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From the file

Havana Syndrome | American diplomats are getting sick. In embassies across the world, a mysterious illness is hampering a superpower from doing business

Havana Syndrome
Slow Newscast

Havana Syndrome

Havana Syndrome

The mystery of the immaculate concussion

Illustration: Steven Gregor for Tortoise


Transcript

“It reads like a Cold War spy novel…”

“A group of US diplomats have been left with severe hearing loss…”

“So an ultrasonic weapon is not science fiction…”

Basia Cummings, narrating: It’s the 9th August 2017.

And news breaks that American diplomats in Havana, Cuba, have been falling ill.

Heather Nauert, State Department spokeswoman: It’s a cause of great concern to us, it’s caused a variety of physical symptoms in these citizens who worked for the American government…

Basia, narrating: For months, a cluster of US state department employees had been reporting mysterious symptoms.  

Dizziness, earache, tinnitus, headaches, nausea. And by the time it becomes public, they’ve been assessed by medical experts, and tested rigorously. 

But the illness remains a mystery. 

A day after the first news report, a second report, by NBC, goes further. 

A “mystery attack”, the headline reads. 

NBC: It seems like a horrible mistake on the part of Cuban intelligence. 

It’s either going to be the Cubans or the Russians…

Basia, narrating: A good mystery is not static. It shape-shifts, and so each time you think you catch up with it, the story slips through your fingers. 

And so it was with this mystery illness. It just kept moving. 

To China, to Austria, to Germany. To the gates of the White House itself. 

Canadian diplomats soon reported symptoms too. 

Clip Global News: Information tonight about how government officials dealt with a mysterious illness that affected 23 Canadian diplomats in Cuba’s capital. 

Victim: We were so scared, we didn’t know what they could possibly be looking at? 

Basia, narrating: The cases keep coming. 

No one, it seems, is safe. 

It spread to the heart of America’s government. US Vice President Kamala Harris delayed a trip to Vietnam after two officials there reported mysterious symptoms. 

A staffer on the team of the CIA director, Bill Burns, fell sick.

Today News: A CIA official who travelled to India this month is the latest to report symptoms of Havana syndrome. That official was travelling with CIA Director William Burns at the time.

Basia, narrating: Many of the victims complained that a sound – a sound that could be piercing, or throbbing, or grinding – was triggering it all.

Montage of victims: I don’t know when the sound started. I do know that it was for months on end… I had this incredible ringing in my ears and I knew something was really wrong with me… I could feel this sound in my head. A low humming sound, and it was oscillating. 

Basia, narrating: The illness became known as the ‘Havana Syndrome’ – and it is now thought to be significantly impacting America’s ability to operate overseas. 

And so it’s a story – of espionage, conspiracy, and trickery – a story worthy of the world’s greatest mystery writer, Agatha Christie, who once wrote for Poirot: “The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”

I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast, and in this episode: the mystery of the immaculate concussion, and whether the impossible might just be possible. 

***

US Secretary of State John Kerry: Thank you for joining us at this truly historic moment as we prepare to raise the flag … symbolising the restoration of diplomatic relations after 54 years…

Basia, narrating: On the 14th of August 2015, America reopened its embassy in Havana for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis. 

It was a building by Harrison & Abramovitz, the architects who designed the UN headquarters in New York, and it seemed, briefly, as if 54 years of suspicion, and hostility, and trade embargoes, might finally be over. 

But even as diplomatic relations resumed, there were tensions. 

Embassy staff were reportedly under constant surveillance by Cuban intelligence. One intelligence worker faced intrusions in his home; his belongings were being tampered with.  

It was annoying, but it was to be expected. 

But then those same staffers began to fall sick. The most ill patients were evacuated from Havana, and sent for tests.

Many of them, it later turned out, were CIA intelligence officers there undercover as diplomats. 

And they were examined by two teams of doctors. One led by a blast-injury specialist, a man called Dr Michael Hoffer, and the other, by a concussion expert, Douglas H Smith. 

And both doctors came to similar conclusions. That this was new, something they hadn’t seen before. 

A brain trauma… without any trauma. A concussion… without a blow to the head. 

It was referred to as a “complex brain network disorder”. The Pentagon, struggling to find answers, put together a team of specialists to investigate the cause of the illnesses. 

