By Néstor T. Carbonell


The investigation of ‘Havana syndrome’ is pressing — and Russia must be held accountable if found responsible.

Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine clearly is an urgent foreign-affairs challenge. But we should not overlook another ominous scheme that may bear Moscow’s fingerprints: the shocking and unresolved conundrum known as “Havana syndrome.”

At issue: As many as 200 U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats have suffered mysterious brain injuries over the last five years — and Russia is the prime suspect.

The episodes started in Cuba, a police state with surveillance in virtually every block, which apparently served as Russia’s accomplice in targeting U.S. and Canadian officials stationed on the island. More than 40 of them suffered the debilitating neural symptoms that characterize the syndrome — severe headaches, loss of vision and hearing, sustained vertigo, and brain damage — and had to leave Havana for treatment.

Since Washington is not yet prepared to acknowledge the cause, U.S. officials call the ailments “anomalous health incidents” or AHIs — an innocuous term that masks the brutal reality of these deliberate and ongoing attacks.

The Washington Post reported in November that CIA director William J. Burns warned the leaders of Russia’s Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service of “consequences” if Moscow is behind the injuries. Although the warning was iffy, the paper wrote, it reflects “the deep suspicion the CIA has of Kremlin culpability.”

Almost concurrently with the CIA alert, the FBI acknowledged publicly for the first time that a number of its own agents, mostly posted to Vienna, had experienced symptoms associated with the syndrome.

At issue: As many as 200 U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats have suffered mysterious brain injuries over the last five years — and Russia is the prime suspect.

The agencies’ most recent involvement in this situation came after pressure by members of Congress, who have expressed alarm that the syndrome has spread under three U.S. presidents without conclusive findings. Adding urgency to the investigation, many of the victims have complained that their afflictions had not been taken seriously.

It was not until October 2021 that the Havana Act (Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks) was passed to compensate, at the discretion of the State Department and the intelligence agencies, the affected U.S. officials and family members. In many cases the victims have required extensive medical treatment in the U.S. Some have had to retire early.

The exact cause of the injuries appears to be getting clearer. According to a December 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the observed brain injuries were consistent with the effects of radio-frequency energy, a type of microwave radiation. The attacks, the report added, were the result of “directed” and “pulsed” energy, meaning the victims were specifically targeted.

Despite this well-researched and unambiguous conclusion by experts, some continue to muddy the waters with baseless theories, including that “mass hysteria” was a possible cause of the Havana syndrome. Meanwhile, the issue is now global. U.S. officials with symptoms have been reported in 17 countries: Cuba, China, Russia, Poland, Georgia, Germany, the U.K., Bulgaria, Australia, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, Syria, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Austria, and Colombia. Also under investigation are two attacks on U.S. soil, including one against a National Security Council official near the White House.

This year the attacks have become more brazen — likely spiked by impunity. In Vienna, Austria, a longtime hub for diplomats and spies, about two dozen U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats experienced symptoms reported in July, making it the biggest Havana syndrome hot spot after Havana. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris’s trip from Singapore to Vietnam was delayed by several hours after the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi flagged “a recent possible anomalous health incident.” And in September, CNN reported that an American traveling in India with CIA director William Burns was targeted and required medical treatment — a clear message that even those in the agency’s inner circle could be harmed.

How exactly are the attacks carried out? Experts suspect the use of a device akin to a satellite dish, which may be handheld or mounted in a van, car, boat, or helicopter. They are typically effective across a few rooms or even a city block. But high-powered devices may be able to fire beams for several miles.

While Russia denies involvement in the attacks, the CIA knows that during the Cold War, the Soviets were covertly developing a weapon that could direct microwaves to produce nerve damage. Moreover, in March 2018, Putin stated in his annual address to parliament that “Russia has all reasons to believe that we are a step ahead” of other countries in creating “prospective weapons based on new physical principles.” Russian officials subsequently indicated he was referring to weaponized microwave radiation.

Despite conflicting reports about the status of the Havana syndrome investigation, informed sources believe that U.S. intelligence agencies have recently made significant progress, thanks to communications intercepts and other breakthroughs. They reportedly are strengthening the case against Russia as the main culprit and against Cuba as an accomplice.

Let’s hope that protracted debate about sufficiency of evidence does not delay the moment of truth and accountability. There is too much at stake: our national security, our standing as leader of the free world, and the health and safety of our intelligence officers and diplomats.