What is the Havana Syndrome that struck a CIA officer on India trip? Here’s everything to know

Security establishment sources said there were no reports of Havana Syndrome in Delhi. (Reuters)

US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns could lead an “egregious escalation” if it was found an adversarial power was involved in a fellow intelligence officer developing Havana Syndrome while the two were in India earlier this month, the country’s media has reported. This is the first case of the phenomenon being reported on record in India and could have long-term diplomatic implications.

Havana Syndrome
Referring to mental health symptoms experienced by US embassy and intelligence officials, the Havana Syndrome typically involves nausea, headache, vertigo, memory loss, balance issues, and hearing certain sounds without the presence of outside noise.

The syndrome traces back to Cuba. About a year after the US opened its embassy in the island nation in late 2015, some members of the embassy staff and intelligence officials began to experience sudden bursts of pressure in their brain along with persistent insomnia, headaches, and feeling of disorientation.

A 2018 New Yorker report said at least three intelligence officers under diplomatic cover in Cuba reported troubling sensations that left serious injuries between December 30, 2016 and February 9, 2017. Two agency officers sent to Havana as reinforcement also reported similar symptoms.

The New Yorker said studies of the victims’ brains by specialists showed the injuries resembled concussions, similar to those soldiers hit by roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered. However, the specialists did not find any signs of impact.

The US withdrew the officers once their mental health began to be hit, drastically reducing the embassy strength in Havana.

The Havana Syndrome has left a lasting impact on some US intelligence officers’ mental health. At least one officer had to be compulsorily retired due to his inability to coherently discharge duties, while another needed a hearing aid.

Havana Syndrome elsewhere
Since the incidents in Cuba, American foreign and intelligence officers posted in several countries have reported the symptoms.

US diplomats posted in China made similar accusations in 2018. The first incident took place at the Guangzhou consulate in April 2018. The employee reported that he had been experiencing the symptoms since late 2017. A USAID employee posted at the country’s embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, reported a similar incident in September 2017.

Such incidents began to be reported within the US in 2019 and 2020, especially Washington DC. One was even reported on the lawn — The Elipse — adjacent to the White House.

According to reports in the US media, around 130 such attacks have been reported by US officials across the globe, including Russia, Georgia, Poland, Colombia, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Austria.

The New York Times reported last month that Vice-President Kamala Harris’s arrival in Vietnam was delayed by three hours after a US official in Hanoi reported symptoms of the Havana Syndrome.

Havana Syndrome causes
There is no particular answer to what causes the Havana Syndrome. During the initial phases, the suspicion was on Cuban intelligence or a section within the establishment that did not want relations between the two countries to normalise. The US and Cuba had shared a hostile relationship for over five decades. Initial speculation was that syndrome was caused by a “sonic attack”.

However, further studies in the US and the victims’ medical examination suggested that they might have been subjected to high-frequency microwaves that either interfered with or damaged the nervous system. The microwave built a pressure on the brain, generating the feeling of hearing a sound. Exposure to high-powered microwaves can interfere with the body’s balance and also impact the memory, causing permanent brain damage.

The US suspects high-powered microwaves are beamed through a special gadget that American officers have started to call “microwave weapon”.

Theories that an adversarial power is using these weapons to either interfere with US surveillance systems or glean information, with the humans becoming collateral damage, have also been floated.

Both Russia and the US have experimented with microwaves as a counter-intelligence tactic since the Cold War and both attempted to weaponise it. There have also been reports that US embassy officials in Moscow suffered from mental health issues due to the suspected microwave use in the 1970s.

Pentagon adviser and Georgetown University Professor in Neurology and Biochemistry James Giordano told the BBC earlier this month that both Russia and China had been engaged in researching microwaves and could have repurposed industrial tools.

However, after almost five years of collecting data, medical examinations of victims, and experiments, the US is yet to come up with conclusive evidence that suggests the “microwave weapon” is not a myth. No one seems to have any idea about the weapon’s mechanics or its functionality. There are also questions over how the device could target specific individuals while not affecting others within its range.

Some US medical experts have started to debunk the theory. They are calling the syndrome a psychological illness, intensified by the fear of being targeted.

Robert W. Baloh, a Professor of Neurology at UCLA, called the phenomenon “a mass psychogenic condition” in an interview to the BBC. Opposed to the Placebo effect, this condition causes a mass of people to feel sick when struck with anxiety of being targeted.

Indian context
Indian security establishment sources told The Indian Express that they did not know of any such weapon being possessed by an Indian agency. Even if any agency had such a weapon, the government is unlikely to admit to acquiring such counter-espionage technology considering how sensitive intelligence work is.

An intelligence official also told The Indian Express there was no reason for an Indian agency to target the US. Given present-day geopolitics, they are India’s closest friends.

The sources also said it was unlikely that a foreign country used Indian soil to target the US officials. Another intelligence official said assuming that the Chinese or the Russians brought in such equipment without India’s knowledge, it would negatively impact relations between the two countries once it came out. They would not risk that unless they wanted to harm India as well.

Security establishment sources said there were no reports of Havana Syndrome in Delhi. According to a senior intelligence official, they had not come across such a development in the past five years or even earlier. No Indian intelligence official has reported being targeted by such a thing.

A former R&AW officer, who was in active service during the time the Havana Syndrome was first reported, told The Indian Express that there were no reports of Indian officials at any embassy suffering from the condition at that time or afterwards.

Another former R&AW officer said if a foreign power was causing damage, they had no reason to target the US alone. Barring the embassy of Canada in Havana, no official from any other country has reported experiencing the symptoms anywhere in the world.

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