expert committee concluded in December 2020 that microwave energy (specifically, directed pulsed RF energy) “appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered” but that “each possible cause remains speculative.”
The U.S. intelligence services have not reached a consensus or formal determination on the cause of the Havana syndrome, but unnamed sources in intelligence and two presidential administrations have expressed suspicions to the press that Russian military intelligence is responsible.
In August 2017, reports began surfacing that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had experienced unusual, unexplained health problems dating back to late 2016. The number of American citizens experiencing symptoms was 26 as of June 2018.
The health problems typically had a sudden onset: the victim would suddenly begin hearing strange grating noises that they perceived as coming from a specific direction. Some of them experienced it as a pressure or a vibration; or as a sensation comparable to driving a car with the window partly rolled down. The duration of these noises ranged from 20 seconds to 30 minutes, and always happened while the diplomats were either at home or in hotel rooms. Other people nearby, family members and guests in neighboring rooms, did not report hearing anything.
Impact on American diplomats
Some U.S. embassy individuals have experienced lasting health effects, including one unidentified diplomat who is said to now need a hearing aid. The State Department declared that the health problems were either the result of an attack, or due to exposure to an unknown device, and declared that they were not blaming the Cuban government, but would not say who was to blame. Affected individuals described symptoms such as hearing loss, memory loss, and nausea. Speculation centered around a sonic weapon, with some researchers pointing to infrasound as a possible cause.
In August 2017, the United States expelled two Cuban diplomats in response to the illnesses. In September, the U.S. State Department stated that it was removing non-essential staff from the US embassy, and warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba. In October 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump said that “I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that”, going on to say “And it’s a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible.”
On March 2, 2018, the U.S. State Department announced it would continue to staff its embassy in Havana at the minimum level required to perform “core diplomatic and consular functions” due to concerns about health attacks on staff. The embassy had been operating under “ordered departure status” since September, but the status was set to expire. This announcement served to extend the staff reductions indefinitely.
U.S. government investigations
In January 2018, the Associated Press reported that a non-public FBI report found no evidence of an intentional sonic attack. A November 2018 report in the New Yorker found that the FBI’s investigation into the incidents was stymied by conflict with the CIA and the State Department; the CIA was reluctant to reveal, even to other U.S. government agencies, the identities of affected officers, because of the CIA’s concern about possible leaks. Federal rules on the privacy of employee medical records also hindered the investigation.
In January 2018, at the direction of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Department of State convened an Accountability Review Board, which is “an internal State Department mechanism to review security incidents involving diplomatic personnel.” Retired United States Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde was chosen to lead the board.
Impact on Canadian diplomats
In March 2018, MRI scans and other tests taken by a chief neurologist in Pittsburgh on an unspecified number of Canadian diplomats showed evidence of brain damage that mirrored the injuries some of their American counterparts had faced. In early 2018, Global Affairs Canada ended family postings to Cuba and withdrew all staff with families. Several of the Canadians who were impacted in 2017 were reported to still be unable to resume their work due to the severity of their ailments. The fact that there was no knowledge of the cause of Havana syndrome, as of February 2019, had made it challenging for the RCMP to investigate.
In 2019, the government of Canada announced that it was reducing its embassy staff in Havana after a 14th Canadian diplomat reported symptoms of Havana syndrome in late December 2018. In February 2019, several Canadian diplomats sued the Canadian government, arguing that it failed to protect them or promptly address serious health concerns. The government has sought to dismiss the suit, arguing in November 2019 that it was not negligent and did not breach its duties to its employees. In court filings, the government acknowledged that several of the 14 plaintiffs in the suit suffered from concussion-like symptoms, but said that no definitive cause or medical diagnosis had been ascertained. In a November 2019 statement, Global Affairs Canada said, “We continue to investigate the potential causes of the unusual health symptoms.”
Cuban government reactions
After the incident was made public, the Cuban Foreign Minister accused the U.S. of lying about the incident and denied Cuban involvement in the health problems experienced by diplomats or knowledge of their cause.
