Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (2023)

In February 2017, Michael Hoffer, a surgeon and professor at Miami University, received a phone call. “This is the State Department,” the caller said. “We have a problem.” Hoffer, who specialises in neurosurgery and otolaryngology (the ear, nose and throat), had worked with the US military previously, studying traumatic brain injuries among soldiers deployed in Iraq. But the problem outlined to him on this call was different. Something was happening in Havana — something the government didn’t understand.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba had been restored with great fanfare by President Obama in 2015, thawing the Cold War hostility that dated back to the 1960s. Money flooded in to the country. People invested their life savings into opening Airbnbs or restaurants to capitalise on the hundreds of thousands of American tourists coming to Cuba for the first time. But in November 2016, Donald Trump, who had promised to undo the changes, was elected president.

A few weeks later, on December 30, an employee at the newly reopened US embassy, set a street back from the Havana waterfront, experienced something strange: an intense feeling of pressure in his head, and a sound — a loud buzzing, grating noise. The next day he was dizzy and nauseous. He had trouble thinking.

Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (1)

After the story went public, the phenomenon was given the name Havana syndrome

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The identity of Patient Zero has never been made public, but he was, we now know, an undercover agent for the CIA. He went to the medical centre in the embassy compound to report what had happened. The staff there were mystified. In February two more agents reported the same thing. Over the following weeks three cases turned to four. Then five. Diplomats, not just CIA agents, started to have the same symptoms. Nausea, dizziness, cognitive issues and insomnia. In almost all cases the onset was accompanied by that strange sound.

In the beginning, embassy staff called it “the Thing”. It was only later, after the story went public, that it would be given the name “Havana syndrome”.

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Over the past year I’ve been delving deep into this story for a new podcast, The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome. I’ve spoken to dozens of scientists, doctors and government officials, and to the victims themselves, to try to get to the truth. Was it real? Or was it all in their minds? Were Americans under attack? And, if so, by whom?

“In simple terms, there was no proverbial smoking gun,” says James Giordano, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, and executive director of the US government-funded Institute for Biodefense Research. Giordano was asked by the State Department in February 2017 to help it figure out what was going on. It was clearly going to be a tricky task. “There was no entrance wound per se. There was no exit wound,” he says. “But there seemed to be something happening in between in each and all of these patients.”

Nicky Woolf has been looking into the incident for a new podcast

(Video) Havana syndrome: Secret espionage warfare or mere medical disorder? | DW News

In March 2017 the embassy briefed its staff. But, according to Kevin Coats, a consular officer, the briefing was light on details. “They pulled us all into a classified area and told us that some things had been going on. There had been some events that affected some folks ... and they were getting treated.”

Patients were being flown to Miami, where Hoffer led a team looking into the mystery ailment. On brain scans he found what he described in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as clear evidence of “damage”. It looked like a traumatic brain injury — but the patients had no history of head trauma. One doctor dubbed it “the immaculate concussion”.

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Soon after the briefing, in her office in the embassy building, Coats’s wife, Karen, was hit. Coats says Karen “heard this high-pitched noise that was so intense that she jumped back around the corner. And she’s like, ‘Wow, what the heck?’” The sound behaved oddly. When she left that spot, it disappeared completely; when she stepped back there, it returned at full volume.

That afternoon Karen Coats started seeing black spots. She was sent to Miami, where a doctor found that her retina was bleeding. She was told they’d “only ever seen this when somebody has a trauma to their head, like a car accident”.

What the doctors were seeing in these patients was dramatic. David Relman, a professor of medicine at Stanford, was asked by the government to lead an investigation by the National Academies of Science and Medicine. “Every person on our committee was mesmerised by the individuals who spoke to us,” he says. “It was quite clear that what we were hearing were the features of an illness that none of us had heard about or seen.”

Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (3)

(Video) Victim Of Suspected Health Attacks On US Diplomats Speaks Out | TODAY

Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were restored with great fanfare by Raúl Castro and President Obama in 2015

ANTHONY BEHAR-POOL/GETTY

The number of victims continued to climb. By August 2017, when the story broke in the press, 24 Americans had been diagnosed with brain injury. Canadian diplomats in Cuba had started to be struck too. Similar reports from diplomats and intelligence officials, mostly American, emerged from Guangzhou, China, in 2018; London and Washington in 2019; and Vienna and Hanoi as recently as 2021. By February 2022, according to the CIA, more than a thousand cases had been reported.

