For a US State Department employee in Guangzhou, China, it started one evening in 2018 with a sound like a glass marble hitting the floor overhead with a loud crack, followed by headaches, insomnia and memory loss. Fifteen other American officials in China reported similarly inexplicable symptoms.
A few months earlier, in a Moscow hotel room, visiting CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos experienced what felt like vertigo. His health steadily deteriorated over the following months and years, with migraines, dizziness and exhaustion, to the point where he was forced to retire.
Two senior US intelligence officers suffered the same abrupt and baffling medical problems on a visit to Australia earlier this year. Others have been struck down in Taiwan, Poland, Georgia and even, on at least three occasions, on American soil.
But the first and most dramatic evidence of this peculiar affliction came in 2016-17, when dozens of American diplomats, spies and government employees in Cuba reported hearing odd sounds, followed by the debilitating cluster of ailments that have since become known as “the Havana Syndrome”: pressure in the skull, fatigue, blurred vision, forgetfulness, anxiety and depression.
A growing body of intelligence officers and health experts believe that this sudden brain-related malady is the result of attacks on American personnel with so-called “directed energy weapons”, probably using microwave radiation to penetrate the walls and windows of buildings from a distance.
The prime suspect is Russia, and many see the rash of suspected attacks as another escalation in the spy war between Moscow and the West. During the Cold War there was an unwritten agreement that spies did not physically harm rival spies. The Salisbury novichok poisoning demonstrated that Moscow is increasingly willing to target its enemies abroad.
Russia has form in the aggressive use of microwave technology. Between 1953 and 1975, the US embassy in Moscow was bombarded with microwave beams from a building 100 yards away. The “Moscow Signal”, a closely guarded secret for decades, was probably used to trigger eavesdropping devices inside the embassy, but some believe the microwaves were intended to affect the health and behaviour of American diplomats and spies. In 2014, the National Security Agency reported that a “hostile country” (believed to be Russia) had used a high-powered weapon to “bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves”.
Moscow has responded to the accusations with a flat denial and a dose of weapons-grade irony: when asked by GQ magazine whether CIA officers had been the targets of Russian attacks, a foreign ministry spokesman said: “I will not try to confirm whether they are the victims of ‘an acoustic attack’, paranoia or Russophobia. That’s a question for the doctors.”
Medical tests on sufferers of the Havana Syndrome suggest it is highly unlikely to be psychological or psychosomatic in origin. CIA officer Polymeropoulos was an ambitious veteran of some of the toughest Middle Eastern assignments, a hitherto healthy man forced to retire at 50 with blinding headaches. Medical investigators say the range of symptoms tallies with brain injury, but with none of the associated physical trauma: patients and doctors call it the “immaculate concussion”.
The Trump administration blamed Cuba for what it called “targeted attacks” on its diplomatic staff in Havana, withdrew most personnel and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington. There was no evidence of Cuban involvement, and the Cuban authorities worked closely with the FBI to try to find the cause.
America’s response to incidents of the Havana Syndrome in other parts of the world has been very different, for reasons of politics, both international and domestic. At a time when the US was seeking a trade deal with Beijing, the State Department opened no investigation into the suspicious events in China, describing these merely as “health incidents”. Russia has every interest in disrupting Washington’s relations with Cuba and China. While offering bland denials, the Kremlin is perfectly content for its enemies to fear retribution, whether through poison or microwave, anywhere in the world, at any time.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, does not want to hear that US personnel may be under attack from Russian microwave radiation.
In August, the National Academies of Sciences completed a study on the potential causes of the Havana Syndrome but the State Department has not made this public or released it to Congress, a decision described by its lead author in The New York Times as “immensely frustrating”.
The CIA conducted its own inquiry into the most recent incidents. By tracking mobile phone data, investigators found that known Russian agents had been in the physical vicinity of CIA officers experiencing the syndrome in Poland, Georgia and Australia. In two cases, according to GQ, officers of the FSB, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, were staying in the same hotel as those affected.
Evidence of Russian involvement was presented to Gina Haspel, the CIA director, last December but has not been passed on to the president. One reason may be that Haspel simply does not find the case against Russia compelling. But another, more likely explanation is that in the run-up to an election in which Russia has loomed so large, Donald Trump does not want to hear another word about Moscow’s skulduggery, and the CIA knows it.
The Havana Syndrome is not going away. If Joe Biden becomes the next president, one of the fattest files in a bulging in-tray will contain the story of a continuing medical mystery, a ticking diplomatic bomb and the sick notes of a large number of ailing American spies.
Ben Macintyre is an associate editor, columnist and writer at large for The Times. He was the newspaper’s bureau chief in New York, Paris and Washington, before returning to the UK in 2001. He has written a weekly column since 1996. He is also the author of 12 books of non-fiction, including Agent Zigzag and The Spy and the Traitor.