The Cuban government offered to cooperate with the U.S. in an investigation of the incidents. It employed about 2000 scientists and law enforcement officers who interviewed 300 neighbors of diplomats, examined two hotels, and also medically examined non-diplomats who could have been exposed. NBC reported that Cuban officials stated that they analyzed air and soil samples, and considered a range of toxic chemicals. They also examined the possibility that electromagnetic waves were to blame, and even looked into whether insects could be the culprit, but found nothing they could link to the claimed medical symptoms. The FBI and Cuban authorities met to discuss the situation; the Cubans stated that the U.S. neither agreed to share the diplomats’ medical records with Cuban authorities nor allowed Cuban investigators access to U.S. diplomats’ homes to conduct tests.
Studies regarding injury
At the request of the U.S. government, University of Pennsylvania researchers examined 21 affected diplomats, and the preliminary results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in March 2018. The report “found no evidence of white matter tract abnormalities” in affected diplomats, beyond what might be seen in a control group of the same age, and described “a new syndrome in the diplomats that resembles persistent concussion.” While some of those affected recovered swiftly, others had symptoms lasting for months. The study concluded that “the diplomats appear to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.” Some experts criticized the study, arguing that there was “no proof that any kind of energy source affected the diplomats, or even that an attack took place.” Subsequent study findings by the University of Pennsylvania team, published in July 2019, found that compared to a healthy control group, the diplomats who had reported injury had experienced brain trauma; advanced MRI scans (specifically res-fMRI, multimodal MRI, and diffusion MRI) revealed “differences in whole brain white matter volume, regional gray and white matter volume, cerebellar microstructural integrity, and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks” but found no differences in executive functions. The study concluded that the U.S. government personnel had been physically injured in a way consistent with the symptoms that they described, but expressed no conclusion on the cause or source of the injury. The New York Times reported: “Outside experts were divided on the study’s conclusions. Some saw important new evidence; others say it is merely a first step toward an explanation, and difficult to interpret given the small number of patients.”
In response to a December 2017 request from the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a “Cuba Unexplained Events Investigation.” The two-year investigation of the medical records of 95 U.S. diplomats and family members in Havana who reported symptoms, resulted in a final report, marked for official use only, dated December 2019. In January 2021, the report was obtained by both BuzzFeed News and George Washington University’s National Security Archive pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act requests (some material in the released report was redacted for medical privacy reasons). The CDC developed a “case definition” of the Havana syndrome, consisting of a biphasic (two-stage) syndrome, with a first phase of symptoms (sometimes closely after an auditory or sensory event) followed by a subsequent onset of “cognitive deficits or vestibular disturbances” some time later. The report concluded that, “Of the 95 persons whose medical records CDC evaluated, 15 had illnesses that met the criteria for a presumptive case definition. CDC classified 31 others as possible cases and the remaining 49 as not likely to be a case.” Two years later, six of the subjects in the CDC investigation were still being rehabilitated for their injuries, and four of them were still unable to return to work. The CDC decided not to conduct a retrospective case–control study because of the length of time between the event and the onset of symptoms, which could lead to recall and selection biases that “could generate misleading or obscured findings.” The CDC concluded, “The evaluations conducted thus far have not identified a mechanism of injury, process of exposure, effective treatment, or mitigating factor for the unexplained cluster of symptoms experienced by those stationed in Havana.”
Theories regarding cause
In a 2018 interview, Douglas H. Smith, a co-author of the JAMA study, said that microwaves were “considered a main suspect” underlying the phenomenon. A 2018 study published in the journal Neural Computation by Beatrice Alexandra Golomb rejected the idea that a sonic attack was the source of the symptoms, and concluded that the facts were consistent with pulsed radiofrequency/microwave radiation (RF/MW) exposure as the source of injury. Golomb wrote that (1) the nature of the noises reported by the diplomats was consistent with sounds caused by pulsed RF/MW via the Frey effect; (2) the signs and symptoms reported by the diplomats matched symptoms from RF/MW exposure (problems with sleep, cognition, vision, balance, speech; headaches; sensations of pressure or vibration; nosebleeds; brain injury and brain swelling); (3) “oxidative stress provides a documented mechanism of RF/MW injury compatible with reported signs and symptoms”; and (4) in the past, the U.S. embassy in Moscow was subject to a microwave attack. Neuroscientist Allan H. Frey, for whom the Frey effect is named, considered the microwave theory to be viable.
