‘Havana syndrome’ attacks reveal US adversaries may have dangerous intel

The coincidental timing of when US intelligence is being targeted with the "Havana syndrome" raises the possibility that the attacks are targeted.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington, US, March 31, 2021. (photo credit: CAROLYN KASTER/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington, US, March 31, 2021.

A suspected case of "Havana syndrome" was detected in Colombia last week, the most recent in a series of suspicious attacks that appear to target US diplomatic and intelligence personnel. This latest incident appeared to happen just days before the visit of the US secretary of state. What this means is that these attacks may be targeted and timed – that they are not random and that a powerful adversary of the US is using them systematically.  

“US embassy staff in Bogota may have been injured by the mysterious illness, which causes a painful sound in the ears, fatigue and dizziness,” the BBC reports. “First reported in Cuba in 2016, US diplomats around the world have since reported cases of the syndrome. Its origins are unknown, with some speculating it is a type of weapon.” 

The Wall Street Journal reported the most recent attack, which included “unexplained health incidents,” according to an email sent by US Ambassador to Colombia Philip Goldberg. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to visit this month.  

In August, US officials said “the Vietnam leg of US Vice President Kamala Harris' South Asia trip had to be delayed by a few hours due to reports of two US diplomatic personnel coming down with the mysterious combination of ailments that have come to be known as Havana Syndrome.”

The embassy said that there had been a "possible anomalous health incident in Hanoi," a phrase Washington has used to describe the syndrome. The incidents began in Cuba in 2016 but have also been identified in Germany, Austria, Russia and China, according to reports.  

EARLIER THIS year it was reported that the US State Department would gather more information on the health of diplomats after complaints they were not taking this seriously. According to The Independent, “US diplomats who have suffered from the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” tore into Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a recent meeting, arguing that the government hasn’t done enough to help victims and has brushed off their concerns as vague unexplained health incidents (UHIs).” 

There is some dispute within the US government and between recent administrations about what is happening. Some 200 diplomats and intelligence members have been affected. Although details are classified, there is a question over whether these are random "incidents" or targeted attacks. According to a New York Times report, more than half the victims of the syndrome are CIA officers. That report on October 1 said there are 100 CIA officer victims. According to another Times report, the CIA even recalled its Vienna station chief over the handling of the incidents. US lawmakers have backed changes to address the syndrome's victims, and the CIA is trying to increase attempts to confront the incidents.  

 William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, is sworn into his Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 24, 2021. (credit: TOM WILLIAMS/POOL VIA REUTERS) William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, is sworn into his Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 24, 2021. (credit: TOM WILLIAMS/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Another serious incident occurred in September when reports “emerged that a CIA officer traveling to India with the agency's director, William J Burns, had reported symptoms of the syndrome,” according to the BBC. CNN reported that “the incident set off alarm bells within the US government and left Burns ‘fuming’ with anger, one source explained. Some officials at the CIA viewed the chilling episode as a direct message to Burns that no one is safe, including those working directly for the nation's top spy, two sources said.” 

Experts believe that microwave energy, apparently directed, concentrated and aimed at the victims could be responsible. The victims themselves describe several types of harm.

“Tina Onufer and two of her former colleagues in Havana, a married couple named Kate Husband and Doug Ferguson, spoke to NBC News about their experiences after getting permission from the State Department. They want the world to know that what happened to them in Havana caused real suffering and documentable injuries, and that those who insist this must be a case of mass psychosis are wrong,” NBC noted.  

“The way the doctor boiled it down for me… he said, ‘Well, it's like you aged, you know, 20, 25 years all at once,’” Husband told NBC. He was diagnosed with "acquired brain injury related to a directional phenomenon exposure.” 

SO WHAT do we know? “Intelligence officials say they have not gathered enough information to say with any confidence what is causing the injuries or who is to blame. But they say Russia remains a leading suspect," NBC notes. "And multiple sources familiar with the matter said that intelligence agencies are increasingly focusing on a theory that the injuries have been caused by some sort of directed energy, based on their own analysis of the evidence." 

