Counter-spy weapon still baffles CIA & experts

Extensive, in-depth account of Havana Syndrome (the Thing)

EXCERPT: . . . All the victims described being bombarded by waves of pressure in their heads. Unlike Lee, though, the C.I.A. officers said that they heard loud sounds, similar to cicadas, which seemed to follow them from one room to another. But when they opened an outside door the sounds abruptly stopped. Some of the victims said that it felt as if they were standing in an invisible beam of energy.

The Americans suffered from headaches, dizziness, and a perplexing range of other symptoms. Later, specialists studied their brains and determined that the injuries resembled concussions, like those suffered by soldiers struck by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were no signs of impact. One of the specialists said it was as if the victims had a “concussion without concussion.” Douglas Smith, who oversaw a team that examined the victims at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “None of us have ever encountered anything like this before.” Experts at the C.I.A. were baffled by what they saw as an alarming new threat, one of the most confounding medical and espionage mysteries to involve American personnel overseas since the Cold War. The affliction didn’t have a name, so some of the victims started to refer to it simply as the Thing.

[...] In late April, an American government doctor arrived in Havana and checked in to the Capri Hotel. The doctor worked for the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services, a division that looks after intelligence officers around the world. These doctors aren’t spies, but they often travel under assumed names, because they meet with C.I.A. officers in the field.

At the Capri, a receptionist directed the doctor to a room [...] While the doctor was in his room, he heard and felt something strange, and was stricken with symptoms similar to the previous victims’. Before then, the incidents had taken place at C.I.A. officers’ homes, whose locations were presumed to be known to Cuban intelligence. The doctor had arrived unannounced, but the perpetrators seemed to be aware of when he was coming and precisely where he was staying. Officials said that the incident increased pressure on the State Department to respond in a more tangible way. [...]

As the experts discussed the victims’ auditory problems, they noted a constellation of additional symptoms, which could resemble those found in cases of concussion. The experts concluded that the victims had suffered brain injuries, and proposed sending them to a specialized center for neurological examinations. The State Department contacted Douglas Smith, the director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Before the victims arrived, in August, Smith convened a meeting of specialists at the university. Some of them were skeptical and wondered if the symptoms were psychosomatic. But their skepticism vanished when they saw the patients. “There was not one individual on the team who was not convinced that this was a real thing,” Smith said.

On August 20, 2017, [Audrey] Lee was flown to Philadelphia. For three days, she was subjected to a battery of tests, including MRI scans and exercises in which she stood on a moving platform and tried to keep her balance as it tilted. She fell nearly every time.

Lee and her doctors didn’t know what to call the mystery condition, so some of them referred to it as the Thing. (Smith said other names came later, including Immaculate Concussion and Havana Syndrome.) At the end of the testing, Lee told one of the specialists that she didn’t think she had the Thing. The specialist replied, “Oh, it’s definitely the Thing.”

[...] Theories have proliferated about what might have caused the injuries. Initially, officials thought they might be dealing with a “sonic weapon.” After U.S. investigators ruled out the possibility that the sounds themselves caused the injuries, government scientists studied whether microwaves could be the cause. During an interview in July, Smith voiced doubts that a microwave device could be targeted so precisely. “From what I do know about certain forms of energy that are medically used to remove nerve fibres, such as to reduce pain, I can’t understand how any source would be so selective to only injure the brain and not peripheral nerves and the spinal cord,” he said.

In September, 2017, State Department officials contacted James Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center who specializes in neuro-weapons. “We don’t have a smoking gun,” they told him. “But we know something happened here. Can you tell us what could cause these types of injuries?” Giordano consulted with colleagues at the University of Miami and the University of Pittsburgh who had evaluated the cases and, through a process known as abductive forensics, found some possible explanations. He thought there was little chance that the injuries were caused by a drug or a toxin, which would probably have left detectable traces. More likely, the cause was a device that emitted radio frequencies or electromagnetic pulses, which entered through the victims’ ears. (Structural variations within their heads could help explain why some heard sounds while others didn’t.) Inside the head, the energy could have caused “cavitation,” or bubbling, in the tiny fluid-filled passages of the inner ear, or in arterial blood. As the bubbles formed, and in some cases exploded, they could have damaged the organs that regulate balance and orientation. If they burst inside the cranial cavity, the victim could have suffered ministrokes, causing brain damage similar to the effects of decompression sickness. But to know for sure, Giordano said, “we’d have to take the brains out, and that’s not possible.”

If there was a weapon, of whatever kind, who wielded it? And to what end? Despite a long investigation into the incidents, the U.S. government can’t answer these questions. “It’s been more than a year and a half since the first reported health incident in Havana, and we know no more today about the cause than we did then,” Leahy said. In September, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence agencies considered Russia to be the main suspect, citing evidence from communications intercepts. But intelligence officials, in interviews with The New Yorker, insisted that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.

The Cubans say that their investigation has stalled. When U.S. lawmakers visited Havana last January, the Interior Ministry showed them a PowerPoint presentation, which concluded that the ministry had “run out of all investigative possibilities to shed light on the events.” Johana Tablada argued that there was simply nothing to find. “After a year and a half, the most powerful nation on earth hasn’t been able to present one single piece of evidence,” she said. But some see the absence of evidence as proof of a sophisticated operation. “The harder it is to figure this out, the more it lends credence to the fact that it was something that was directed,” Rubio said. “Havana is one of the most heavily surveilled cities on the planet. There is no way the Cubans don’t know who did it—if they didn’t do it themselves.”

Tablada said that she disagreed with virtually everything that Rubio has ever said about Cuba. But, she said, “on one thing, I agree with Marco Rubio. Such a thing cannot happen in Cuba without the Cubans knowing. The thing is, it didn’t happen.”

DeLaurentis, like others at the Embassy, is outraged by the Cubans’ denials. In conversation with former colleagues, he still gets upset by suggestions that the Thing was imaginary. “It did happen,” he says. “I know it did.”

It has been more than a year since the State Department announced that it would withdraw most of its personnel from Havana. As a former department official said, “There was a clear understanding that we had to lower our presence to protect our people.” The number of Americans permitted to work at the Embassy was slashed from fifty-four to around eighteen.

[...] Audrey Lee has not seen the Embassy in its diminished state. When the order came for diplomats to withdraw, she was being treated at the University of Pennsylvania; her husband left Havana in such haste that he abandoned their personal belongings. Lee’s balance and orientation gradually improved, and, after four months of treatment, she resumed full-time work earlier this year. But, she said, most of the symptoms have returned. The headaches have grown worse, and she is thinking about retiring early.

Lee still considers Cuba one of her favorite assignments. “We loved our time there,” she said. “It was almost magical.” She understood why the State Department decided to withdraw employees. “We just didn’t know who was going to get hit, when, or why,” she said. At the same time, she was bothered by the implications of the decision: “If this really was a weapon that someone had used against us, how sad it was that we were kind of letting them win.”

MORE (vast, exhausting details):

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I can't imagine what that would be like for me. I have an enchanted hearing faculty, at night overhearing "conversations" in the outside parking lot, music from my freezer, and whining gibberish from a schizoid boy who lives inside my fan. An acoustical death weapon would probably take the form of demons relentlessly tormenting me thru the night!

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