CubaBrief: Havana Syndrome victims speak out and bipartisan group of U.S. Senators demand immediate action from the Secretary of State

The Havana Syndrome is in the news again, but the gravity of these attacks against U.S. diplomats and their increasing numbers, all over the world, has led U.S. Senators to call on the State Department to take effective action.

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Source: BBC News

In a letter delivered on October 13, 2021 a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged “Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take immediate action in response to proliferating reports of ‘Havana Syndrome,’ calling cases of the mysterious neurological condition that has sickened hundreds of U.S. officers ‘a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security,’ reported CBS News.

The letter was signed by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch, New Jersey Democrat Senator Robert Menendez, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Maryland Democrat Senator Ben Cardin, Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney, Delaware Democrat Senator Christopher A. Coons, Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Hagerty, Virginia Democrat Senator Tim Kaine, New Jersey Democrat Senator Cory A. Booker, and Hawaii Democrat Senator Brian Schatz.

Dr. James Giordano, professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center and executive director of the Institute for Biodefense Research in Washington D.C, in an OpEd published today called on “steps [to be] taken to identify the nature and source of the problem, quantify the actual risk and threat, and then establish methods and means to mitigate and prevent such engagements.”

NBC News on October 13, 2021 interviewed victims of the Havana Syndrome that went on the record and identified themselves, and their testimony is both powerful and compelling.

CubaBrief has been following the health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba over several years, and shared reports of similar attacks against dissidents, and Canadian diplomats. A letter to the editor by CFC’s executive director was published in The Washington Post on October 30, 2020 that highlighted the Castro regime’s long history of using sonic weapons. On November 13, 2020 the Cuban Ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas responded to the letter to the editor with the claim “that there is no scientific evidence that can support the kind of sonic ‘attacks’ alleged.” The Cuban government has failed in its duty to protect diplomatic personnel, and denied that ‘attack’ were carried out.

On December 5, 2020 The Washington Post reported that the “National Academy of Sciences committee has found that ‘directed’ microwave radiation is the likely cause of illnesses among American diplomats in Cuba and China.” Since then, the number of personnel impacted has increased into the hundreds, along with the number of countries around the world where the attacks have taken place.

National Defense, October 15, 2021

Viewpoint: Nation Must Come Together to Tackle Havana Syndrome

By James Giordano

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iStock illustration

In late August, members of Vice President Kamala Harris’ advanced entourage during a trip to Vietnam reported “anomalous health incidents” that were assessed to be similar to what has been referred to as “Havana syndrome.”

U.S. personnel in Germany have also reported symptoms and signs of what is suspected to be Havana syndrome. This phenomenon — first identified in 2016 by reports from governmental personnel working at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba — is a cluster of subjective symptoms and objective signs that include feelings of pressure in the head, vertigo and an array of cognitive effects such as loss of vigilance, problems concentrating, difficulty with learning and remembering, and impairments of “executive function,” which is defined as planning and enacting various activities of daily living.

These reported symptoms have been corroborated by clinical findings that include dysfunction in the inner ear balance organs, and neuropsychologcal features that are similar to mild traumatic brain injury.

However, none of the individuals affected reported such prior or recent injury. This prompted questions about what may be responsible for these signs and symptoms. Despite some initial speculation that various environmental events — such as crickets, industrial noise and artifacts of sounds produced by various electronic equipment in the affected individuals’ apartments — each and all of these speculations were disproven.

Moreover, conjecture that these signs and symptoms may represent some form of psychogenic illness — in other words, a type of mass hysteria — were also disproven in light of evidence regarding the time sequence and occurrence of events.

These findings fostered additional questions, concerns and progressive inquiry as to the source of these anomalous health incidents in the two dozen affected individuals in Havana. It was originally believed that most probable was some form of directed energy; likely a sonic device.

There was discussion as to whether this may have been an artifact of surveillance technology, or whether it was an intentional engagement to affect the capability and health of those individuals targeted.

To date, it remains unclear whether a surveillance component was indeed operative; but what is clear is that the individuals were selectively identified and targeted.

Information provided both immediately subsequent to the Havana incidents and over the next three years, fortified the probability that a directed energy device was the source of these incurred effects. A device capable of producing ultrasonic frequencies can produce cavitation effects — bubbling in fluids — in the inner ear and the brain that can produce the signs and symptoms that were clinically observed. Such effects are similar to those of decompression sickness, in which bubbles in the bloodstream disrupt the blood flow and integrity of brain tissue, and lead to microstructural and functional changes in thought and behavior.

However, iterative information both about the initial incidents, and international technologies’ development and level of relative readiness for operational use, provided increasing evidence that a component of the engagement was likely due to very rapidly pulsed, directed microwave energy.

