Havana Syndrome and the Search for a Smoking Ray Gun

Science reporters have been rolling their eyes over their national security colleagues’ reports of an invisible weapon attacking diplomats. “Call the neurologist and not like, secret sources, you know, ‘intelligence agencies assure me that Fidel Castro is zapping people from the grave.’” 

The long and winding mystery of so-called Havana Syndrome started in late 2016 with Patient Zero, a CIA officer stationed at the American embassy in Cuba who complained of hearing strange noises and painful headaches. In voluminous investigations by the CIA, NSA, State Department, and Pentagon, as well as many media outlets, just what the syndrome is and whether it exists at all has divided the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic communities. It’s also divided reporters who have looked into the matter, too, particularly (but not wholly) health and science reporters attacking national security reporters, whose work tends to get more attention, for their credulity about what the science reporters say are weapons that don’t exist, can’t work, and couldn’t cause the broad spectrum of reported symptoms.

From the start, the story has had all the trappings of a spy novel: otherwise healthy American diplomats in far-flung foreign posts suddenly falling ill with ailments such as nausea, brain fog, and loss of motor function. But after years of speculation around the possibility of some novel nefarious weapon using rays or waves or pulsating energy beams of some sort, news broke late last month that seemed to close a case that has caused not just a long-running rift within the U.S. government’s intelligence community, but within national elite media circles: “In this extensive investigation we have so far not found evidence of state-actor involvement in any incident,” a senior CIA official told CBS News’s Olivia Gazis. “We assess it unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign, harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism.”

Though some cases remain under investigation, the CIA task force found that most (though not all) of the reported cases had more mundane medical and environmental explanations for the illnesses, bolstering a counter-narrative that a portion of the U.S. diplomatic and spy corps had been struck down not by a new super-secret weapon but by a combination of the power of suggestion, routine and severe symptoms that are equally distributed throughout the general population, plus the stress and anxiety of foreign postings, particularly in Havana, which reopened in 2015 for the first time in 54 years. In other words, what is variably called a mass psychogenic illness, a functional disorder, or a conversion disorder. But then, two weeks after the CIA’s announcement came a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence which, while heavily redacted and careful not to outright contradict the CIA, found that the “core characteristics” of the unexplained “anomalous health incidents,” as the intelligence community has called them, could be “plausibly” explained by “pulsed electromagnetic energy” or “ultrasonic arrays.”

Dizzy yet?

“Readers, viewers, listeners have every reason to be confused,” New York Times national security reporter Julian E. Barnes, who has followed the story since 2020, told The Fine Print. “The problem here is, this remains a mystery that we just, you know, the government does not know for sure what happened.” That may be, and Barnes thoughtfully preaches humility about journalists only reporting what they do and don’t know. Still, at least a handful of mostly science and health reporters think they know what is going on: a mass media psychogenic illness among (mostly) national security reporters and Russia alarmists falling for the line doled out by often-anonymous and shadowy government officials hook, line, and ray-gun.

These reporters’ views are perhaps best exemplified by Natalie Shure, a New Republic contributor specializing in health, history, and politics, who wrote that the CIA’s report “underscores what many of us outside ‘the Blob’ already knew: that there’s never been a lick of credible evidence backing the imagined nefarious cause of Havana Syndrome.” On Twitter, she called previous coverage “the doofiest media fuckup in recent memory.”

Prime among Shure’s targets has been Puck’s Julia Ioffe. Among Ioffe’s noteworthy Havana Syndrome pieces is 2020’s “The Mystery of the Immaculate Concussion” for GQ, which introduced former covert CIA operative Marc Polymeropoulos and said he had been “hit” with a “secret device” while working in Moscow. Polymeropoulos has gone on to become the frontman of sorts for victims lobbying for support and a familiar character in the genre after appearing in several reports for multiple news organizations.

“Ioffe wasn’t the only journalist to botch the Havana Syndrome story, though she may have been the first to write a Havana Syndrome feature article on it that largely dispensed with the word ‘alleged,’ and discussed both the ‘attacks’ and the fact that Russia was surely orchestrating them as foregone conclusions,” Shure wrote for the Discontents newsletter. “She is, however, emblematic of how the story was handled by national security reporters, the dingbats who peddled this crap for half a decade with a straight face.”

Neither Shure nor Ioffe responded to requests for comment. Ioffe did tweet on February 7 that the lead item from Politico’s National Security Daily newsletter was “Fascinating,” and added that “Senator Warner, chair of the Senate Intel, now thin[k]s Havana Syndrome/AHIs were NOT caused by directed energy. In October, he was pretty sure they WERE. The intelligence on this is clearly evolving if still muddy.”

Aside from the fact that there can be a difference between psychosomatic symptoms and psychogenic symptoms, nobody The Fine Print spoke with believes the injuries reported by victims aren’t real. The question is the cause. And this is where journalists with backgrounds in science and medicine take issue with their national security colleagues.