Now there’s very few people who have been fully briefed on Havana Syndrome, but that’s where Dr James Giordano comes in. 

He’s one of them.

Dr James Giordano: I’m Dr. James Giordano, Professor at Georgetown University Medical Center. I serve as Executive Director for the Institute of Biodefense Research think tank in the Washington DC area, dedicated to exploring those ways that bio-sciences and technology are being currently and perhaps in the near future utilized in those national security, intelligence and defense agendas. 

Basia, narrating: James is, as you’ll hear, ferociously clever and unfailingly polite. 

He’s one of the very few people who have ever called me ma’am, and as he spoke, I felt like the guy from the meme – with the investigation pinned on the wall and the crazy eyes – I was desperately trying to keep up with what he was telling me and to try and make sense of it. 

Dr James Giordano: Well, I got into the field called neurosciences about 40 years ago, back in the late 1970s, as you may know, this field, this particular field of neurosciences, became a thing. Uo to that point there had been a number of different approaches to studying the brain. Anatomical, pharmacological, physiological, behavioral but they were really concatenated under this single heading of the neurosciences in the late 1970s. 

Basia, narrating: James was in the military for many years. And there, with his neuroscience background, it was his job to look at how biology, chemistry and physics could be used to improve the performance of personnel. 

But it was also his job to research the evolution of weaponry. 

Dr James Giordano: After I finished my active duty time, like middle 1990s, I continued my research and ongoing work and did a number of projects on a consulting scale and contractual scale with a number of different branches of the department of defense, homeland security here in the United States, as well as internationally with NATO, with the European Union’s human brain project, that examined those ways that the brain sciences can be uptaken into various agenda of national security, military purposes, warfare, and intelligence, and what that might then mean or infer for the way we approach the brain sciences, govern the brain sciences, regulate the brain sciences and also what things need to be done in terms of readiness and preparedness.

Basia, narrating: He became an expert in a field that most of us can’t really fathom, neuro-security – at the cutting edge of how we understand the brain, and the ways in which it can be enhanced and attacked. 

Dr James Giordano: So it’s applying security methods to the ways that the brain sciences could be used in various forms of weaponisation, intelligence and national security initiatives, activities, and operations. 

There is the flip side of that same coin. In other words, understanding the way brains work in individuals and in groups. So as to harness the capability of the brain in some way, either through various training techniques, through the use of brain machine interfacing to be able to increase the capability of security and intelligence, operational optimisation capabilities etc.  

Basia, narrating: He’d been called on by the Pentagon to investigate issues where neuro-security had been compromised.

Dr James Giordano: There had been at least three prior examples where there may have been some suspect incidences and situations that warranted analysis of whether or not a potential neuro-weapon had been utilised. 

Basia: And are you able to say whether they had been used previously? 

Dr James Giordano: Well, I think at least two of them, we know one of them is Novichok and the other was of the toxin sarin.

The other issue suggested that there may have been some form of biological agents, but it was not necessarily a neuroactive agents. 

Basia, narrating: You can see why Dr Giordano is exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team if intelligence officers and diplomats were suddenly falling sick. 

In 2017, James was at a symposium, when he was contacted by a colleague at the Department of State. 

And I asked him if he could remember where he was when he first heard the news about Havana syndrome, and his answer was a rather delightful reminder that in the world of neurosecurity, this was, as yet, pretty small fry.

Dr James Giordano: Well, it isn’t, it isn’t exactly like the Kennedy assassination.

But I can remember relatively, I was contacted at a symposium we were having at the national academies by a colleague from the United States Department of State who said that they have a set of cases that they felt were of interest – and value – in that they believed that they may be representative of some form of engagement.

Basia, narrating: By “some form of engagement” – he means an attack. 

Dr James Giordano: And what I was asked to do is to engage a process known as “abductive forensics”. In other words, look, we don’t have a smoking gun, so to speak, there’s no, quote, “entrance wound” or an “exit wound”, but we have a number of individuals who’ve reported subjective symptoms that fit into a relatively defined pattern.