Microwave energy in the low gigawatt range would evoke disruptions in neurological networks of the brain that could lead to functional disruption and durable impairment of cognition and behavior. Additional information further suggested the possibility of a laser component, which could be used for targeting or to yoke electromagnetic or sonic energy to increase the effectiveness — and effects — in targeted individuals.

Since 2016, more than 100 verified cases of Havana syndrome have been validated. It appears that the initial engagements represented a test or probe operation to evaluate the scalability, detectability and ability to field the delivery devices, as well as the effects produced in targeted individuals in the short and longer term.

As for the source of these engagements, it is important to identify those nations that have had, and currently have ongoing programs of technological research, development and use of such devices. All of these technologies have been variously employed in industrial settings to assess the integrity and vulnerability of inorganic and organic materials. The possibility that these technologies could be “dually used” to develop some sort of novel weapon is highly likely.

Research in the use of directed energies for commercial as well as military applications has been undertaken by Russia and China; and the United States also has had research programs in ranged acoustic, ultrasonic devices and scalable microwave devices.

This fosters speculation as to the purpose of these engagements. Clearly, they incur a disruptive effect that impairs the short- and long-term capabilities of the individuals targeted. Yet, it is important to recognize that such engagements also produce rippling, disruptive effects in and across a variety of biological, psychological, social, economic and political scales. The individuals affected in Havana were of prime importance to U.S. intelligence and security operations in Cuba. However, the disruptive effects were not merely limited to these individuals’ abilities and career longevity — which were profoundly affected — but extended to the fracturing of ongoing progress in economic, diplomatic, political and social relations between the United States and Cuba, and changes in the relative balance of power in the area.

It becomes easy to consider the potential to use such devices and means to affect high-value targets, such as diplomats, dignitaries, political, military as well as social and economic leaders.

Additionally, continued vagary about the nature of the device and nation-states or other actors involved create a sense of vulnerability within the general public. To this point, it may be that using such devices is an act of terrorism, in which the effects produced in a few victims create rapidly expanding manifestations among many.

In this way, randomly selected and seemingly ambiguous targets can be affected to demonstrate the capability and fortitude to exercise power in clandestine, if not covert ways.

The ripple effects of both the actual events and spreading miscommunication and misinformation — some intentional and others merely due to ambiguity in reporting — can create a growing number of the “worried well” and in this way generate a mass psychogenic effect within the population. Such an effect is often desirable in that it produces “the fog of engagement” whereby it becomes difficult and costly to commit the resources, services, time and finances to evaluate each and all of those cases that may be suspected to be truly representative of the syndrome.

Thus, coordination of effort will be vital to sustain the effectiveness and time and cost efficiency of approaches employed for detection and deterrence. The dedication of resources and personnel by the Biden administration to further investigate and address Havana syndrome is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there is increasing development of currently available and emerging biotechnologies that are being considered as weapons against individual and group targets.

While cooperative governmental efforts are important, what is needed is a “whole-of-nation” approach that focuses resources in research academia, the industrial sector, and within and across local, state and federal governmental agencies. This whole-of-nation enterprise must first identify the nature and source of the problem, quantify the actual risk and threat, and then establish methods and means to mitigate and prevent such engagements.

Obviously, this will take continued effort. However, given the clear and present risk and growing threat, the work is certainly worthwhile.

Dr. James Giordano is professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center and executive director of the Institute for Biodefense Research in Washington D.C. He serves as an advisor to the Defense Department and NATO, working on the Havana syndrome issue since 2017.

CBS News, October 14, 2021

Lawmakers pressure secretary of state to act on “crisis” posed by “Havana syndrome” as cases mount

By Olivia Gazis

Updated on: October 14, 2021

A bipartisan group of senators is urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take immediate action in response to proliferating reports of “Havana Syndrome,” calling cases of the mysterious neurological condition that has sickened hundreds of U.S. officers “a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security,” in a letter sent Wednesday. 

The letter, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by CBS News, follows dozens of recent, new reports of suspected cases in Colombia, Austria, Germany, Vietnam and other countries. In several instances, the incidents have occurred with startling proximity to senior U.S. officials traveling overseas. 

It also comes amid growing criticism by victims and other observers that the State Department’s handling of the incidents has lacked focus and urgency.  

“We are extremely alarmed that reports of these incidents continue to grow. It is clear that this threat continues to target U.S. diplomats and related personnel, and reflects a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe this threat deserves the highest level of attention from the State Department, and remain concerned that the State Department is not treating this crisis with the requisite senior-level attention that it requires.”  