For example, in January 2021, Dan Vergano of BuzzFeed News reported, “The ‘Havana syndrome’ outbreak of mysterious injuries among U.S. diplomats in Cuba can’t be explained by their medical records, according to a 2019 CDC report buried by the agency and obtained by BuzzFeed News.” Vergano is a science reporter who told The Fine Print that because he doesn’t have national security sources, he has approached the story from the “outside-in” in the style of the legendary I.F. Stone instead of “inside-out” in the style of someone with access. That approach has led him to uncover previously unreported documents. A story he published last September reported, “Noises linked to mysterious injuries among U.S. diplomats in Cuba were most likely caused by crickets — not microwave weapons — according to a declassified scientific review commissioned by the U.S. State Department and obtained by BuzzFeed News.” The report, which came as a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, had been issued in 2018 and found the use of microwave or ultrasound weapons “highly unlikely” and concluded, “psychogenic effects may serve to explain important components of the reported injuries.”

Vergano’s frustration with traditional national security reporters is palpable. “Call some doctors, call the neurologist and not like, secret sources, you know, ‘intelligence agencies assure me that Fidel Castro is zapping people from the grave.’ Call a doctor and find out if this is possible. You can call the Health Physics Society, and they’ll give you experts,” he said. “If you have a story saying ‘intelligence sources say blah, blah, blah is happening, that microwave weapons are being deployed on a diplomat in Washington D.C.,’ and they didn’t go to an expert in neurology to say, ‘Is that even possible?’ or an expert in microwaves, I wouldn’t consider that a complete story.”

The most aggrieved scientist, though, might be Robert Bartholomew, a psychological medicine professor at the University of Auckland who devotes the first three chapters of his 2020 book, Havana Syndrome: Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Real Story Behind the Embassy Mystery and Hysteria written with the UCLA neurologist Robert Baloh, to a thorough, devastating critique of the media’s Havana Syndrome coverage. “The media has done a great disservice,” Bartholomew said in an interview from New Zealand. “This is primarily a syndrome created and propagated by the American media, and the American media has the ability to put an end to it as well with objective reporting.”

Not all national security reporters are stuck in their own prism. Sharon Weinberger, who last month joined The Wall Street Journal as national security editor after three years as Yahoo News’s D.C. bureau chief, approvingly tweeted out Vergano’s story, saying, “Credulous articles quoting no credible scientists/engineers on Havana Syndrome will get thousands of likes/retweets, but @dvergano’s excellent reporting on the JASON review risks going under the radar. If you believe in ‘following the science’ read it.”

For what it’s worth, Weinberger is a rare journalist whose areas of expertise put her squarely in the Venn diagram overlap between national security and science. In 2007, she published the book Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld and more recently, in 2017, she wrote The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World. She’s thought a lot about far-out weapons, imaginary and not. (Weinberger declined to comment for this story, citing the demands of her new job and unfamiliarity with the Journal media policy.)

And as she suggested in her recommendation of Vergano’s reporting, one of the frustrations for science-oriented journalists is that their work tends to get less attention than the ready-for-Hollywood storylines offered by their national security brethren. And as the audience gets larger, the coverage seems to get even worse. Take 60 Minutes, which first ran a segment with correspondent Scott Pelley in 2019 recounting claims of an “invisible weapon” used on American diplomats. Neuroscientist and author R. Douglas Fields, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health’s Section on Nervous System Development and Plasticity, struck back at 60 Minutes within days in a withering post on his website, calling it “an example of how a once credible press has been supplanted by tabloid sensationalism and fearmongering.” When the segment re-aired last June, it was introduced as describing “what appears to be a hostile foreign government’s plan to target Americans abroad and their families.” A behind-the-scenes edition of 60 Minutes Overtime produced last summer said that producers Michael Rey and Oriana Zill de Granados had worked on the original report for about a year, and their conclusion? “While some reporting has claimed the victims were suffering from mass hysteria, not from some sort of attack, the producers say their own reporting doesn’t back that up. ‘There are a lot of elements here that just discount the idea of this being mass hysteria,’ Zill de Granados said.” Reached for comment, Rey said they are working on a follow-up that will likely air this coming Sunday, February 20.

In May 2019, science writer Dan Hurley published a 5,300-word New York Times Magazine story that presented the medical case for Havana Syndrome being explained as a functional disorder, an emerging field of study in neurology. “If it is hard to understand how a mysterious psychological and neurological process could have sickened a group of previously healthy diplomats,” Hurley wrote, “it turns out to be even harder to understand how invisible weapons could have done so.” His author bio on the piece included the line, “He is writing a book about the history of functional disorders,” but Hurley told The Fine Print he was unable to sell his proposal. “I have long found it bizarre that national security reporters keep writing about a complex scientific and medical question,” he said.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from all of this, it may be that on stories like Havana Syndrome, reporters from disparate beats, in this case, national security and science, should be paired to produce the best work. “I have tried throughout this reporting to be very, very humble about what we know. And really say that there is a lot we don’t know, and that right now, the answer is not out there and that smart people are trying to look for it,” The Times’ Barnes said. “This is one of those stories where humility is always in order, because just as you think you’ve figured it out, then a new piece of information comes out.”