And those individuals were independently and objectively, clinically assessed, and they have objective clinical definitive pattern of signs. And the question then is, what do you think could do this based upon my prior experience, my expertise to date? As well as ongoing information being provided about the current technological readiness worldwide of certain forms of neuroscience and technology and if, and how, they might be utilised in certain ways.

Basia, narrating: It’s hard to know when, exactly, the idea that this might be an attack took hold. 

Was it after the medical tests failed to return a definite diagnosis? Was it before? 

But it feels… natural, doesn’t it? The laws of mystery demand an assailant, lurking in the shadows. 

And very quickly – the story of Havana Syndrome had one, in the form of a sound. 

[Clip: the sound associated with Havana Syndrome]

Basia, narrating: A sound that followed the victims, that was apparently directed at them. 

A sound that caused injury and misery.

After the first cases were reported in February 2017, the chief of the Havana mission, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, went to the Presidential Palace for a meeting with Raul Castro himself.  

And the Cuban president assured him: it’s not us. But, he told them: let us help you solve it. 

By then, multiple theories were already circulating.

Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa: The newspapers were speculating that this was some sort of rebel faction of the Cuban security forces that were interested in sabotaging the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. And immediately I heard this and I said, this is nonsense.

Basia, narrating: This is Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa, the Director of the Cuban Centre for Neuroscience.

Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa: Everybody in Cuba was rooting for the re-establishment of closer relations between the US and Cuba. And that’s absurd – the idea that people in the security apparatus of the Cuban state would be sabotaging that was impossible.

Anybody knowing the internal politics and internal situation in Cuba knows this is nonsense. 

Basia, narrating: A team of Cuban investigators were called on to investigate the sound.

Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa: We immediately started asking for collaboration when the incident started, the US government sent a doctor – Professor Hoffer from Miami – to visit Cuba to look at some of the cases and he talked a little with some Cuban doctors, the first Cuban doctors that were mobilised to study this and, a short summary, one page summary, was placed in Cuban hands. But the collaboration then disappeared.

Basia, narrating: The Americans were going it alone.

Their doctors – Dr Hoffer and Dr Smith – had already examined the patients. 

And they’d landed on that vague diagnosis – complex brain network disorder. 

Dr Hoffer’s study found evidence of an inner ear balance disorder. Of unsteadiness and cognitive impairment. 

While Dr Smith had concluded that the patients were suffering from persistent symptoms seen in concussion or mild trauma injuries.

This wasn’t a neurotoxin, they said, like sarin or Novichok. Substances which would leave a trace – in the blood, or on a doorknob, or soaked in a towel. 

And so, James Giordano and others began to consider the possibility that this was a device. Some kind of new weaponry. 

Dr James Giordano: Well you know I went into it agnostically as, as one should, approaching it scientifically. It’s not a question of saying, well, I think this is what we have but rather, there’s sort of a null hypothesis. In other words, could this be due to chance? And the way you engage that: abductive forensic processes, look at all of the available information, data. And I mean all of it, or as much as you can have at your disposal and access. 

Basia, narrating: He used a process called ‘abductive forensics’. 

I won’t get into the differences between inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning but basically – it’s a process that seeks the simplest and most likely conclusion based on the observations available, but it doesn’t say – guys, this is definitely it. It leaves room for doubt – instead saying things like, this is the “best available” or “most likely” conclusion.

And that’s what James Giordano did. 

Dr James Giordano: Based upon that level of investigation, the analysis brings together a set of possibilities. And then from those possibilities, utilising the data available creates probabilities, and from those probabilities presents probabilities with the highest likelihood, given the concurrence of the information available from which those conclusions can be drawn.

So the general schema of investigation analytics went along the lines of: could this have been perhaps a drug or chemical? Yeah. Possibility for that is, of course, present. What types of chemicals? Well, there are a number of pesticides that could do these types of effects or a number of industrial solvency cleaners that could do this.

Could this have been an accidental exposure? Could this have been an artifactual exposure? In other words, where pesticides or some form of industrial commercial chemical were being used and these individuals were inadvertently exposed and as a consequence… is this find possible? Absolutely possible to mitigate that possibility because of a number of different factors.