The larger context, however, is that this has happened as the US has begun to confront what it calls “near peer” adversaries as part of a new national defense strategy. This means the US is shifting its focus from counter-terrorism in the Middle East to confronting Russia and China. To a lesser extent, it has also been seeking to confront Iran.  

The question about the Havana syndrome is interesting because it raises questions about how US adversaries seem to have caught Americans on the back foot in various countries. The fact that the alleged weapon and attacks appear to target not just random US diplomatic personnel, but rather key facilities just prior to key visits by officials – and also appear to target the CIA – means the adversaries seem to have knowledge of the layout of US diplomatic posts and also about who is based at them and when.

The attacks appeared to begin in Havana where the Obama administration was seeking to renew ties. Why would a US enemy seek to target Americans there? Was it because this was a friendly country of the adversary state and that the enemy's intelligence assets, who were moving around an experimental or new microwave weapon, could operate freely and experiment to see what it did? Is it because the US had reopened an embassy in Cuba in 2015 and the locals or the powerful adversary might have advanced knowledge of the building?  

WHAT HAPPENED in Havana may provide some insight. In 2015, “the newly reopened US embassy situated on Havana's seaside Malecón boulevard was a sought-after posting, with diplomats jockeying to serve in a country where American foreign service officers were making history as the US and Cuba repaired long frayed diplomatic ties,” CNN said.

But “US diplomats in their homes and hotel rooms in Havana began experiencing unexplained symptoms, such as dizziness and pounding headaches. These sometimes were accompanied by an unidentified ‘piercing directional noise’ that sounded as if metal was being scraped across a floor.” 24 diplomats were affected.

CNN noted that, “according to a timeline in the State Department report, the CIA informed the State Department in September 2017 of ‘its decision to withdraw its personnel from Havana for the foreseeable future.’” This means it is possible that the adversary operating the weapon was targeting the CIA in Havana. US diplomats and their intelligence counterparts left the country in 2017.  

Now Berlin police are also probing yet another claim of Havana syndrome after several people at the US embassy reported the trauma. This adds Germany to the list of countries where the incidents happened, besides Cuba, Colombia, Vietnam, India, Austria, Taiwan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the UK, Georgia, Poland, China and Russia.  

If we look at those countries, what connects them? Russia and China are US adversaries, and want the US to leave those Central Asian states, which were once linked to the Soviet Union. Vietnam has links to Russia and China. Georgia and Poland are neighbors of Russian allies. And Taiwan is next to China. But what about Austria, Germany, Colombia and the UK? Colombia is close to Venezuela, which is a US adversary. Foreign intelligence services have targeted dissidents in the UK in the past. Vienna was often known during the Cold War as a place where intelligence services operated against one another.  

OVERALL, HOWEVER, the list shows that whoever is doing this can seemingly operate with impunity in both advanced powerful Western states as well as and in poorer states across the world. These American enemies seem to have advance knowledge of US official trips and where US diplomats and intelligence agents are located. Embassy buildings may be large and it would be easy to target several rooms with microwave weapons or other complex technological means, knowing which rooms one wants to target.

It also means the device that is doing this likely has a decent range and is lightweight and can be moved easily. That is because it is not reasonable to conclude that in all these cases, the adversary secured a building near the local US embassy or near other US posts. A weapon like this could also be mobile, secured in some kind of truck or van. But that would also raise suspicions if parked near an embassy.

It’s not clear why the local countries hosting the US personnel have not detected suspicious activity. It is also not clear why the US hasn’t built a capability to detect and counter such a threat.

This all shows that in today's world, the US is facing real challenges from adversaries. If the Havana Syndrome victims are as many as recorded and the instances as large, it shows that a real threat to the US may be emerging. It also shows that US adversaries may be willing to use new methods like this or cyber to strike at what they believe to be the soft, exposed aspects of the United States around the world.