HAVANA – For some, it began as a loud noise, like the sound of grinding metal. Others heard something that sounded more like a giant swarm of cicadas. Then, the intense pressure to their ears and head kicked in, which caused headaches, nausea and vertigo. If the person experiencing this bizarre affliction tried to move – to “get off the x” – the noise and pressure would suddenly cease. But the physical symptoms would linger for days, and in some cases, years.
The series of incidents described above were first reported in Havana, Cuba in late 2016 by US spies and diplomats stationed there. Doctors who initially treated these patients could not come up with a diagnosis for the symptoms many continued to suffer from. Some just called it “The Thing.”
In the years since, reported incidents have spread beyond Havana, to places like Vienna, London, Moscow and even in the vicinity of the White House. The medical community remains baffled by what “The Thing” is. Some question whether it is real at all, and have suggested it might be a case of widespread psychogenic illness – also known as hysteria.
Doctors who initially treated these patients could not come up with a diagnosis for the symptoms many continued to suffer from. Some just called it “The Thing.”
In late 2018, my colleague Adam Entous and I teamed up to find out exactly what happened to these spies and diplomats. The resulting New Yorker piece – “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome” – uncovered many new details about incidents, as well as the timeline of events that led up to the initial reports in Cuba. But years later, we – along with the rest of the world – are still asking: what is Havana Syndrome? Is it real? And if it is real, who – or what – is causing it? And perhaps the most frustrating question of all: why is it taking the US government so long to solve it?
Our new podcast Havana Syndrome aims to answer those questions.
In following the trail of clues, we uncovered some deeply-held secrets about the world of global espionage that could provide the key to finally solving the mystery.
In our reporting, we traveled to Havana to visit the scene of several early incidents; we visited London where two White House staffers reported Havana Syndrome symptoms in a hotel located just blocks from Buckingham Palace; we paid a visit to Vienna, where the second largest outbreak of reported Havana Syndrome cases led to the dismissal of the local CIA station chief; and we retraced the steps of a national security official who reported an incident within shouting distance of the Oval Office.
In 2013, an idealistic young speechwriter for President Barack Obama named Ben Rhodes set out to change the course of history, engaging in secret talks with the communist government of Cuba to mend fences between the two countries. In December 2014, he accomplished this goal when President Obama and President Raúl Castro jointly announced the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba for the first time in 50 years. “It was the highpoint of my life,” Rhodes told us. “My daughter was born on December 11th, and this was December 17th.”
But Rhodes’s success also provided new opportunities for US spies. “Once you have that up close and personal access,” then-CIA Director John Brennan told us in a surprisingly candid interview, “it affords you new opportunities as far as your intelligence objectives are concerned.” In other words: the CIA saw the historic "rapprochement" as an opening to conduct more successful espionage in Cuba, a country with a reputation for being among the most difficult in the world for foreign spies to penetrate.
A former CIA officer named Tony – a pseudonym for security reasons – stationed undercover in Havana spoke exclusively to us for the podcast. He said Cuban intelligence would regularly place guards outside his home and used camera surveillance to track his every movement. Sometimes, they’d even come into his home. “They'd defecate in your house, cut your internet lines, they would drain your water cisterns. They'd flatten your tires or do some sort of damage to your car.”
In late December 2016, Tony experienced what he believed to be a new form of harassment. “This loud sound just blasted into my bedroom,” he explained. “And then the severe, severe ear pain started.”
Tony rolled off his bed to get away from the sound and pressure. But shortly thereafter, he began experiencing bizarre symptoms including headaches, nosebleeds and dizziness. Other CIA officers, as well as diplomats in the US embassy, reported similar incidents and health problems. Initially the US government suspected that the Cubans were somehow involved in causing these health problems or knew about them. They reached out to the Cuban leadership to seek answers. President Castro himself denied any involvement.
“This loud sound just blasted into my bedroom. And then the severe, severe ear pain started.”
In August 2017, Tony, Tina and their affected colleagues were flown to the US and secretly taken to a medical facility at the University of Pennsylvania for treatment. The team there concluded that their ailments were in fact real – likely not the result of any mass psychogenic illness – and that the victims must have suffered from a form of traumatic brain injury, similar to a concussion. But what could cause a concussion without leaving behind any physical evidence? That remains unknown.
But to Tony, the swiftness with which his physical condition devolved after that incident remains baffling. “I was at the top physical, psychological, emotional place I could have ever been in my life,” he told us. “I was just a force to be reckoned with and I was gung ho to do my job. And within six months, I was a zombie and nonfunctional as a human being.”
Listen to the first four episodes of Havana Syndrome wherever you get your podcasts starting on January 17th.