‘Havana syndrome ’ and the mystery of the microwaves

Doctors, scientists, intelligence agents and government officials have all been trying to find out what causes “Havana syndrome” – a mysterious illness that has struck American diplomats and spies. Some call it an act of war, others wonder if it is some new and secret form of surveillance – and some people believe it could even be all in the mind. So who or what is responsible?

It often started with a sound, one that people struggled to describe. “Buzzing”, “grinding metal”, “piercing squeals”, was the best they could manage.  

One woman described a low hum and intense pressure in her skull; another felt a pulse of pain. Those who did not hear a sound, felt heat or pressure. But for those who heard the sound, covering their ears made no difference. Some of the people who experienced the syndrome were left with dizziness and fatigue for months. 

Havana syndrome first emerged in Cuba in 2016. The first cases were CIA officers, which meant they were kept secret. But, eventually, word got out and anxiety spread. Twenty-six personnel and family members would report a wide variety of symptoms. There were whispers that some colleagues thought sufferers were crazy and it was “all in the mind”. 

Five years on, reports now number in the hundreds and, the BBC has been told, span every continent, leaving a real impact on the US’s ability to operate overseas. 

Uncovering the truth has now become a top US national security priority – one that an official has described as the most difficult intelligence challenge they have ever faced.  

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Hard evidence has been elusive, making the syndrome a battleground for competing theories. Some see it as a psychological illness, others a secret weapon. But a growing trail of evidence has focused on microwaves as the most likely culprit.  

In 2015,  diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba  were restored after decades of hostility. But within two years, Havana syndrome almost shut the embassy down, as staff were withdrawn because of concerns for their welfare.

Initially, there was speculation that the Cuban government – or a hard-line faction opposed to improving relations – might be responsible,  having deployed some kind of sonic weapon. Cuba’s security services,  after all,  had been nervous about an influx of US personnel and kept a tight grip on the capital.

That theory would fade as cases spread around the world. 

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But recently, another possibility  has come into the frame – one whose roots lay in the darker recesses of the Cold War, and a place where science, medicine, espionage and geopolitics collide.  

When James Lin, a professor at the University of Illinois, read the first reports about the mysterious sounds in Havana, he immediately suspected that microwaves were responsible. His belief was based not just on theoretical research, but first-hand experience. Decades earlier, he had heard the sounds himself. 

Since its emergence around World War Two, there had been reports of people being able to hear something when a nearby radar was switched on and began sending microwaves into the sky. This was even though there was no external noise. In 1961, a paper by Dr Allen Frey argued the sounds were caused by microwaves interacting with the nervous system, leading to the term the “Frey Effect”. But the exact causes – and implications – remained unclear.

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