In December 2020, a study by an expert committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, commissioned by the State Department, released its report, concluding that “Overall, directed pulsed RF energy … appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered” but that “each possible cause remains speculative” and that “the report should not be viewed as conclusive”. Chaired by David Relman, the committee included Linda Birnbaum, Ronald Brookmeyer, Caroline Buckee, Joseph Fins, David A. Whelan, and others. The panel stated that a lack of information (such as medical testing data about affected persons) limited what it could conclude about the plausible explanations for the phenomenon.
Some scientists, including physicist Peter Zimmerman, bioengineers Kenneth R. Foster and Andrei G. Pakhomov, and UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh, consider the microwave hypothesis to be implausible, with Baloh calling the National Academies conclusion “science fiction”.
Previously proposed causes
Prior to 2019, some researchers posited other possible causes for the injuries, including ultrasound via intermodulation distortion caused by malfunctioning or improperly placed Cuban surveillance equipment; cricket noises, and exposure to neurotoxic pesticides. Early speculation of an acoustic or sonic cause was later determined to be unfounded.
In March 2018, Kevin Fu and a team of computer scientists at the University of Michigan reported in a study that ultrasound—specifically, intermodulation distortion from multiple inaudible ultrasonic signals—from malfunctioning or improperly placed Cuban surveillance equipment could have been the origin of the reported sounds.
U.S. personnel in Cuba made sound recordings which they released to the Associated Press. In January 2019, biologists Alexander L. Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the University of Lincoln analyzed these recordings and concluded that the sound was caused by the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus) rather than a technological device. Stubbs and Montealegre-Z matched the song’s “pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse” to the recording. Stubbs and Montealegre wrote that “Although the causes of the health problems reported by embassy personnel are beyond the scope of this paper and called for “more rigorous research into the source of these ailments, including the potential psychogenic effects, as well as possible physiological explanations unrelated to sonic attacks.” This conclusion was comparable to a 2017 hypothesis from Cuban scientists that the sound on the same recording is from Jamaican field crickets. Reuters reported that JASON, a group of physicists and scientists who advise the U.S. government, determined that “a rare jungle cricket” was the cause of the sounds in Havana.
Pesticides or infectious agents
A 2019 study commissioned by Global Affairs Canada of 23 exposed Canadian diplomats, completed in May 2019, found “clinical, imaging, and biochemical evidence consistent with the hypothesis” that over-exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors (a class of neurotoxic pesticide) such as pyrethroids and organophosphates (OPs) as a cause of brain injury; the embassies and other places in Cuba had been sprayed frequently as an anti-Zika virus mosquito control measure. The study concluded that other possible causes could not be ruled out.
The 2020 National Academies study found that it was unlikely that “acute high-level exposure to OPs and/or pyrethroids contributed” to the illnesses, due to a lack of evidence of exposures to those pesticides or clinical histories consistent with such exposure.:23 However, the National Academies study committee “could not rule out the possibility, although slight, that exposure to insecticides, particularly OPs, increased susceptibility to the triggering factor(s) that caused the Embassy personnel cases.”:23 The National Academies study committee also found it “highly unlikely” that an infectious disease (such as Zika virus, which was an epidemic in Cuba in 2016–17) caused the illnesses.:23–24
Some critics maintain that the symptoms represent episodes of mass hysteria, which counters the 2018 JAMA report which considered a “wholly psychogenic or psychosomatic cause” to be very unlikely, given the physical evidence of brain trauma. The 2020 National Academies report “considered chemical exposures, infectious diseases and psychological issues as potential causes or aggravating factors of the injuries” but determined that these were not the likely cause of the injuries.
Mass psychogenic illness expert Robert Bartholomew and Robert Baloh, among others, argue against the microwave theory and propose that the syndrome is an example of a mass psychogenic illness. Bartholomew expressed incredulity at State Department medical director Dr. Charles Rosenfarb’s testimony that the department had “all but ruled out ‘mass hysteria” as a cause. In support of his stance, Bartholomew argued that in many of the cases the sounds reported by diplomats have been identified as the sound of insects, that the reported symptoms are common among many patients, and that the NAS report failed to reference evidence that the pattern of spread of the outbreaks is consistent with a psychogenic illness explanation. However, Ragini Verma of the University of Pennsylvania Perlman School of Medicine, who was the co-lead author of the 2019 JAMA study, considered a “wholly psychogenic or psychosomatic cause” to be very unlikely, given the researchers’ findings.