The letter was sent jointly by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, Idaho Republican Jim Risch, and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez. It was signed by eight other lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose staff recently met with victims.  

There have been more than 200 reported cases of Havana Syndrome among U.S. officials since 2016, when American diplomats and intelligence officers first reported falling ill at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. Scores of cases have been reported in 2021 alone, prompting a series of investigative actions by the Biden administration to identify their cause, which remains undetermined

The National Security Council has launched a government-wide effort to better understand the incidents, and recently took steps to standardize the reporting process so that all incidents are uniformly documented and shared with investigative and medical teams, a senior administration official said.

Some U.S. officials believe the symptoms are the result of attempted intelligence collection by Russian government operatives using microwave technologies, but the U.S. intelligence community has said it has not arrived at a consensus or even determined whether a foreign government is involved.  

The stream of new reports has prompted concerns, however, that an undeterred adversary may be targeting American officers in increasingly brazen ways. Many lawmakers with access to classified intelligence are convinced they are attacks, which is the term used in Wednesday’s letter.  

This week it emerged that U.S. officials at the American embassy in Bogota, Colombia reported symptoms characteristic of Havana Syndrome, which can include nausea, blurred vision, severe headaches and memory loss. The Wall Street Journal first reported the incidents, which were confirmed to CBS News by two sources familiar with them.  

The cases were disclosed ahead of an expected visit to Bogota by Secretary Blinken next week. The State Department has said it is “vigorously investigating” possible cases wherever they are reported, but declined to comment on the incidents in Bogota or on Blinken’s travel.  

At least two other cases were recently reported in proximity to senior administration officials’ travel overseas. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris temporarily delayed a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam after an embassy official fell ill there, and in September a top aide to CIA Director William Burns sought emergency medical care after experiencing symptoms in Delhi, India.  

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday the Department had taken “a number of steps” to inform and support its workforce, including instituting training modules to help employees detect and report a potential incident.   

Still, victims’ groups have complained that they have struggled to access adequate medical care and have felt dismissed or denigrated by senior State Department officials.  

In their letter, the senators expressed similar concerns that the Department was “not sufficiently communicating with or responding to” injured diplomats and was “insufficiently engaged” in the government’s broader efforts to determine the cause of the incidents.   

They called on Blinken to “immediately” appoint a senior-level official to replace Pamela Spratlen, a former ambassador who had been leading the State Department’s internal task force on the incidents. “Critically,” the senators wrote, “this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you.” 

Spratlen departed in late September, after just six months in the role, and amid complaints from victims that she was inattentive to their needs. A State Department spokesperson said at the time that Spratlen’s replacement would be named “soon.” 

Blinken met virtually in recent weeks with a group of Havana Syndrome victims, some of whom later described the call, which also involved Spratlen and deputy secretary of state for management and resources Brian McKeon, as “tense.” While Blinken has said publicly that addressing the incidents is a “top priority,” and sought a comprehensive briefing on the matter before he was confirmed, victims have noted a contrast between his involvement and that of Burns, who has met multiple times in person with injured CIA officers and visited Walter Reed National Medical Center, where many have received care.  

Burns has also increased the number of medical staff dedicated to the issue and in July tapped a senior officer to invigorate the investigation being led by the agency’s task force. 

Last week, President Biden signed into law a bill passed unanimously by both houses of Congress that boosts financial support for victims who have suffered brain injuries while working for the State Department or CIA. The bill requires both to, within 180 days, internally establish “fair and equitable” criteria for issuing payments and to report how funds are being used to Congress.  

In another sign of progress, and after appeals from lawmakers including Shaheen and Republican Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, victims will be able to seek diagnostic and medical treatment at specialized facilities at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in addition to Walter Reed. 

Victims have welcomed the development while registering concern that disparities in treatment persist among different agencies – something the senators also referenced in their letter to Blinken.  

“The president’s signature and the bipartisan support behind the law sends the unambiguous message that all affected individuals must have access to benefits and financial support,” they wrote. “We urge you to make swift implementation of the HAVANA Act a top priority.”  

Read the letter here:

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NBC News, October 13, 2021

‘Seized by some invisible hand’: What it feels like to have Havana Syndrome

A doctor said “it’s like you aged 20 years all at once,” said Kate Husband, diagnosed with a brain injury “related to a directional phenomenon exposure.”

Oct. 13, 2021, 1:24 PM EDT

By Andrea Mitchell, Ken Dilanian and Brenda Breslauer

In March 2017, Tina Onufer, a career foreign service officer stationed in Havana, was standing at her kitchen window, washing dishes, when it hit her.

