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Pulsed electromagnetic energy, ultrasound “plausibly” explain Havana syndrome


1950s cars driving past a Brutalist, multistory concrete building is peak Cuba.
Enlarge / Picture of the US embassy in Havana, taken on September 29, 2017, after the United States announced it was withdrawing more than half its personnel in response to mysterious “health attacks” targeting its diplomatic staff.

A device delivering pulsed electromagnetic energy or ultrasound “plausibly explains” the enigmatic health incidents that have caused debilitating and long-term neurological effects in some US diplomats and intelligence agents. That’s according to a report by a panel of intelligence community analysts and outside experts in the fields of science, medicine, and engineering. An executive summary of the report was declassified and released Wednesday.

The new report is the latest effort to unravel a medical mystery that began in 2016 when US and Canadian diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba, reported bizarre, unexplained episodes. The diplomats described piercing, directional sounds and vibrations that left them with a constellation of neurological symptoms, sometimes referred to as “Havana Syndrome.” Since then, reports of hundreds of additional possible cases among US intelligence agents stationed all over the world have poured in, fueling wide speculation, skepticism, and political controversy.

The new report bolsters a leading but contentious hypothesis: that the incidents are attacks by a foreign adversary—mostly suspected to be Russia—using a covert weapon, possibly one that delivers pulsed radiofrequency energy. While some analysts and experts have openly dismissed the idea, the panel concludes that pulsed electromagnetic energy or ultrasound are plausible causes. However, the panel did not examine who might be responsible.

Overall, the report falls far short of any definitive conclusions. The executive summary that was released includes numerous redactions and notes that there are caveats and “information gaps” to the plausible scenarios. There is still no solid evidence that such a weapon exists or that it was used on US personnel. And if such attacks occurred, a motive is also unclear (though there is plenty of speculation).

Still, the panel worked to narrow the possibilities and concluded that other popular hypotheses on the cause of the mysterious health incidents are unlikely. Improbably theories include functional neurological disorders and mass psychogenic illness (collective delusion). The panel also cast doubt on ionizing radiation, audible sound (sonic weapons or crickets), and chemical and biological agents.

“These mechanisms are unlikely, on their own, to account for the required effects or are technically or practically infeasible,” the panel concluded.

Mystery

Together, the new report reinforces the findings of a 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The 2020 report concluded that directed pulsed radiofrequency energy was the “most plausible mechanism” to explain the cases. The new report also echoes the conclusions from a team of doctors at the University of Pennsylvania who examined 21 affected US personnel and ruled out mass psychogenic illness. The doctors concluded in a 2018 JAMA article that the personnel had “sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” But their injuries and experiences were inconsistent with mass psychogenic illness, and the individuals weren’t all in contact with each other, which would be necessary for a collective delusion to spread. The team also dismissed viral and chemical agents as possible explanations.

The new report also dovetails with an interim CIA report, released two weeks ago. That report concluded that, of roughly 1,000 reports of possible health incidents among intelligence and state department employees, most were easily explained by environmental or known medical factors. Thus, the CIA concluded that it was unlikely that a foreign adversary, such as Russia, was orchestrating some sort of sustained, global campaign against US personnel. However, a few dozen cases remain unexplained, and the CIA left open the possibility that attacks by adversaries could be behind them.

Those remaining unexplained cases are the focus of the new expert panel report. To dig into those cases, the panel waded through dozens of briefings and more than 1,000 classified documents, which spanned scientific and medical topics, included sensitive intelligence reporting, health incident reports, and trend analyses. The panel also had direct access to the US personnel with unexplained cases and their medical records.

The panel concluded that, in these cases, the signs and symptoms of the incidents—which the government calls AHIs (anomalous health incidents)—were “genuine and compelling.” Overall, the AHIs are marked by four consistent features:

  1. An acute onset of audio-vestibular sensory phenomena, sometimes including sound or pressure in only one ear or on one side of the head
  2. Other nearly simultaneous signs and symptoms such as vertigo, loss of balance, and ear pain
  3. A strong sense of locality or directionality
  4. And the absence of known environmental or medical conditions that could have caused the reported signs and symptoms

The panel said that some incidents affected multiple people in the same space and clinical samples of some of the affected people showed biomarkers for “cellular injury to the nervous system.”



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