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There have been at least seven official US government investigations; more secret ones may exist. Many directly contradicted one another in their findings. The earliest theory, mooted by Rex Tillerson, then Trump’s secretary of state, was an attack with a “sonic device”. This captured the public imagination, but the State Department later distanced itself from the idea. Some suggested the noise might have been caused by a species of cricket, others that the symptoms might be the result of insecticide or some kind of environmental toxin or virus. Those were quickly ruled out by investigators.

From the start, however, one theory seemed a perfect fit: that the whole thing was a mass delusion. Havana syndrome is “a classic outbreak of mass psychogenic illness. Standard. Textbook,” says Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist at Auckland University and one of the world’s leading experts on mass delusions. Suggestibility can cause powerful physical symptoms. The obvious example is the placebo effect, but Bartholomew says history is replete with examples of outbreaks that looked like diseases or even mass poisonings but turned out to be psychogenic.

On closer scrutiny, it was clear there were parts of the story the psychogenic hypothesis could not explain. Yes, the power of suggestion could feasibly be responsible for headaches, nausea and dizziness — but it can’t make you bleed inside your eyes.

Then there’s the level of secrecy that surrounded the cases, especially the first few. “Mass psychogenic illness depends upon a communication network,” says Relman. “That’s how the contagion occurs. Yet when we talked to the very earliest cases in Havana ... their cases were closely held. It seemed unlikely that case No 2 could have caught it from case No 1 when case No 1 hadn’t uttered a word about it.”

Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (4)

By February 2022, according to the CIA, more than a thousand cases had been reported

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(Video) "Havana Syndrome" stumps investigators as U.S. officials report injuries on White House grounds

The more digging I did, the more difficult it became to discount the possibility that this was an attack. Sonic weapons do exist. For example, long-range acoustic devices — essentially very powerful and focused loudspeakers — are widely used for crowd control. But for the events in Havana an acoustic weapon didn’t fit. Victims including Karen Coates reported stepping in and out of the sound’s range as if it were coming from a narrow beam. Sound waves don’t have that kind of pinpoint accuracy.

Other types of directed energy cannot be as easily ruled out. “Really, there’s one thing that was a fit for all the key pillars of argument, and that was pulse radio- frequency radiation,” says Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego. Golomb was the first to offer a theory that could explain both the sound and the symptoms.

She suggested that it could be caused by the Frey effect — a phenomenon discovered in the 1960s, whereby pulsed radio-frequency energy, such as microwaves, produces an experience of sound within the skull. Linda Birnbaum, a microbiologist who was part of the National Academies’ investigation, says she found Golomb’s theory the most persuasive: “We felt it was likely that this was some kind of microwave-type radiation event.”

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If this sounds like science fiction, it isn’t: arms companies already make or have patented devices capable of doing exactly this. “The technological readiness level of scalable microwaves has progressed significantly over the past seven to eight years,” says Giordano.

If it was indeed an attack, then the question is: who might have been behind it? The Trump administration, which had already reintroduced curbs on tourism to Cuba, immediately blamed the Cuban government, expelling its diplomats and reversing Obama’s opening-up of diplomatic relations. The hoped-for economic boom never came. Today, abandoned building sites and half-built hotels dominate the Havana skyline.

Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (5)

There have been at least seven official US government investigations; more secret ones may exist

(Video) What is Havana Syndrome? Secret Sonic Weapon? or Medical Mystery?

Nobody I have spoken to believes the Cubans would, or even could, have had anything to do with it. Why would Cuba jeopardise its newly thawed relationship with the US?

If it was an attack, by far the most likely culprit is Moscow. As long ago as 1953 the Kremlin was firing microwave energy at American diplomats: dubbed the “Moscow signal”, it was designed to remotely activate listening devices hidden in the US embassy. Russia has maintained “ongoing programmes” of directed-energy weapons ever since, Giordano says, though that is also true of China and America, so it’s possible there are not one but several culprits. Nobody has yet caught anyone deploying this kind of device — there still isn’t a smoking gun.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a CIA agent for 26 years, describes suffering symptoms of Havana syndrome in Moscow in 2017. He was later confirmed to have a traumatic brain injury. “It falls right into the [Russian] playbook,” he says. “Sowing dissent or worry or concern within US overseas personnel.”

Havana syndrome: sonic attack or all in the mind? (6)

Brain scans of those suffering with Havana syndrome show unusual activity

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Many of them, like Karen Coats, have been left severely disabled. She says she experiences pain when she is in the same room as an electronic device.

She has trouble speaking and, after extensive rehab, has been told she has reached her recovery limit — she will get no better. She has been given medical retirement benefits by the state.