Number one, there would be a broader distribution of individuals who were affected and maybe a bit more generalised. Number two, there would have been artifacts and attributes that would have been recoverable from the tissue and fluid samples taken from the individuals at that time. And there would have been some custodial or providential record of these types of chemicals being used. Ruled out the idea of the pesticide or an industrial chemical or cleaning agent…

Basia, narrating: For the next eight minutes, a glorious and mind-expanding eight minutes, James ran me through all the possibilities he had considered on the drugs theory. 

But what, in the end, ruled that option out – was that there was no evidence to point to it afterwards.

Dr James Giordano: …there would have been some level of evidence of this process, particularly after the fact. In other words, when you did a little bit more deep of a dig, you’d be able to find ah, this is what happened. Case in point here, Novichok. So if you think of Novichok at the time, yeah, this was relatively clandestine and the way it was administered.

But after the fact you have various attributes and so you’re able to get, if you will, a delivery trail that was not present in Havana cases. 

Basia, narrating: Once he had ruled out a series of biological agents, he turned to the idea that seemed to have taken hold in the media. A sonic device? 

Dr James Giordano: So the next situation was well, could it have been some form of a device? What type of device? Well, could it have been some form of a sonic device, for example, that could be utilised to repel vermin. They’re available in a variety of different sizes to repel everything from small mammals, all the way up to very large mammals.

Basia, narrating: These are moments when this mystery tips into the absurd. 

Could a sonic device, an amped up version of the thing my grandmother recently bought for her kitchen to repel mice (the thing that we joked was a mouse wifi), could that be behind the symptoms? 

No, James ruled that out. 

But he didn’t rule out “sonic or directed energy”.

Dr James Giordano: For a number of reasons. Not least of which is that the technological readiness level of sonic devices that can be used for individual deterrence and/or crowd control was patent… was at a point where it was certainly operationalisable. Recognise that these things have been researched internationally in a number of countries for a number of years – and the signs and symptoms, the clinical signs and the reported symptoms were highly suggestive of the type of an effect that you would see if an individual was subjected particularly repeatedly to some form of directed energy or sonic wave that’d be possible or probable the answer at that point was yes, very much so. 

Now, then the question is, well, what could do this? Two things could do this; first might be some form of a sonic surveillance device, and second might be some form of a sonic disruptive device, and those two things were not thought at that time to be mutually exclusive. The capability of utilising some form of sonic surveillance device that may have had an artifact that was disruptive, certainly a possibility if not probability. And/or the intentional disruption of these individuals’ physiology and therefore downstream their cognitive and motor capabilities was also a possibility or probability. 

Basia, narrating: Of course, the question of what could cause the sound that could cause the injuries was also a question of who? Who could do this? Who had the capability?

The evidence that this was directed seemed to gather pace throughout 2017 as stranger cases emerged. 

One, detailed in the New Yorker, was of a senior C.I.A. officer who had flown to Cuba, in secret, to meet with colleagues there. In her room at the Hotel Nacional, in August of 2017, she awoke to a low humming noise and a feeling of intense pressure in her head. She asked a colleague who came to her room if he heard anything, but he hadn’t. 

It was the final straw – persuading Mike Pompeo, then the C.I.A. director, to shut down the C.I.A. station in Havana, and Rex Tillerson, then the Secretary of State, pulled U.S. diplomats.

Then, in October, another diplomat, this time in China fell sick. A woman, who had no idea of what was happening in Cuba. 

Catherine: I woke up in the middle of the night and I could feel the sound in my head. It was an intense pressure on both of my temples. At the same time I heard this low humming sound and it was oscillating and I remember looking around for where this sound was coming from because it was painful. 

Interviewer: When did you first notice that you weren’t feeling well?

Catherine: October of 2017 I started to get hives all over my body, really bad hives. I woke up with headaches every day. I started to feel tired. The simplest things would make me very very tired. 

Interviewer: Were these symptoms growing worse over time?

Catherine: They were, yes. My symptoms were getting so bad that I’d throw up. 

Basia, narrating: A few months later, in the early hours of a December morning, a man called Marc Polymeropoulos, a senior CIA official working in Moscow, complained of nausea, dizziness, and a loud ringing in his ears. Leaving, he later described, “silent wounds”. 

Marc Polymeropoulo: I was falling over in my room. I thought I was going to vomit, I was incredibly nauseous. I had this incredible ringing in my ears, and I knew something was really wrong with me… When I think about all the times in war zones where I’ve been shot at, or rocketed, this was by far, though, the scariest night of my life. 