The National Academies committee sought evidence “that psychological and social factors may have caused or contributed to symptoms reported by DOS [Department of State] personnel,” including Bartholomew and Baloh’s suggestion that mass psychogenic illness could be the cause of symptoms.:26, 28 The committee, however, wrote that “the likelihood of mass psychogenic illness as an explanation for patients’ symptoms had to be established from sufficient evidence” and “could not be inferred merely by the absence of other causal mechanisms or the lack of definitive structural injuries.”:26 The committee concluded that, because it lacked patient-level psychological or psychiatric data, it “could not make a determination about the presence or absence of delusional disorder as a cause for the distinct acute symptoms in any affected persons,” but that “delusional disorders could not explain the full range of symptoms reported by the entire group of patients.”:26 Noting that the “significant variability and clinical heterogeneity of the illnesses affecting DOS personnel leave open the possibility of multiple causal factors, over time and place, both for individual cases and for the population,” the committee held that “psychological and social factors,” like other mechanisms examined, could potentially “exacerbate other forms of pathology” and contribute to morbidity “in some of the cases, especially for individuals with chronic symptoms.”:28 The committee also concluded that the “acute initial, sudden-onset, distinct and unusual symptoms and signs described in some affected DOS personnel … cannot be ascribed to psychological and social factors in the absence of patient-level data.”:28
In a March 2021 article published in Science-Based Medicine, bioengineer Kenneth Foster and biophysicist CK Chou criticized the National Academies study; they argued that the symptoms were not caused by microwave weapons, that the committee was “steered by its agenda to focus on microwave weapons as the cause of the symptoms” and “lacked the time and resources to explore other theories,” such as participation by a social psychologist with expertise in mass psychogenic illness.”
In early 2018, accusations similar to those reported by diplomats in Cuba began to be made by U.S. diplomats in China. The first incident reported by an American diplomat in China was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate, the largest U.S. consulate in China. The employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Several individuals were taken to the United States for medical examination. Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017; the employee’s report was discounted by the U.S. State Department.
Answering questions from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 23, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified that U.S. diplomatic staff in Guangzhou had reported symptoms “very similar” to, and “entirely consistent” with, those reported from Cuba. On June 6, 2018, The New York Times reported that at least two additional U.S. diplomats stationed at the Guangzhou consulate had been evacuated from China, and reported that “it remains unclear whether the illnesses are the result of attacks at all. Other theories have included toxins, listening devices that accidentally emitted harmful sounds, or even mass hysteria.” In June 2018, the State Department announced that a task force had been assembled to investigate the reports and expanded their health warning to all of mainland China amid reports some US diplomats outside of Guangzhou had experienced the same symptoms resembling a brain injury. The warning told anyone who experienced “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises” to “not attempt to locate their source.”
Washington, D.C. area
In 2019, a White House official reported experiencing debilitating symptoms while walking her dog in a Virginia suburb of Washington; the incident was publicly reported in 2020. In November 2020, a similar incident was reported on The Ellipse, a lawn adjacent to the south side of the White House. Both incidents were similar to those that were reported to have struck dozens of U.S. personnel overseas, including CIA and State Department personnel. Federal agencies investigated the incident at The Ellipse, and Defense Department officials briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Armed Services Committee in April 2021. Investigators told members of Congress that they had not been able to determine the cause of the events or who was responsible, although officials indicated that it was possible that Russia or China were responsible.
On August 24, 2021, it was reported that two American diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam after incidents of Havana Syndrome were reported. These reported cases of Havana Syndrome also resulted in the delay of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam.