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“She can’t concentrate on anything for more than about 30 minutes,” says her husband, Kevin. “She can’t remember words. She’s embarrassed all the time, so she never wants to leave the house. It’s heartbreaking.”

The first episode of The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome is released on Apple Podcasts tomorrow

(Video) 'Havana syndrome': the mystery illness affecting US spies that emerged in Cuba - ​BBC News

FAQs

What is the Havana syndrome attack? ›

Havana syndrome. The Hotel Nacional in Havana is one of the locations where the syndrome has reportedly been experienced. Symptoms. Hearing a sudden loud noise, pain in one or both ears, feeling of pressure or vibrations in the head, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo, nausea, cognitive difficulties.

What is Havana syndrome What to know about the mysterious? ›

The symptoms of Havana syndrome—ringing ears, headaches, and fatigue—are fairly common. The exact source of the illness is still unknown. And extensive investigations seeking answers have resulted in confusing and seemingly inconsistent reports.

What is Havana syndrome Why is it named so? ›

Havana Syndrome is believed to have emerged in late 2016, when U.S. diplomats and spies serving in Cuba began reporting bizarre sounds and sensations followed by unexplained illnesses and symptoms, including hearing and vision loss, memory and balance problems, headaches and nausea.

Where is the mysterious Havana syndrome first detected? ›

Havana Syndrome is a set of unexplained medical symptoms first experienced by U.S. State Department personnel stationed in Cuba beginning in late 2016.

What does Havana syndrome sound like? ›

Sufferers described the initial noise as screeching, chirping, clicking, and piercing followed by a sensation of intense pressure or vibration. The side effects are physical - loss of movement, hearing, and concentration - but Is Havana Syndrome also psychological?

Is the Havana syndrome contagious? ›

The illness is not contagious, but exactly what causes it is also known.

How common is Havana virus? ›

Hantavirus infections are rare. Sporadic (single) cases may occur throughout the country, but most, greater than 90%, of the cases have occurred in the west of the Mississippi River.

Was Cuba bombed by the US? ›

Two days earlier, eight CIA-supplied B-26 bombers had attacked Cuban airfields and then returned to the U.S.
...
Bay of Pigs Invasion
CubaUnited States Cuban DRF
Commanders and leaders
12 more rows

What does the sinking of the Maine in Havana reveal about the causes of war? ›

Maine in the Havana, Cuba harbor, killing 266 of the 354 crew members. The sinking of the Maine incited United States' passions against Spain, eventually leading to a naval blockade of Cuba and a declaration of war.

Can Americans travel to Cuba? ›

The Cuban government allows Americans to visit their country. The restrictions on traveler activities (and where they can spend money) are all US government rules. So, regardless of American regulations, your US passport is valid in Cuba.

Do Sonic weapons exist? ›

Sonic and ultrasonic weapons (USW) are weapons of various types that use sound to injure or incapacitate an opponent. Some sonic weapons make a focused beam of sound or of ultrasound; others produce an area field of sound. As of 2021 military and police forces make some limited use of sonic weapons.

Is Havana syndrome caused by insects? ›

The report, obtained by BuzzFeed News via a Freedom of Information Act request, was originally classified as “secret.” It concluded that the sounds accompanying at least eight of the original 21 Havana syndrome incidents were “most likely” caused by insects.

Why did US Cuban relations worsen? ›

Tensions between the two nations reached their peak in 1962, after U.S. reconnaissance aircraft photographed the Soviet construction of intermediate-range missile sites. The discovery led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trade relations also deteriorated in equal measure.

What is a Havana Nights party? ›

You walk into a 1950's Cabana Club with all types of activities like Dominoes and the air smells of delicious Paella, this is Havana Nights. HAVANA NIGHTS Celebrates the music, culture, food, color and vibrancy of CUBA!

How safe is Havana Cuba? ›

Cuba - Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution

Exercise increased caution in Cuba due to crime. Country Summary: Petty crime is a threat for tourists in Cuba. Also, violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide, and sexual assault, sometimes occurs in Cuba.

What are the first signs of hantavirus? ›

Early symptoms include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups—thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal. There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

How long do hantavirus symptoms last? ›

Infection with hantaviruses causing HFRS and NE affect the kidneys and can last from three days to three months for complete recovery. Symptoms may begin suddenly and include: fever. intense headache.

What does hantavirus do? ›

The Hantaviruses are a group of rodent-borne viruses that cause illness in humans. The hantaviruses found in Europe and Asia cause a form of kidney disease called hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS). The hantaviruses in the Americas attack the lungs, causing hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS).