***

Basia, narrating: By June 2018 there had been around 26 documented cases of Americans affected.

Dr James Giordano had briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on his analysis. 

But as the story travelled, the idea of a sonic or acoustic weapon began to be discredited. 

Ridiculed, even. 

Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa: And immediately I heard this and I said, this is nonsense. At first because there’s no such thing as sonic weapons that can produce this kind of effect.

I mean they are sonic weapons but they’re very big machines put on trucks and large vehicles and they’re used to this first, multitudes, and there’s nothing that can produce this kind of selective damage in specific people under the conditions that were reported for the diplomats. So that was nonsense, obviously.

Now I can’t speak about other countries, but I really find it in the realm of science fiction novels.

Basia, narrating: Who am I to comment on the likelihood of a device like that working? I’m neither a neuroscientist, nor a weapons expert. But what I could do, was ask somebody who does know. 

I called a senior counter-terror and security expert here in the UK. They knew about Havana Syndrome, but more importantly: they knew about what kind of threats the UK and the US had faced. 

And so I asked, is it possible? 

And they said, rather ominously – look at Russia. They’ve got a long history of bending the laws of physics to acquire information. 

There have been times when western experts have just not been able to understand the maths of what the Russians have been able to do. 

But crucially, they said: this is not outside the realm of possibility. 

And so we arrive back in the impossible possible – in the same room, it seems, as the men who stare at goats. 

According to James and my security source, an attack had been rendered possible.

But in a different community of experts, a new theory was growing. 

A diagnosis that, in itself, is as fascinating and revealing about geopolitics as an impossible weapon.

One rooted in the story of the mystery itself. 

Suzanne O’Sullivan: Hi, just a second. I will.. you know, I’m working from home and I am extremely unkempt. You’re not going, you’re not recording any, you’re just recording voice? Thank you.

Basia, narrating: This is Suzanne O’Sullivan…

Suzanne O’Sullivan: So I’m Doctor Suzanne of Sullivan. I’m a consultant neurologist at the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery in London. I specialise in the care of people with seizures.

Basia, narrating: Suzanne, like everyone in this podcast – everyone except me – specialises in the human brain. 

And so, of course, she became interested in the events in Havana.

Suzanne O’Sullivan: I am drawn to media reports of mystery illnesses, to be honest, because I know that the words, “mystery illness” are very often a euphemism for anything to do with psychology because people really struggle to still talk openly about psychological disorders.

So I think I probably read about Havana Syndrome sometime around 2018, and which is about a year and a half after it started. 

Basia, narrating: She was immediately sceptical of the idea that this was a sonic attack.

Suzanne O’Sullivan: This then spread around the world so that now there were actually hundreds of people, all of whom are diplomats, some Canadian, some US who associate the hearing of a loud sound with a constellation of typical symptoms and believe they have been attacked by a sonic weapon.

Now, there is, you know, a huge problem is that sound doesn’t damage the brain. This subterfuge exists. I’m quite sure that I don’t know everything the Russian government and the Cuban government get up to, or what sort of risks diplomats face but I do know this: which is that sound does not damage the brain.

So this kind of concept of there being an energy weapon directed at individuals, not detected by anyone else causing brain damage, for many biological reasons, is impossible.

Basia, narrating: It’s compelling because it’s quite a nice kind of folk illness story. The concept that, because sound goes through your ear, it must have some special way of getting into your brain and damaging it. But that’s not actually biologically possible, she said, but she could see how the imagery of that is very compelling.

For Suzanne, the diagnosis seems clear. In a new book that she’s written, called The Sleeping Beauties, she lays out her thesis.  

And I have to say that I could barely put it down when I read it. The cause, she says, is not a weapon but the brain itself. An example of a mass psychogenic illness, or, to use an outdated term – mass hysteria. 

Where psychosomatic symptoms travel, like a virus. A virus that feeds from a story. 

Suzanne O’Sullivan: Then the diplomats in the embassy were really put under an enormous amount of strain because they were called to repeated meetings where they were told if they heard any strange noises, hide behind a wall. If they felt sick at all, they should immediately go to their doctor.

