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Havana syndrome: The mysterious illness affecting US spies and diplomats | USA

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Veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Marc Polymeropoulos did not consider going to Moscow a big deal. He had worked for the agency for 26 years, had experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan and had been shot at more than once. Polymeropoulos xe2x80x93 the newly appointed head of the CIAxe2x80x99s secret operations in Europe and Russia xe2x80x93 visited the Russian capital in December 2017. He was not undercover; he had gone to meet his Russian counterparts and get to know the country better, knowing however that he would be watched at all times.

On the third night of his trip, he went out to dinner with his colleagues. He remembers that he didnxe2x80x99t drink much: as a spy in a hostile territory you canxe2x80x99t let yourself get drunk, much less believe that you have really seduced an attractive stranger. He returned to the Marriott hotel near the US embassy, where he was staying, and went to bed early. Not long after that, he was hit by an attack of vertigo. He had never experienced anything like it. He woke up at once with a sharp pain in his head and the sound of jackhammers in his ears.

xe2x80x9cI have been in very difficult situations in my life, but that was terrifying. I had lost control, the room was spinning nonstop; I knew that something bad was happening,xe2x80x9d Polymeropoulos tells EL PAxc3x8dS from his home in Washington. xe2x80x9cWhen I returned to the United States I could barely work two hours a day, I couldnxe2x80x99t drive and I would forget things all the time. Now I continue to have headaches.xe2x80x9d In the summer of 2019, at the age of 50, he retired from the CIA.

Polymeropoulos is one of around 200 US diplomats, intelligence officers and family members who have been affected by Havana syndrome, a mysterious illness with no known cause and no known treatment that has left dozens of people with neurological damage. US authorities suspect that it could be a microwave attack from enemy states.

I could barely work two hours a day, I couldnxe2x80x99t drive and I would forget things all the time

Former CIA agent Marc Polymeropoulos

Itxe2x80x99s known as Havana syndrome because the first cases were recorded in the Cuban capital of Havana at the end of 2016. Since then, however, more incidents have been detected in Austria, Colombia, Russia, Australia, China and Uzbekistan. Last August, US Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her trip to Vietnam after new suspected cases emerged in the capital, Hanoi. In early October, German police confirmed that they were investigating suspected sonic attacks against the staff of the US embassy in Berlin. And US Congress has just approved a law, supported by both the Democrats and the Republicans, to economically support the victims of Havana syndrome, some of whom have not been able to return to work.

When John Bolton, the national security advisor in the Trump administration, entered the White House in April 2018, he received news of the first cases of Havana syndrome outside of Cuba, specifically in China. This convinced him that, whatever it was, the condition was not a psychosomatic illness, nor was happening by chance. xe2x80x9cA possibility was that it was some kind of energy weapon, we saw that it was fairly likely that it came from Russia. We know that during the Cold War, the Russians had already tried to overwhelm the communications of the US embassies by directing energy towards them. It could also have been China, but it seems stupid to me that Beijing would do that on its own territory,xe2x80x9d Bolton tells EL PAxc3x8dS. xe2x80x9cThe danger of this is not just for American diplomats, but rather for the whole world, and it should be taken more seriously by the world.xe2x80x9d

The syndrome started with all the intrigue of a spy film and in a location rife with suspicion. In 2015, the US government reopened its embassy in Havana, a historic step in the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States. But at the end of 2016, several staff members of the State Department and the CIA, as well as some of their family members on the island, reported suffering a strange illness. The symptoms were described as intense head pressure, headaches and hearing a loud cricket-like sound. Medical exams revealed damage in the brain tissue of some of the victims. The government of then president Donald Trump decided to evacuate all non-essential personnel from the embassy and began to investigate what was then suspected to be a xe2x80x9csonic weaponxe2x80x9d xe2x80x93 a theory that was later ruled out.

Some scientists argued that what was happening could be a case of mass psychogenic illness. This refers to when a group of people in a situation of stress, as was the case with Cuba, experience the same symptoms by suggestion. In these cases, the symptoms are real but arise from stress or emotional causes, not external ones. Two experts, Robert W. Baloh and Robert E. Bartholomew, published a book supporting this hypothesis called Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria.

But as time passes and more cases are detected in different areas of the world, this theory is losing ground. One of the last officials to experience Havana syndrome is a CIA officer who traveled to India with William Burns, the director of the intelligence agency. In December 2020, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that xe2x80x9cdirected, pulsed radio frequency energyxe2x80x9d was the most likely explanation for these cases, and named Russia as one of the main suspects. The goal may not have been to target individuals, but rather US facilities and their computer systems, and that these attacks ended up affecting the people working there.

One thing is clear: they are attacks

Thomas Shannon, former deputy secretary of state

Thomas Shannon, the deputy secretary of state under the Obama and Trump administration, who retired in 2018, has no doubt that the syndrome is the result of some kind of foreign aggression. xe2x80x9cOne thing is clear: they are attacks,xe2x80x9d he tells EL PAxc3x8dS journalist xc3x8dker Seisdedos. xe2x80x9cThis has to be understood. Although we donxe2x80x99t know exactly what it consists of, they are without a doubt intentional.xe2x80x9d

This hypothesis is also considered the most plausible by many lawmakers in Washington. But neither scientists nor US authorities can formally rule out other theories. At the beginning of this year, the CIA opened a specific investigation to find the cause of the strange conditions. This team is being led by one of the agents who helped find the terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

Officially and for logical reasons, the US State Department is saying little about the number of people affected, the security measures established and the progress of the investigation. A spokesperson from the department says that the different public agencies involved are xe2x80x9cworking to try to identify if these incidents can be attributed to a foreign entity and are focused on giving support to those affected.xe2x80x9d

Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer representing several of the victims, is upset that the condition is still being called Havana syndrome. xe2x80x9cItxe2x80x99s a name that blames the Cubans and no one that I know suspects them. Whatxe2x80x99s more, itxe2x80x99s not a type of attack that began in 2016, itxe2x80x99s a type of attack that dates back to the 1960s.xe2x80x9d Among his clients, he says, xe2x80x9cthere are some who are well, whatever it was they suffered, and have recovered,xe2x80x9d while others are in xe2x80x9cdaily agony,xe2x80x9d suffering from migraines, nausea and vertigo.

When Marc Polymeropoulos returned to the US, he was treated at the Walter Reed military hospital, which is where the CIA sends most of the agents affected by Havana syndrome. He ended up retiring and focused his efforts in writing, something he describes as xe2x80x9ccathartic. Last summer, he published the book Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA. He says: xe2x80x9cOnce itxe2x80x99s worked out who is behind all this, President Biden will be in a difficult situation, because if there is an adversary attacking US officials, sanctions and withdrawing diplomats wonxe2x80x99t be enough, a much stronger response will be needed, but you canxe2x80x99t start a third world war.xe2x80x9d