Roughly 130 total possible cases of attacks have been reported, with about 50 affecting CIA personnel, and the rest being primarily U.S. military personnel, State Department personnel, and their family members. Attacks targeting U.S. intelligence personnel were reported, beginning in late 2017, in locations around the world, including in Moscow, Russia; Poland; Tbilisi, Georgia; Taiwan and Australia; other reports came from Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among other countries. A 2021 article by Julia Ioffe, published in GQ magazine, stated that the “most compelling evidence” of Russian involvement derives from mobile phone tracking: “Using this sort of data, CIA investigators were able to deduce the whereabouts of Russian agents, and place them in close physical proximity to the CIA officers at the time they had been attacked when they were in Poland, Georgia, Australia, and Taiwan. In each case, individuals believed to be FSB agents were within range of the CIA officers who had been hit in 2019. In two of the incidents, location data apparently showed FSB agents in the same hotel at the same time their targets experienced the onset of symptoms.”
A 2021 report in the New Yorker cited a number of incidents recounted by Mark Vandroff, who served as the senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council: “One of the most dramatic episodes involved a U.S. military officer stationed in a country with a large Russian presence. As the officer pulled his car into a busy intersection, he suddenly felt as though his head were going to explode. His two-year-old son, in a car seat in the back, started screaming. As the officer sped out of the intersection, the pressure in his head ceased, and his son went quiet. A remarkably similar incident was reported by a C.I.A. officer who was stationed in the same city, and who had no connection to the military officer.” Three White House staffers reported symptoms at the InterContinental London Park Lane in late May 2019. One of the CIA officials who suffered symptoms in Australia and Taiwan was one of the top five-ranking officials in the agency. The Russian embassy in Australia dismissed reports of Russian operatives targeting CIA personnel in Australia.
In July 2021, the State Department confirmed it was investigating upwards of 20 cases of Havana syndrome-like symptoms in officials stationed in Vienna. The Austrian foreign ministry stated it was collaborating with American investigators. Aside from Havana itself, Vienna is the city reporting the most incidents. While no suspects have been named for the Vienna cases, it has been noted that Vienna is currently hosting indirect talks between the United States and Iran on reviving the 2015 Iran deal.
In August 2021, cases of Havana syndrome were reported from US officials working at Berlin embassy.
U.S. government investigation
The U.S. State Department said in February 2021 that its ongoing investigation was “a high priority” for the department. Citing unnamed intelligence and government officials, The New York Times reported in July 2021 that the National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, and Director of National Intelligence established two outside panels, one to investigate potential causes and the other to develop defensive countermeasures for personnel protection; cleared external scientists will be permitted to view relevant classified intelligence in their investigations.
Russian responsibility hypothesis
Many current and former U.S. officials identified Russia as likely responsible for the attacks, a suspicion shared by both Trump and Biden administration officials. This view was shared by CIA analysts on Russia, State Department officials, outside science experts, and several of the victims. Russia has a history of researching, developing, and using weapons that cause brain injuries, such as the Cold War-era “Moscow Signal” targeting the American embassy in Moscow. A 2014 NSA report raised suspicions that Russia used a microwave weapon to target a person’s living quarters, causing nervous system damage; and Russia has an interest in disrupting cooperation among the U.S., China, and Cuba. The U.S. diplomats stationed in China and Cuba who reported ailments were working to increase cooperation with those countries, and some CIA analysts voiced suspicion Russia thus sought to derail their work.
In May 2021, Politico reported that three current and former U.S. officials “with direct knowledge of the discussions” said that the U.S. government suspected that Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU, was behind alleged attacks, although the U.S. Intelligence Community have not “reached a consensus or made a formal determination.” In May 2021, New Yorker reported that the U.S. government’s “working hypothesis” was that GRU agents “have been aiming microwave-radiation devices at U.S. officials to collect intelligence from their computers and cell phones, and that these devices can cause serious harm to the people they target.” The U.S. government has not publicly accused Russia of the attacks; U.S. intelligence officials privately refer to the events as “attacks” but publicly referred to them as “anomalous health incidents.” According to two officials interviewed by Politico, “While investigators have not determined definitively that these incidents are caused by a specific weapon, some believe any such device would be primarily transported by vehicle” and that “Some could be small enough to fit into a large backpack, and an individual can be targeted from 500 to 1,000 yards away.” James Lin of the University of Illinois, an expert on the biological effects of microwave energy, agreed that an Havana syndrome attack could be caused by a small apparatus that could fit in a van or SUV.
