The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The case for ‘Havana Syndrome’ skepticism

Mitchell Joseph Valdés Sosa, director of the Cuban Neurosciences Center, walks past a photo of Fidel Castro before a news conference in Havana on Sept. 13, 2021, on symptoms reported by U.S. and Canadian diplomats that are commonly referred to as “Havana Syndrome.” (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

The first time I had an anxiety attack was in college. I didn’t know what was happening; I just knew that I suddenly felt my heart racing and panicked that I was about to drop dead. This was not a rational fear for a 20-something kid to have, but panic and anxiety are not close neighbors to rationality. Over time, though, I learned how to recognize what was happening and to talk myself out of the panic I experienced to varying degrees of success.

I start here for two reasons. The first is an empathetic one. I recognize that people can convince themselves of things (consciously or subconsciously) that manifest physically. After all, my own stupid body did it to me. The other reason I start here is because anxiety attacks are a known thing, something that can be spurred by stress or other triggers — and when trying to explain a seemingly emergent phenomenon, it’s generally safer to work outward from known issues than to rationalize a novel one.

For several years now, the government has been grappling with what has become known as “Havana Syndrome.” In 2016, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba’s capital reported experiencing unusual pressure in their heads, accompanied by nausea and other symptoms. Scans reportedly showed physical damage to the subjects’ brains.

Over the next few years, symptoms were reported elsewhere and tied back to the same unexplained syndrome. There were cases in China, Vietnam, Colombia, Austria, India — even Washington. In September, The Washington Post reported that the case count totaled around 200. In a report for the media outlet Puck published Wednesday, Julia Ioffe claimed that the total was near 300, so many even right at this moment that Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland is “overwhelmed to the point of no longer being able to take new patients.”

The federal government has been taking this very seriously. This month, President Biden signed legislation that would provide financial support for those afflicted with the mysterious illness. A report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggested that the cause might be a directed-energy attack, perhaps using radio waves. Weapons of this type do apparently exist.

But let’s step back. The theory is that some foreign actor or actors managed to move a device or devices to positions around the world and strike government officials without detection. They managed to do so within a few hundred yards of the White House, in fact, as described in a report by the New Yorker’s Adam Entous. The purported target was a National Security Council (NSC) staffer last winter.

“As he walked, he began to hear a ringing in his ears. His body went numb, and he had trouble controlling the movement of his legs and his fingers. Trying to speak to a passerby, he had difficulty forming words. 'It came on very suddenly,' the official recalled later, while describing the experience to a colleague. 'In a matter of about seven minutes, I went from feeling completely fine to thinking, Oh, something’s not right, to being very, very worried and actually thinking I was going to die.' ”

This … sounds familiar, as journalist Tom McKay pointed out. Were you to describe this to me outside of the context of Havana Syndrome, I would tell you that this sounds like a panic attack. That the NSC staffer then went to the hospital (as I did on at least one occasion when having such an attack) and no physical cause was identified certainly would not make me less confident of my diagnosis.

The alternative, again, is that someone — the generally agreed-upon culprit is Russia — is driving around with some sort of device of some sort of size that can direct these attacks at particular people. They drove by the southern edge of the White House and hit this guy. They did it to enough other people in the region to overwhelm Walter Reed. And, of course, some people in Vienna, too. And in New Delhi. In that example, in fact, they hit a member of CIA Director William J. Burns’s staff even though his “schedule is tightly held,” as CNN reported. This led to “deep concerns among U.S. officials about how the perpetrator would have known about the visit and been able to plan for such an aggression.” Why they didn’t simply strike Burns himself is not clear.

There are other areas where the narrative is shaky. Scientists who worked on the government report that identified the possibility of a directed-energy attack have made clear that this was not a slam-dunk conclusion. Other scientists have been less generous in their assessments. Experts have also rejected the feasibility of a device that causes tissue damage remotely; one told the New York Times that it was “just not plausible.”

This is very much a case, then, in which the safest default position is probably skepticism. Perhaps there were instances in which a foreign power used a device to remotely injure American officials. Perhaps they have done so hundreds of times, including in Washington. Or perhaps they did so a few times, and a lot of people who’ve read about Havana Syndrome have experienced some of the wide range of symptoms associated with the illness and chalked it up to Russian beams. Maybe this is why there don’t appear to be many reports of civilian victims, despite the fact that, for example, someone might have been walking by that NSC staffer in downtown D.C.: Civilians aren’t primed to assume that these foreign attackers are targeting them.

There’s another story about an afflicted government worker that I think is worth highlighting in this context. In July, an officer with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department collapsed after handling a white powder that he believed was the drug fentanyl. The department shared video of the incident with a warning about the drug’s danger.

In short order, though, experts cast doubt on the story. That simply wasn’t how fentanyl worked, but it was how law enforcement had repeatedly been told that it worked. So despite the low likelihood of a sheriff’s deputy encountering fentanyl, touching it and experiencing an overdose, it’s possible that this particular sheriff’s deputy thought that might happen.

“Addiction experts and harm-reduction specialists said this misconception can delay lifesaving help during overdoses,” the New York Times reported, “and cause emergency responders to report vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and panic attacks brought on by fear of the drug.”

Maybe, then, the sheriff’s deputy was so freaked out by the idea of overdosing that he had a panic attack. Maybe the NSC staffer walking by the White House had a panic attack and attributed it to Havana Syndrome. Maybe a lot of instances in which people experienced these attacks have some other similarly mundane cause.

Ioffe’s report is unfortunately hobbled by an admission early on: “I always suspected that these illnesses were the product of deliberate attacks and that the Russian government was behind them.” From that point forward, it’s hard not to detect confirmation bias cropping up.

I, too, telegraphed my bias at the outset, of course. I know what an anxiety attack is like and the effect that it can have. The difference is that anxiety attacks are known to exist, while easily hidden, extremely precise radiation devices carried around the world by foreign agents are not.