“I felt like I was being struck with something,” she said. “Pain that I have never felt before in my life … mostly in my head and in my eyes. … It was as if I had been seized by some invisible hand and I couldn’t move.”

Onufer didn’t know it then, but she was among the first victims of a still-unexplained phenomenon that has come to be known as Havana Syndrome — a mysterious set of symptoms, some of which are linked to brain injuries, that by now have afflicted as many as 200 American diplomats, intelligence officers and other personnel around the world.

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In March 2017, while serving as a foreign service officer in Cuba, Tina Onufer says she was struck by a sudden pain. “It was as if I had been seized by some invisible hand and I couldn’t move,” she said.NBC News

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.

“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,’” said Husband, who was diagnosed with “acquired brain injury related to a directional phenomenon exposure.”

NBC News first reported in 2018 that American intelligence officials suspected Russia was behind the phenomenon, which some believed were intentional attacks using microwave energy.

Three years later, intelligence agencies have been unable to prove that, despite a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine arguing that directed microwave energy is the most plausible explanation, and noting that Russia has studied the technology more closely than any other nation.

During the Trump administration, top officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel, did not treat Havana Syndrome as a high priority, and some officials in the CIA were openly skeptical, current and former intelligence officials say. For the past eight months, under President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director William Burns, the federal government has stepped up its efforts to investigate the cause while smoothing the way for the afflicted to get treatment. This month, Biden signed the Havana Act, which improves their access to medical care.

A number of patients have been treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center alongside soldiers who suffered brain injuries from bombs in combat. Often, the symptoms are similar.

“People don’t understand what this kind of brain damage can do to you,” Onufer said. “So it’s very easy for people to be dismissive and say, ‘But you look fine.’ But the reality is, I’m not. And I don’t think very many of us are. And we just want to have our lives back.”

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. 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.

Officials say they are now completely discounting a 2018 State Department report by the JASON advisory group, an elite scientific board, suggesting that some of the original cases were caused by sounds made by a loud species of crickets.

Some officials believe that if directed energy is the culprit, it may have begun as a method of collecting intelligence that has now been weaponized, multiple sources told NBC News.

CIA officers and State Department employees deployed overseas are now given the option of baseline blood testing, so that if they are struck by the syndrome doctors can have a basis of comparison.

U.S. officials say once the government began urging employees to report any possible symptoms, the number of reported cases increased significantly. But they caution that not everyone who has come forward falls under the Havana Syndrome cohort.

David Relman, a professor of medicine, infectious diseases, microbiology and immunology at Stanford, led the National Academies study, which found that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases.”

He said he does not see any possible natural phenomenon at work.

“I don’t know why this happened to these individuals, but I do think it was deliberate,” he said.

“There’s a lot of literature, some of it in Russian, that indicates that pulsed microwave energy can cause some of these symptoms and signs and brain injury. There are many international actors who would have the means of deploying a technology like this in today’s world.”

One of the confounding elements of Havana Syndrome is that many apparent victims experienced it differently.

State Department employees Kate Husband and Doug Ferguson, for example, did not feel a dramatic blast wave. For them, it was more subtle.

“What we experienced was something that was an annoying sound at our house many nights a week over the course of, of weeks,” Ferguson said.

“It was piercing,” Husband added. “It was persistent, like kind of at the same level all the time. Very loud … nothing you could sit with and be OK with.”

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Kate Husband served as a State Department consular officer in Havana until her diagnosis led her to retire on medical disability. She has been diagnosed with “acquired brain injury related to a directional phenomenon exposure.”NBC News

The couple was later examined by neurologists at the University of Pennsylvania. Ferguson was cleared to go back to work, but Husband was diagnosed with a brain injury and sent to treatment. She later retired on a medical disability.

She still suffers from balance issues that lead to nausea, and a fogginess that makes basic tasks difficult.

“The cognitive issues are multilayered,” she said. “Some of it is executive functioning. They said I had a real deficit. … Now I live with a notebook, a calendar that’s open in the center of my space at all times.”

Husband and the others are speaking out to push back against the critics who believe their illnesses are the result of mass hysteria.

“I mean, I have verified physical injuries,” she said.

Onufer said that she is speaking out “to humanize this for America to, to help all of my fellow Americans, understand that as much skepticism as still seems to surround this, it’s very real.”

This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that there have also been alleged cases in Bogota, Colombia.

Asked about Colombia on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We are not in the business of confirming reports. But we are in the business of, No. 1, believing those who have reported these incidents, ensuring that they get the prompt care they need in whatever form that takes, whether that is at post, whether that is back here in the Washington, D.C., area. We are in the business of doing all we can to protect our workforce … around the world.”