Trump administration and lapses in initial investigation
In October 2020, the New York Times reported that U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers, including senior leaders, had clashed with Trump administration appointees, including CIA director Gina Haspel and State Department leaders, over the nature and causes of the suspected attacks. A Times investigation found that the State Department had “produced inconsistent assessments of patients and events, ignored outside medical diagnoses and withheld basic information from Congress.” Despite the general view within the U.S. government that Russia was responsible, two U.S. officials told the Times that Haspel was not convinced of Russia’s responsibility, or even whether an attack occurred.
A 2018 State Department report was declassified, and posted on the George Washington University‘s National Security Archive, after Freedom of Information Act litigation brought by the James Madison Project. The documents indicate that the initial State Department handling of the attacks was botched. Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive noted that the 2018 report concluded that the department’s “initial investigation assessment of what was going on” was marred by chaos, disorganization, and excessive secrecy. In 2021, sources familiar with the various ongoing investigations told CNN that a primary obstacle to progress by the U.S. government in investigating the syndrome was a lack of interagency coordination between the CIA, FBI, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and State Department, which conducted separate and “largely siloed” investigations. The limited coordination among the varying agencies was based in part of “the highly classified nature of some details and the privacy restrictions of health records, and that has hampered progress.”
An U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigation resulted in an April 2020 determination that there was “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” by State Department leadership. Mark Lenzi, who was a State Department diplomatic security officer stationed in Guangzhou, accused the department of a “deliberate, high-level cover-up” and of failing to protect their employees. Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year CIA veteran, who retired in 2019, similarly felt betrayed by CIA leadership, accusing the agency of failing to respond appropriately to a vertigo-inducing attack in Moscow in December 2017 (which Polymeropoulos called “the most terrifying experience of my life” and more frightening than experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan). Polymeropoulos fought with the CIA for years to obtain specialized medical treatment, after the agency cast doubt on the similarities between the symptoms he experienced and those suffered by the diplomats in Havana. Polymeropoulos was ultimately diagnosed at the U.S. government’s Walter Reed Medical Center with traumatic brain injury; attorney Mark Zaid, who represented almost a dozen clients who had become ill from similar attacks, said that Polymeropoulos was the only one of his clients who had received treatment at Walter Reed, with others obtaining treatment only from personal doctors or academic medical centers.
Defense Department and CIA task forces
Near the end of the Trump administration, the Defense Department established a task force to investigate reports of attacks on DoD personnel abroad. The DoD established the task force partly due to frustration over what DoD officials considered to be a sluggish and lackluster response by the CIA and Department of State. Christopher C. Miller, who was acting defense secretary at the time, said in 2021 that, “I knew CIA and Department of State were not taking this shit seriously and we wanted to shame them into it by establishing our task force.” Miller said that he began to consider the reports of mysterious symptoms to be a high priority in December 2020, after he conducted an interview with a person with major combat experience who detailed symptoms.
In December 2020, the CIA established a task force to investigate the attacks. The agency set up the task force after continued reports of debilitating attacks against CIA officers in various places around the world. The CIA expanded its investigation under Director William Joseph Burns, who took office in 2021. In March 2021, the State Department appointed a senior official to oversee the department’s response to the attacks.
The Senate Intelligence Committee leadership (chairman Mark Warner and vice chairman Marco Rubio) said in 2021 that it was working with Burns and the CIA on connection with the investigation, saying “We have already held fact finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of Traumatic Brain Injury, and will do more.” In May 2021, Politico reported that intelligence officials had recently told Congress that they had ‘intensified their investigation … to include all 18 federal intelligence agencies and that the investigation was focused on the potential involvement of GRU, the Russian spy agency.
After the reports of the incident at The Ellipse nearby the White House in Washington, Defense Department investigators briefed members of Congress, even though it occurred within the U.S.; this was because the DoD investigation was more advanced than the FBI or the Intelligence Community investigations.
In response to the Havana Syndrome, ten US Senators proposed a Senate bill that would close a loophole in the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act which would normally not cover damage to organs such as the brain and heart. The Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, authorizes the CIA Director and the Secretary of State to provide financial support for personnel suffering brain injuries. The bipartisan bill unanimously passed the Senate in June 2021.