They were later, then, even told that even if they didn’t feel sick, they should go to a doctor and get checked that they haven’t been attacked by a sonic weapon. So if you’ve got the most senior people in the country, telling you you’re under attack and you should be frightened and telling you to examine your bodies for symptoms then I think what happened is not terribly surprising is that these symptoms spread very easily from person to person. And they continued to spread despite the enormous weight of evidence against a sonic weapon. 

Basia, narrating: Havana Syndrome, she says, is a sociopolitical phenomenon. 

And remember the time that we’re talking about. When Barack Obama announced that the embassy would be reopening, in 2015, it was met by considerable fear-mongering by several senior Republicans. The Cuban-American Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio, called it a “concession to tyranny”. 

By the time that he took office, in early 2017, President Donald Trump was threatening to cancel the whole thing. 

And US intelligence had, at the very beginning of 2017, released conclusions that the Russian government had successfully meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

The embassy, Suzanne says, had barely had time to dust off the cobwebs before hostility and suspicions reigned again, and it was just a couple of months later that the first mystery symptoms were reported. 

Basia: So really it’s, what you’re describing… is kind of a narrative sickness, a sickness that comes from a story.

Suzanne O’Sullivan: I mean, it’s a hundred percent, I just considered these things to be embodied narratives. So you tell yourself a story about your body and then you look for evidence to support that story. And that’s not just a feature of mass psychogenic illness or significant psychosomatic illness, that’s a feature of our everyday lives.

You know, if you get a vaccination and you believe that a vaccination will be painful in a certain way or cause you to feel sick in a certain way, you may very well experience those symptoms. Fortunately those kinds of everyday things don’t usually lead to any sort of disability but yes, it’s the opposite of the placebo effect. You know, the belief that something will do you harm, can cause you to experience symptoms consistent with that belief.

And I absolutely think that, you know, the solutions to these things may very much lie more with anthropologists and sociologists than they do with medical doctors. In fact, medical doctors seem to do nothing but make things worse in both of those cases because the medical doctors in the States completely and utterly rejected the psychosomatic hypothesis and presented the sonic weapon theory as a definite fact, and certainly made things worse in my opinion.

Basia, narrating: Suzanne’s perspective has been supported by some of America’s leading scientists. 

A report was recently leaked to BuzzFeed. It dates back to 2018, and it was written by JASON – an elite, independent group of scientists who advise the US government on matters like this. 

The report focused on the sound, and it came to the same conclusion that Dr Mitchell Valdes Sosa and Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan had come to: that sound couldn’t possibly have caused these injuries. 

For one thing, people were reporting different kinds of sounds. 

Some people had talked about a low, humming noise. Others, a high-pitched screech. 

An analysis of a recording of the sound obtained by the Press Association revealed it wasn’t electrical or technological. It was biological.

[Clip: high-pitched sound of crickets]

Basia, narrating: A diabolical act of espionage… by crickets.

Dr James Giordano: That’s a cricket. And many people said they heard sounds like a cricket. And there are crickets in Havana. So I think one of the important takeaways is that yeah, the individuals who were living in Havana heard crickets. Crickets that can do what it did to the individuals who were affected. I would not want to meet on a dark night...

So the idea that it’s a crickets that did it, or that’s what they heard and the only thing they heard, is actually fallacious. 

Basia, narrating: At some point in 2019, the main attack theory shifted. 

Dr James Giordano’s theory shifted. 

News clip: What could be the cause? After a year-long investigation, 19 top experts from the National Academies of Sciences conclude the most likely directed post microwave energy… 

Dr James Giordano: We were not certain in 2017, or early 2018, that the state of the science and technology of microwaves would have allowed that level of scalability and field ability. However, retrospectively through 2019 to 2020, it became clear that dedicated programs in microwave research, inclusive to those here in the United States and elsewhere – for example, Russia, China – were capable of producing microwave devices that could be relatively effectively shielded from the operator, at least during the period of time they were, they were an operation. 

They were scalable to the point that they would be relatively portable. They were able to utilise a derived power source that based upon the pulsing of the microwave, it was rapidly pulsed utilising an electronic pulsing trigger, or a laser pulsing trigger, would then not draw off all of the energy that would then necessitate a very, very large power source but could then incur some portability of the power source.  

