The Trouble With the Havana Syndrome
From the Cold War files, a cautionary tale about secrecy and national security
While focused on unraveling the events of November 1963, JFK Facts (Substack edition) also covers underlying issues of secrecy, transparency, and accountability which shape our understanding of both that distant history and the world today.
Which is why I have to recommend Mike Isikoff’s fascinating and unexpected Conspiracyland podcast series, “The Strange Story of the Havana Syndrome.” A veteran investigative reporter for Yahoo News, Isikoff studies the reports that scores of U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers have suffered debilitating symptoms after serving in Havana, Moscow, and Beijing. He finds the claim that Russia or Cuba or some foreign power is responsible both factually dubious and politically motivated.
The Havana Syndrome story has had big political implications—but only for one country. After reports of unexplained illnesses from two dozen U.S. officials who served in the Havana Embassy, the Trump administration charged Cuba had targeted U.S. officials with what Sen. Marco Rubio called “a sophisticated weapon.” The Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Cuba was rolled back. Tourism, cultural exchange, and educational ties between the two countries were drastically reduced. The people who suffered the most were impoverished Cubans almost universally hoped that better ties with the United Staes would benefit them. Sen. Rubio had other ideas.
Since then reports of U.S. officials suffering a variety of symptoms have poured in from around the world. Isikoff notes that Americans who served in Cuba now constitute only 2 percent of the victims of the Havana Syndrome. Yet no other country besides Cuba has been blamed by U.S. policymakers.
The Moscow Signal
In a four-part report, Isikoff carefully examines the theory of directed energy attacks.
In a rare display of balance in North American coverage of Cuba, he asked Cuban officials about their view about the Havana Syndrome. Mitchell Valdes Sosa, the director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience, argues such a weapon would be impossible to conceal. He says Cuba has nothing to hide. “If there is something, let’s find it,” he says. Sosa notes that there are no reports that Russia has used a microwave weapon in Ukraine. It’s a good question: If Russia had such a weapon wouldn’t they be using it?
Isikoff moves on to “The Mystery of the Moscow Signal.” It turns out the Havana Syndrome is a 21st century version of what U.S. officials during the Cold War called the “Moscow Signal.” In the 1960s U.S. officials came to believe that the Russians were bombarding them with, yes, microwave energy beams.
The non-profit National Security Archive in Washington has just published the long-classified documentation of this saga.
Significant differences between the two phenomena notwithstanding, in interviews and articles a number of former diplomats who were exposed to the Moscow Signal have compared the two episodes. “Today’s Havana Syndrome is ‘like déjà vu all over again,’” wrote retired diplomat James Schumaker, who developed leukemia after serving in Russia in the 1970s, in an article for The Foreign Service Journal titled “Before Havana Syndrome there was Moscow Signal.”
Isikoff unpacks this history by interviewing Sharon Weinberger, author of a fascinating book, Imagineers of War, about the Defense Advanced Research Project Administration (DARPA). Weinberger recounts how U.S. officials became convinced they had to develop their own microwave weapon to counter the imagined Russian weapon.
Isikoff sardonically dubs the phenomenon the “brain weapon gap,” a reference to what U.S. official called “the missile gap.” In the early 1960s, the U.S. press fretted about a “missile gap,” amplifying claims the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in producing nuclear missiles. That claim, all sources now agree, was wholly imaginary. The U.S. had far more missiles than the Soviet Union all along.
The story of the Moscow Signal is a classic illustration of how official secrecy protects faulty assumptions and worst-case scenarios, while obstructing science and accountability.
By the way, I do not doubt the sincerity of people who say they have suffered debilitating symptoms. Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer, told me about fatigue, pain, and brain fog that have persisted for years. He believes he was attacked. I have no doubt his suffering is real. But the evidence that a targeted energy weapon is responsible is vanishingly small.