‘Deny Everything’: Why the US Hasn’t Solved the Mystery of Havana Syndrome

A new investigative podcast from VICE World News seeks to answer what really happened to the US spies and diplomats who fell ill starting in 2016.
is-havana-syndrome-real-vice-podcast
A man walks past the US consulate building in Guangzhou, southern China, in 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Kelvin Chan

It started off as a rash of really bad headaches, and loud sounds coming from his ceiling, as if his upstairs neighbour was dropping ball bearings on their floor. Then, Mark Lenzi, a US diplomatic security officer stationed in Guangzhou, China, realised his wife was having headaches, too. They began downing bottles of aspirin to get through the day. Finally, Lenzi noticed that his kids were waking up with nosebleeds. Things only got worse from there. “As 2017 turned into 2018,” Lenzi told VICE World News, “my most distressing symptom… was short-term memory loss.”

Advertisement

Lenzi didn’t know what was causing the symptoms he and his family were experiencing. But soon after the headaches started, he learned that his nextdoor neighbour, another consulate official, had recently been medically evacuated from Guangzhou for treatment back in the United States. Lenzi tracked down her contact info and called her. What she said shocked him. “I'm back [in the US] diagnosed with brain injury,” Lenzi recalled her saying. “The same thing that was going on in Cuba.” Even more distressing, Lenzi’s neighbour said that she had advised the Guangzhou consulate leadership to immediately evacuate all US personnel from their apartment building. She pleaded with Lenzi to move his family to a new residence as quickly as possible.

Lenzi’s story is featured in one of the latest episodes of VICE’s new podcast Havana Syndrome, which we reported alongside hosts Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous.

Reporters Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous, the hosts of the new podcast ‘Havana Syndrome.’ Photos: Ramon Campos Iriarte

Reporters Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous, the hosts of the new podcast ‘Havana Syndrome.’ Photos: Ramon Campos Iriarte

Eventually, Lenzi, his family, and a dozen or so other people were medically evacuated in 2018. This was the first cluster of supposed Havana Syndrome cases reported outside of the Cuban capital. But it wouldn’t be the only case to occur off the island. In December 2017, a high-ranking CIA official experienced a similar bout of inexplicable head pain and nausea in his hotel room in Moscow.

Mark Lenzi, pictured in 2019 in Boston. Photo: AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi

Mark Lenzi, pictured in 2019 in Boston. Photo: AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi

In mid-2019, two White House staffers on a state visit to London reported feeling intense pressure in their heads. The following year, a US Defence Department employee felt a sudden acute pain in his skull while driving in a country with a “large Russian presence.” The employee’s infant child was in the back seat of the car at the time and simultaneously began screaming in pain.

Advertisement

Even though reported Havana Syndrome cases spiked around the world, US officials back in Washington DC hesitated to devote resources to solving the mystery. Lenzi told us that before he was medically evacuated from Guangzhou, he confronted his bosses at the State Department, questioning why they had continued to house his family in the same building where his neighbour had gotten sick. Lenzi said consulate leadership stonewalled him. Shortly thereafter, Lenzi sent an angry email to almost 200 of his colleagues, as well as State Department leadership in Beijing and Washington, accusing US officials of “an attempted cover-up.” The State Department told us in an email, “Due to privacy concerns and for security reasons, we do not discuss specific individuals or events.”

The State Department wasn’t the only agency accused of ignoring or discrediting victims in the early days of the crisis. “I had colleagues who … immediately said, oh, this is crazy. They're just acting like a bunch of little girls, they need to man up, this is just stress,” said a former CIA doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak on the record. The doctor was initially charged with investigating the cases in Havana beginning in late 2016, before he himself came down with those same symptoms while visiting the city. 

Advertisement

“I had colleagues who … immediately said, oh, this is crazy. They're just acting like a bunch of little girls, they need to man up, this is just stress.”

After he reported his own suspected Havana Syndrome incident, the doctor claimed that the rest of the CIA’s medical staff turned against him, accusing him and the other Havana Syndrome patients of malingering, mental health issues, and even weakness. The former CIA doctor explained the CIA’s behaviour by quoting a popular saying in the intelligence community: “Deny everything, admit nothing, and make counter-accusations. … So they had to make ad hominem attacks to discredit the doctors, the patients, and everyone.” The CIA declined to respond on the record to these comments. 

US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in July 2022. Photo: SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images

US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in July 2022. Photo: SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images

While the CIA was slow to seriously respond to the potential threat of Havana Syndrome, other arms of the US government did take the unexplained health phenomena seriously. And in December of 2020, four years after the initial cases occurred, the National Academies of Sciences released a report which pointed to “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” as a likely potential cause for the earliest cases of Havana Syndrome. The report also named a foreign power that had spent years testing weapons with this sort of directed energy: Russia. 

The US embassy in Moscow, pictured around 1964. Photo: File

The US embassy in Moscow, pictured around 1964. Photo: File

We spoke with numerous scientists and former US officials who confirmed Russia’s long-held interest in microwaves, whether for use in surveillance or in directed energy weapons. Starting in the 1950s at the US embassy in Moscow, “we had set up several secure rooms that were insulated against the three ways you can get information out,” former US ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock told us, “light, sound and microwaves.” Weapons experts we spoke with said that both the US and Russia have invested millions of dollars over the course of decades to create and enhance the effectiveness of directed energy weapons – a vestige of Cold War competition. Or in the words of a long time laser weapons researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “I think the military has always wanted some sort of death ray.”

Advertisement

At the US embassy in Moscow, “we had set up several secure rooms that were insulated against the three ways you can get information out,” former US ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock told us. “Light, sound and microwaves.”

In July 2021, Havana Syndrome co-host Entous broke the news in the New Yorker that nearly two dozen cases of Havana Syndrome-like symptoms had been reported by spies and diplomats in Vienna, Austria. This was now the largest cluster of cases outside of Cuba, in a city famous for being a hotbed of spy activity since the Cold War. 

In response to the suspected outbreak of Havana Syndrome in Vienna, the CIA fired its local station chief for not taking the situation seriously enough. The CIA declined to comment on the record regarding what happened in the Austrian capital.

But former CIA officers we spoke with expressed the view that the agency still hasn’t done enough to support them. In the podcast, we reveal that after months of allegedly ignoring or downplaying the plight of its officers in Havana, the CIA changed course and suddenly gave the former officers a secret award. One of the medals provided to VICE commends the anonymous officer for his “selfless service despite being targeted by unknown forces and subjected to unprecedented damaging attacks.”

Listen to Havana Syndrome now on Apple Podcasts