Basia, narrating: The fact of who was affected in Havana, their jobs, points to a motive: to disrupt operations, and to sow confusion and doubt. 

Dr James Giordano: This was not a generalised phenomenon. These individuals had many years of experience and professional activity on the job. They were doing a specific job and disrupting these individuals’ functionality was indeed disruptive to the job that they were doing, writ small, and on a larger scale was disruptive to the viability of the United States embassy in Havana intelligence operations...

Many of the characteristics of those cases fit, and continue to fit, a defined pattern – I’m not at liberty to discuss what that pattern is in terms of who’s being targeted or who’s coming into prominence in terms of actually exhibiting verifiable and almost health incidences and effects that would be attributed this way.

Basia, narrating: If you thought I was building up to an either/or: that you’re either on the side of an attack, or on the side of a mass psychogenic illness – I’m sorry to disappoint you. But, it could be both. 

James doesn’t rule out the possibility that after an initial attack, the dozens of recent cases could be psychosomatic, which he says, could even have been part of the plan. Never underestimate the power of just… creating more paperwork. 

Dr James Giordano: But please understand there have also been dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of cases that have been examined that could not be verified. And that’s important to understand. I mean, this is not that each and every case that comes to the fore represents, well, this is, quote, “this thing called Havana syndrome”.

Is there a psychogenic effect that’s very, very operative in the current? Yes, absolutely there is. Are there, and does there continue to be other cases that fall very, very squarely within those objective criteria that would allow them to be verified at this point as viable Havana Syndrome-like cases? Yes there are. 

Is there some working idea of what type of device might be responsible or could be responsible for doing this? Yes, as I said, I mean, at this point, the possibilities and probabilities include some form of directable, acoustic and sonic device and/or a microwave device, coupled with some form of laser component, these things are not mutually exclusive.

They can be one or the other; one and the other in some combination. Is there a general feeling that there continues to be some relative improvement or iterative sophistication of the devices themselves or their methods and means of delivery? Yes, perhaps…

Basia, narrating: It could be all of it. Is what he’s saying. 

But one thing he is absolutely certain of – a rare moment of surety in a realm of seemingly infinite possibilities and probabilities, is that the original cases were not psychogenic. 

Dr James Giordano: There are, there are numbers of lines of evidence that were brought together that debunked that. I’m not at liberty to discuss that.

Basia, narrating: So, where does that leave us? Well, probably not far from where we started. Still in the thick of a mystery, but one that perhaps is no longer set in a crumbling Havana embassy beset by sonic weapons, but in a paranoid hall of mirrors. 

In the end, there are, I think, two mirrored doors that perhaps offer the quickest route to a conclusion. 

The first, is in the idea of pride. 

If you understand a psychosomatic illness to be a matter of fakery or fragility – you would see why an organisation like the CIA just couldn’t countenance it. James Giordano himself said to me: this cannot be faked. 

But is it a case of fakery? If the brain believes something – believes it is under attack, as many in Havana were told to prepare themselves to be – that the brain can create symptoms of attack. 

Curious, diverse, shape-shifting symptoms that can spread from person to person. Symptoms that are measurable, observable, that can be totally debilitating – but in the end – not attributable to any clear pathology or attack.  

But it’s a difficult explanation for the CIA to give. Far easier, and more fitting, to find an attacker. As Marco Rubio, and Rex Tillerson, and Donald Trump did.

But, then, there is another mirrored door. 

One behind which lies a sophisticated weapon that it’s possible many of us simply can’t even imagine. One that bends the laws of maths. 

In July, President Joe Biden set up a new Havana Syndrome Taskforce to try and find it. 

It’s led by a veteran officer who helped to find Osama Bin Laden. I suppose, on the logic, that if there’s a bad guy to be found, he’s the man to do it. 

And in September, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill – called the Havana Act – which will compensate victims of the syndrome. 

Mark Lenzi, a security engineering officer who worked in China and suffered from Havana Syndrome, said that this legislation was crucial “for those of us injured in the line of duty”. 

It’s a mystery beyond our wildest dreams. And it might be a story more powerful than we realise.

And I’m left, not yet sure… which of the doors I’m pushing on.


Illustration: Steven Gregor for Tortoise