U.S. federal agencies have spent more than $2 million researching the mysterious condition known as Havana Syndrome – and they plan on spending more.
Havana Syndrome is a condition first identified in 2016 that is alleged to be afflicting some diplomats and intelligence agents in the United States and Canada. But numerous scientific experts and internal government reports have suggested the syndrome is psychological, not physical, concluding that it is “very unlikely” to be the result of attacks by a foreign adversary.
Politico reported on March 9, 2023 that the U.S. Department of Defense and Army had awarded researchers at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan a grant for a “Traumatic Brain Injury and Psychological Health Research Program.” The Defense Technical Information Center’s database of public research identified the program as focusing on “anomalous health incidents” – a phrase that the Intelligence Community and State Department use for Havana Syndrome.
A review of public data on USASpending.gov and SAM.gov, websites used by the government to report contracting information, reveals that the grant is not the only money recently awarded or proposed for research into Havana Syndrome.
In September 2022, the same month the DoD awarded the Wayne State grant, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract via the National Institutes of Health to the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, for work on “Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and Anomalous Health Incidences (AHI),” according to USASpending.
Similarly, in January 2023, the Virginia Contracting Activity, the body within the Defense Intelligence Agency responsible for contract management, posted a request for information on behalf of the DIA and the Office of the Surgeon General to SAM.gov. The publication called for proposals for a contractor to work with one or both of the agencies on what appears to be a new initiative, called the Anomalous Health Incident Program.
Collectively, the studies add a new layer to a long-developing, and at times controversial, story.
Enter “Havana Syndrome”
In 2016, a group of Central Intelligence Agency officers working under diplomatic cover at the U.S. embassy in Cuba claimed that they had experienced a constellation of odd physical and mental ailments, ranging from headaches and nausea to memory loss, after exposure to a high-pitched noise.
The embassy’s chief of mission called a general meeting and encouraged staff to report any unusual symptoms. Shortly after, more cases were identified.
News of the condition first broke a year later, in August 2017, when the Associated Press reported that the Trump administration had expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s embassy in Washington D.C. in connection with what State Department officials called “incidents” – suggesting that the condition was linked to attacks by a foreign government, possibly even Cuba itself.
A subsequent story published by the Associated Press in October confirmed this, stating that investigators suspected the noise, which was described as sounding like a “mass of crickets,” may have come from a sonic weapon, or a weapon that uses sound waves to injure a target.
However, speculation on the nature of the alleged attacks shifted, and some individuals claiming to suffer from the condition – now dubbed Havana Syndrome by the media, because of the location of the original cases – said their symptoms were the result of directed-energy weapons, or ranged weapons that attack a target with electromagnetic energy like ultra-high frequency radio waves.
Soon, U.S. officials stationed abroad were reporting a range of unusual symptoms, expanding upon the scope of the attacks to include countries beyond Cuba.
A CIA official in Moscow described feelings of vertigo and nausea to GQ magazine. A diplomat stationed in China claimed to NBC News that, in addition to a “pulsing pressure” in her body, she believed her dogs were being poisoned.
The shift in the alleged source of the attacks highlighted a problem in the stories surrounding Havana Syndrome, however. Few news outlets covering the subject appeared to understand what they were reporting.
A State Department official who has claimed to suffer from Havana Syndrome was said to have experienced both “sonic attacks” and an assault by a “microwave range” weapon by different news agencies within a three-month period.
Medical experts and U.S. government reports cast doubt
These strange dimensions to the Havana Syndrome saga have led to speculation that the condition might not exist at all.
Neurologist Robert Baloh and medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew published a book in 2020 titled “Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria,” in which they argue that the condition is a kind of mass hysteria, known as a psychogenic illness, which spreads through medical misdiagnosis and media coverage.
Their argument was supported by the findings of multiple federal agencies and scientific panels.
In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit reviewed medical information and interview transcripts supplied by the State Department and determined the cause of Havana Syndrome to be a psychogenic illness. (It later retracted those findings after pushback from State Department officials.)
That same year, a separate investigatory body of scientists convened by the State Department, called JASON, came to a similar conclusion, stating that “psychogenic effects may serve to explain important components of the reported injuries.”
A study published in 2019 by researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada found another possible explanation for the physical symptoms, suggesting they may have been caused by pesticides. At the time when Havana Syndrome was first reported, the Cuban government was in the midst of an aggressive fumigation campaign to combat the Zika virus.
The Dalhousie study was leaked to Canadian media four months after publication, but the findings of the FBI and JASON reviews were withheld until 2021.
The FBI has denied Freedom of Information Act requests for the full BAU report, citing exemptions for medical privacy reasons and an ongoing investigation.
Despite mounting evidence pointing to a psychogenic illness, the State Department has remained firm in its stance that Havana Syndrome is real.
In 2020, it commissioned another study, this time at the National Academy of Sciences, which argued that directed-energy weapons were the “most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases.” The following year, the State Department coordinated with the Biden administration to rebrand Havana Syndrome as “anomalous health incidents.”
