What Are the Mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' Attacks in D.C.?

By: Joanna Thompson  | 

mysterious microwave attacks
Since 2016, U.S. government employees have complained of bizarre neurological symptoms, like headaches, ringing in the ears, vertigo and even memory loss. The government has now admitted these symptoms were likely caused by directed pulses of high-power microwaves fired at the individuals by some unknown agent. Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Getty Images/Wavebreak Media

In a suburb of Washington, D.C., a woman was walking her dog. Suddenly, an intense ringing filled her ears. Her head began to ache, her face to tingle, and reportedly, her dog suffered convulsions. At the time — November 2019 — the woman, according to reporting by GQ, was on staff at the White House.

A year later, in November 2020, another U.S. official had the same symptoms while crossing a park just outside the White House building. For the Department of State, the two cases must have felt like deja vu. Each marked a suspected instance of "Havana Syndrome," a bizarre illness that had plagued overseas U.S. government employees for half a decade. Only this time, it was happening on U.S. soil.

Recently, experts have concluded that this strange condition is likely caused by directed pulses of high-power microwaves fired at a target by some unknown agent. It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but "Havana Syndrome" is terrifyingly real.

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What Happened in Havana?

In late 2016, around two dozen U.S. government employees stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba were all struck with a variable and mysterious set of symptoms. Many reported an odd ringing in the ears; some experienced sudden headaches coupled with disorientation. In severe cases, the symptoms escalated, blossoming into memory problems and bouts of extreme vertigo.

Even more worrying was the pattern that emerged as the employees came forward. "These were not random individuals," says James Giordano, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University and senior fellow in biosecurity at the Naval War College. "These were individuals with specific job descriptions and particular career history."

Later, when the government personnel who were potentially exposed had their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), experts found that they had significantly less white matter than expected — a clinical sign usually associated with head trauma. None of their skulls, however, showed any sign of injury. It was as if they had somehow been given a contactless concussion.

And their issues didn't go away. Four-and-a-half-years later, a number of the afflicted personnel still report neurological side effects, like periods of disorientation and difficulty recalling words. "Upon subsequent reevaluation, in many cases," Giordano says, "their symptoms had gotten worse."

The Havana incident quickly became a medical mystery: What could have caused these symptoms to crop up, seemingly out of nowhere, in otherwise healthy individuals?

In 2020, the precisely named Standing Committee to Advise DOS on Unexplained Health Effects on U.S. Government Employees and their Families at Overseas Embassies released a report assessing evidence from this case, as well as a similar one at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. It concluded 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."

Those radio frequency pulses are known by another name — microwaves. But instead of popping popcorn, they're being put to a much more destructive use.

mysterious attacks
U.S. Marines stand outside the Embassy of the United States of America in Havana, in February 2018. Two years earlier, around two dozen U.S. government employees stationed there were struck with a mysterious set of symptoms, now known as 'Havana Syndrome.'
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images

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Micro Waves, Big Impacts

High power microwave pulses have all sorts of technological applications, from returning energy collected by orbiting solar panels to jamming enemy communication in combat zones. Aimed at a human body, the effects are not pleasant.

In enclosed, fluid-filled spaces — the inner ear, for example — microwave pulses can create an effect known as "cavitation," in which the fluid essentially bubbles. And since the blood vessels connected to the inner ear run directly to the brain, these bubbles can make their way into the brain itself. There, they can cause problems similar to the decompression sickness (the bends) divers sometimes experience after surfacing too quickly.

Another issue is vibration. Microwaves cause molecules to vibrate rapidly ( this is how a microwave oven heats up your food). Inside the body's cells and tissues, this agitation can trigger a runaway inflammatory response resulting in all kinds of structural damage, including neuropathy.

But wouldn't microwave activity leave burn marks? Not necessarily, according to some experts.

In a livestream with the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, Edl Schamiloglu, a plasma physicist and engineer at the University of New Mexico, pointed out that short microwave pulses wouldn't singe their target. "There's hardly any energy content in them," he said, and so "you're not going to have any burns." However, repeated exposure to such pulses could culminate in severe neurologic symptoms.

So it seems possible, even probable, that the so-called "Havana Syndrome" is caused by high power microwaves. But if that's the case, what kind of technology could deliver those pulses? And, more importantly, who is responsible for wielding it?

white house
The exterior of the White House is seen wrapped with security fencing March 7, 2021. But can President Joe Biden and other White House staff be protected from a microwave attack from an unknown source?
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

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From Russia, With Love?

It's hard to say for sure. As Schamiloglu pointed out in his CIR livestream, the gear necessary to create direct high power microwaves isn't something you can pick up at your local hardware store. "This technology is not something that a tinkerer can put together in their garage," he said, "This is a nation state developed technology."

The groundwork for such a device has been in development in Russia since the early 2000s, and similar technology was recently unveiled in China. But these systems are roughly the size of a lounge chair — not exactly portable or discrete. The real breakthrough for a high-power microwave weapon would be in scaling it down. Assuming that is the type of device at play here, it represents a real technological leap forward.

There are ways to protect against microwave attacks, but most of them involve wrapping a room (or an individual) in a continuous sheet of metal, which is not a terribly practical solution. However, new defensive technologies may be in development.

Giordano is not at liberty to get into specifics, but notes that he is "very encouraged" by the Biden Administration's response to the D.C. cases. Though none of the most recent attacks are in his professional portfolio, he believes that they utilized the same mechanism as the Havana incidents, a tie that should be closely examined in order to protect U.S. officials. "The new administration certainly takes this seriously," he says, "As they should."

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