- Nov 4, 2020
The most probable cause of a series of mysterious afflictions that sickened American spies and diplomats abroad in the past several years was radiofrequency energy, a type of radiation that includes microwaves, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has concluded in a report.
The conclusion by a committee of 19 experts in medicine and other fields cited “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” as “the most plausible mechanism” to explain the illness, which came to be known as Havana syndrome, though they said that they could not rule out other possible causes and that secondary factors may have contributed to symptoms, according to a copy of the report obtained by The New York Times.
The report, which was commissioned by the State Department, provides the most definitive explanation yet of the illness that struck scores of government employees, first at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016, and then in China and other countries. Many of the officers suffered from dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and loss of hearing, memory and balance, and some were forced into permanent retirement.
C.I.A. officers visiting overseas stations also experienced similar symptoms, The Times and GQ magazine reported in October. The officers were traveling to discuss countering Russia covert operations with foreign intelligence agencies, a fact that adds to suspicions that Moscow is behind the episodes.
Though couched in careful, scientific language, the new report reveals strong evidence that the incidents were the result of a malicious attack. It attributes the illnesses to “directed” and “pulsed” — rather than “continuous” — energy, implying that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not the result of more common sources of microwave energy, such as, for example, a cellphone.
It also said the committee found the immediate symptoms that patients reported — including strange sensations of pain, pressure and sound that often appeared to emanate from a particular direction, or occurred in a specific spot in a room — were more consistent with a directed “attack” of radiofrequency energy.
The committee considered other causes, like chemical exposures and infectious diseases, but said they appeared unlikely.
The report said that the variability of the incidents, which appeared to affect people in different ways, left open the possible influence of “psychological and social factors.” And it said that some of the victims may be experiencing a condition called “persistent postural-perceptual dizziness,” a nervous system disorder that produces a prolonged feeling of vertigo or unsteadiness.
The episodes have been the subject of much speculation and controversy. Many of the victims, as well as some government officials and outside scientists, have long argued that radiofrequency energy was the most likely cause, potentially the result of a weapon wielded by a foreign power.
But since 2018, the U.S. government has declined to speculate publicly on the cases, and some scientists have promoted alternate theories, like a kind of psychological illness that spread in the stressful environment of foreign missions.
Amid the controversy and confusion, some of the afflicted officers have complained that the United States has failed to support them. In several cases, the government initially refused to grant leave and provide the necessary medical care, the officers said. And with the government silent on the possibility of a foreign attack, many of the victims were left feeling that the public believed they had made it all up.
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Several of the victims have accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump administration officials of downplaying the issue in an attempt to avoid disrupting international ties. They now ask how President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his nominee for secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, will respond, especially given the new scientific findings.