The Anomalous Health Incident Program
The phrase “anomalous health incident” has since been adopted by members of the Intelligence Community, many of whom hold conflicting positions on the subject.
This has put the Anomalous Health Incident Program at the center of a fierce debate over the nature of the condition and its alleged source.
On March 1, 2023, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a press release stating that it was “very unlikely” that anomalous health incidents were the result of attacks by a foreign adversary.
The Washington Post reported that seven intelligence agencies participated in the assessment, with five coming to the “very unlikely” conclusion, one ruling it “unlikely,” and a final agency abstaining entirely.
An unclassified statement of work included with the Virginia Contracting Activity’s request for information (RFI) identifies the Anomalous Health Incident Program by name, repeatedly using the phrase alongside occasional references to Havana Syndrome, suggesting that the Defense Intelligence Agency, VACA’s parent agency, may have been the abstaining party in the ODNI assessment.
The document calls for a 26-person team of support staff, ranging from resident nurses and psychologists to industrial hygienists and case managers, to assist the DIA in medical response and data analysis of anomalous health incidents targeting the Intelligence Community in the continental United States and duty stations abroad.
It is one of a number of documents produced over the years that point to a long-standing belief in anomalous health incidents by agencies within the government. An earlier version of the RFI included with the contract opportunity identifies the Office of the Surgeon General as the supervising agency and is dated for October 2019.
It is unclear if the Anomalous Health Incident Program is a new program within the DIA and/or the OSG, or if the RFI is expanding upon a pre-existing one.
The DIA has investigated anomalous health incidents in the past, as discovered by Freedom of Information Act researcher John Greenewald, Jr. in 2022, when a FOIA request into an alleged incident returned a response from the agency.
In August of 2021, @VP Kamala Harris' flight was delayed for more than three hours due to an "anomalous health incident" / likely a "Havana Syndrome" attack.
DIA found 45 pages relating to this as responsive to my #FOIA filed.
They won't release a single page. pic.twitter.com/hTm15oZyzy
— John Greenewald, Jr. (@blackvaultcom) April 11, 2022
AHI research, a lucrative new field
The Anomalous Health Incident (AHI) Program is one of many now popping up in the public and private spheres, showing a growing financial incentive to support claims of the existence of anomalous health incidents.
Researchers at Wayne State University were awarded $750,000 in September 2022 for a study that uses animal subjects in testing, by exposing them to radiofrequency waves for two hours a day over a 60-day period.
Even more noteworthy is a contract awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine through the National Institutes of Health, also with an action date of September 2022.
The Office of the Surgeon General, one of the agencies that may be involved in the government’s AHI Program, falls under the jurisdiction of the HHS.
The Henry M. Jackson Foundation contract totals $1.5 million – double the amount of the Wayne State grant – and covers research into the relationship between traumatic brain injuries and anomalous health incidents.
The foundation does not list the award or the nature of the research on its website, but it may be connected to a one-time employee of the foundation, Dr. James Giordano, a professor of neurology and bioethics at Georgetown University.
Giordano appears regularly in the media as a subject matter expert on anomalous health incidents, and in a 2021 op-ed referencing Havana Syndrome for Medpage Today, he included a financial disclosure stating that he has received funding from both the NIH and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.
When asked about the contract, Colleen Franklin, director of communication for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, stated via email, “This is a government contract, we cannot respond to any media inquiries, requests for interviews or comments.”
The Office of the Surgeon General did not respond to a request for comment.
The “Moscow signal” – echoes from the Cold War
These studies are not the first time the U.S. government has funded inquiries into such phenomena.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) conducted radiation experiments on humans and primates, to see if microwave radiation could impede the mental and physical abilities of test subjects.
The experiments were part of a larger program, Project Pandora, which sought to understand if the Soviet Union had used a directed-energy weapon on staff at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
At the time, embassy employees reported of suffering from ailments similar in character to Havana Syndrome, prompting the government to look into a so-called “Moscow Signal.”
Documents made public by the National Security Archive in 2022, however, revealed that Pandora researchers could find no evidence that microwave radiation degraded mental ability or posed a physical risk at the levels reportedly used against embassy staff.
One of the Pandora studies, identified as Project Big Boy, focused on human test subjects on a Navy ship, the USS Saratoga. The study found no changes between groups who had been exposed to microwave radiation through the Saratoga’s radar equipment and those who had not.
“There were no significant differences discernible among the three groups, either in the dockside or underway tests with respect either to task performance, psychological effects, or biological effects,” reads a summary of findings of Big Boy in a 1979 Congressional report on Pandora.
According to the report, a subsequent primate study also “did not provide an acceptable answer to the question as to whether or not any effects, either behavioral or biological, could be caused by microwave radiation of the intensity and characteristics contained in the synthetic ‘Moscow’ signal.”
Project Pandora was terminated in 1970.
This presents yet another question in a growing list related to anomalous health incidents: If the United States could not find evidence of their existence in earlier research, why is it funding a new round of studies over 50 years later?