The CIA has found that most of the 1,000 cases of “Havana Syndrome'” were not caused by actions taken by a hostile foreign power. The agency said that about two dozen cases remain unexplained and they will continue to investigate what caused them.
But the upshot is that no physical evidence has yet been found to validate the theory of a directed energy weapon being used on American diplomats. And other evidence points in an entirely different direction, one involving the mysteries of the brain.
Havana Syndrome first appeared at the Cuban embassy in 2016 when a couple of dozen diplomats and some of their families suffered symptoms that included hearing strange noises, hearing and vision loss, loss of balance, headaches, and nausea.
U.S. intelligence agencies believed as far back as 2018 that Russia was behind the “attacks” and that some kind of “directed energy” weapon was used. In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that some of the observed brain injuries were consistent with the effects of directed microwave energy.
But in recent months, another theory has gained traction, one that doesn’t involve a hostile foreign power. Instead, the theory rests on the idea of the power of the human brain as the cause — a “mass psychogenic illness.”
Once called mass hysteria, mass psychogenic illnesses are now also called functional illnesses because they trouble the conventional medical dichotomy between the brain and the mind. “I wince when I hear the word ‘psychogenic,’” Jon Stone, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, told Hurley. “It creates a false impression about what these disorders are. They’re like depression or migraine. They happen in that gray area where the mind and the brain intersect.”
Months after the first JAMA paper was published, Stone co-wrote a letter to the editor critiquing its dismissal of functional illness as a potential explanation. “In many functional neurological disorders, initial sensory discomfort together with anxiety and heightened attention trigger maladaptive processes that lead to persistent symptoms,” the letter stated. “Although diagnostic caution is warranted, functional neurological disorders are common genuine disorders that can affect anyone, including hardworking diplomatic staff.”
Some of the early work on this theory was done by Robert Baloh and Robert Bartholomew, who wrote a book called Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria. They believe that once the illnesses became widely known throughout the government, it set off a feeling of general unease so that any symptoms of any kind for any reason suddenly took on a heightened psychological significance. In short, people talked themselves into feeling bad while others enabled the feelings. Baloh points out that there are dozens of instances of this kind of mass psychogenic illness throughout history.
With so many unresolved cases — at least two dozen — there is still a chance that some diplomats and spies were targeted by an as yet unknown weapon wielded by an unknown country. And the victims are unconvinced.
The interim findings left many victims dissatisfied, particularly current and former officials who have been battling chronic ailments for years without being given a clear explanation. In a statement, a group of victims said the C.I.A. interim findings “cannot and must not be the final word on the matter.” The release of the findings, the victims said, was a breach of faith.
“The C.I.A.’s newly issued report may be labeled ‘interim’ and it may leave open the door for some alternative explanation in some cases, but to scores of dedicated public servants, their families and their colleagues, it has a ring of finality and repudiation,” the statement said.
We certainly hope those victims will receive closure someday. Their symptoms are real and they are affecting their lives. There are other theories besides mass psychogenic illness. For example, there’s the possibility that our own surveillance equipment is causing the illnesses, or it may be someone else that’s common to U.S. embassies around the world.
The fact is, the CIA interim report brought us no closer to the truth than we were before. And unless there’s some intelligence breakthrough, we’re not likely to find out for sure what was sickening our diplomats.