Is the US Army in Cuba? ›

The military facilities at Guantanamo Bay have over 8,500 U.S. sailors and Marines stationed there. It is the only military base the U.S. maintains in a socialist country.

Why did Russia put nukes in Cuba? ›

In response to these factors, Soviet First Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed with the Cuban Prime Minister, Fidel Castro, to place nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba to deter a future invasion.

Why was America fighting with Cuba? ›

The United States had millions of dollars invested in businesses in Cuba and there were many U.S. citizens in residence there. The U.S. also traded goods with Cuba. In 1898, the United States assisted in war to protect its citizens and businesses in Cuba. This war was known as the Spanish-American War.

Who did the U.S. blame for the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana Harbor? ›

Many people in the United States blamed Spain (Today, however, many historians believe a malfunction in the ship caused the explosion). The relationship between Spain and the U.S. became so strained that they could no longer discuss the situation. By the end of April, the Spanish-American War had begun.

Who is to blame for the sinking of the Maine? ›

An official U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry ruled in March that the ship was blown up by a mine, without directly placing the blame on Spain. Much of Congress and a majority of the American public expressed little doubt that Spain was responsible and called for a declaration of war.

How did the U.S. respond to the sinking of the Maine? ›

Although President Grover Cleveland proclaimed U.S. neutrality, sensation-driven newspapers called for war. In 1897, newly elected President William McKinley cautioned patience, but the explosion of the Maine shattered U.S. relations with Spain and led to a declaration of war on April 25, 1898.

Can Americans travel to Havana? ›

If you want to visit Cuba as an American and do it legally, you will need to obtain a Cuban visa in advance. This is also called a “general license” and the Cuban government requires it to travel to Cuba. It can be a bit confusing, but calling it the general license is the way to go.

Is Cuba still closed to Americans? ›

Can Americans still travel to Cuba in 2023? The short answer is yes. However, unlike your neighbors traveling to Cuba from Canada, Americans are subject to certain restrictions. Since “tourism” technically isn't allowed, your trip must fall into an authorized travel category.

Which airlines fly to Cuba? ›

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, jetBlue, United, Republic Airways, Mesa Airlines and Delta all fly non-stop to Cuba.

What caused Havana explosion? ›

Officials say a gas leak caused the explosion. Luis Carlos Guzman, chief of Cuba's firefighting corps, told reporters at the site of the blast that the woman whose body had been recovered, believed to be a waitress at the hotel, was “as of now, the last missing person”.

How many people died in the Havana explosion? ›

Most of the 43 killed in an explosion at a Cuban hotel were hotel workers Emergency workers continued to hunt through the ruins for the missing. Authorities have said they suspect the cause was a leak of gas as a tank truck was servicing the building.

Who is blamed for the explosion of Havana Harbor? ›

The Spanish-American War

On February 15, 1898, the ship exploded, killing 266 naval officers and crew. Though the cause of the explosion could not be immediately determined, lawmakers and the public blamed Spain.

Why did US threaten Cuba? ›

Cuba's alliance with the Soviet Union was the main reason the United States viewed Castro as a security threat–a fear that was arguably vindicated during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Are humans programmed to fear roaches? ›

As it turns out, the root of that fear often traces back to some traumatic experience in life, such as witnessing your mother scream at the sight of a roach. Often, that fear forms early, around the age of four or five.

Can bugs be weaponized? ›

For thousands of years, military strategists have used insects as weapons of war—not only to inflict debilitating pain on enemies, but also to deliver deadly pathogens and destroy agriculture, with the intent of causing widespread misery, sickness and hunger.

Can assassin bugs hurt people? ›

It is said that the bite of this bug is extremely painful, feeling much like a bee sting. The area around the bite may swell and become numb. The assassin bug isn't likely to pass on any diseases, but the kissing bug may. It is best to just avoid them.

Videos

1. Fighting An Invisible Enemy: The Voices Of Havana Syndrome
(NBC News)
2. ‘Sonic Attack’ On US Diplomats In Cuba Sounded Like Shrieking Crickets
(CBS Miami)
3. Gravitas Plus: The unsolved mystery of Havana Syndrome
(WION)
4. CIA says 'Havana Syndrome' not an attack by foreign power | FOX 7 Austin
(FOX 7 Austin)
5. The Havana Syndrome: Return of the Cold War?
(Global Santa Fe)
6. The Mysteries of Havana Syndrome
(The Science & Entertainment Exchange)
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