Havana Syndrome: an act of war or just an act?

Are US diplomats and CIA emissaries really subjected to mysterious ‘neurological attacks’ around the world?

People gather at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, on September 29, 2017, after the US State Department announced that it would cut the embassy's staff by half in the wake of 'mysterious health problems that have injured more than 20 people associated with the US embassy' [File: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images]

Once upon a time in Havana, Cuba, a strange thing happened.

United States diplomats and CIA emissaries to the country began reporting the sudden onset of debilitating symptoms, ranging from headaches and hearing loss to vertigo and nausea. As The New York Times notes, the symptoms were “brought on, most of [the victims] said, by a piercing, high-pitched sound, as though they had been caught in ‘an invisible beam of energy’”.

The inexplicable phenomenon, which was first recorded in 2016, was dubbed “Havana Syndrome”, and was initially hyped as potentially being caused by some sort of Cuban sonic weapon.

Never mind the US State Department’s assessment that the high-pitched sound in question was most probably emitted by the Indies short-tailed cricket. A global superpower should never miss an opportunity to malign a tiny communist island for being a thorn in the side of the empire.

Five years later, Havana Syndrome is back in the spotlight – after spreading not just far beyond the confines of Cuba but also, it seems, the realm of plausible reality.

More than 200 US diplomatic, military, and intelligence personnel worldwide have now claimed affliction by the condition – from China to Austria and Colombia to Kyrgyzstan.

In August, a visit to Vietnam by US Vice President Kamala Harris was delayed slightly following concerns that Havana Syndrome had struck in Hanoi. And in September, the CIA evacuated an officer from Serbia who had – as Fox News put it – “suffered serious injuries consistent with those associated with Havana Syndrome, part of a rise of such attacks on US officials overseas”.

While the officially sanctioned terminology for suspected syndrome-related episodes is “anomalous health incidents”, belligerent language involving “attacks” and the like is becoming increasingly normalised in the US political-media establishment. This should be of concern to anyone who cares that the US tendency to engage in aggressive and destructive behaviour abroad based on lies and fabrications is, well, hardly an anomaly.

According to The Politico website, Havana Syndrome is almost certainly “the result of directed-energy attacks by a foreign government – likely Russia” – a narrative that is currently gaining traction among select media outlets as they direct their own energy into journalistic attacks that assist in the creation of facts on the ground regarding alleged microwave assaults by US nemeses.

The problem with this narrative, however, is that there is zero evidence to back it up. Fox News, even while admitting that “no evidence has so far emerged of Russian involvement”, nonetheless chooses to end its article on the Serbian incident with a suggestion from counterterrorism and foreign policy expert Jason Killmeyer that the US should go ahead and take action anyway because “we’re five years into this thing. There’s no ‘smoking gun’ coming.”

Meanwhile, CIA veteran Marc Polymeropoulos – who allegedly fell prey to Havana Syndrome during a 2017 mission in Moscow – contends that the whole business constitutes a “terror weapon” and an “act of war”.

Therefore, the thinking apparently goes, the US must retaliate – just like it retaliated against Iraq for, you know, having nothing to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Fittingly for the fear-mongering crowd, CIA Director William Burns – himself a former Moscow-based diplomat – has appointed to oversee the agency’s war on Havana Syndrome none other than an undercover spy who spearheaded the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

And US President Joe Biden has dutifully signed into law the HAVANA Act, which stands for Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks.

But is Havana Syndrome itself all an act and nothing more?

In a recent op-ed, Robert Baloh – professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles – writes that Havana Syndrome “looks to me like a textbook case of mass psychogenic illness”, otherwise known as “mass hysteria”.

The phenomenon began, he notes, with a single undercover – presumably stressed out – US agent in Cuba who “had real symptoms, but blamed them on something mysterious” and told his colleagues. In the end, “with the help of the media and medical community, the idea solidified and spread around the world” despite the lack of medical or other evidence.

A BBC News article furthermore points out that the US itself has long had an “interest in weaponising microwaves”, and that, as of the 1990s, the US Air Force presided over a project “to see if microwaves could create disturbing sounds in people’s heads” as well as one “to see if they could be used to kill people”.

Disturbing, indeed.

The BBC goes on to quote ex-CIA officer Polymeropoulos on how Havana Syndrome is now a “major distraction for us if we think that the Russians are doing things to our intelligence officers who are travelling”. This state of affairs, he says, will “put a crimp in our operational footprint”.

But would a “crimp” in the operational footprint of the CIA – not to mention the US military – be such a bad thing in the end? After all, both institutions possess a formidable track record of literally terrorising countless people across the world – from Cuba, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – with methods far more damaging and lethal than, say, cricket noises and migraine induction.

Whatever happens with Havana Syndrome, then, it is safe to say the US has long excelled at exploiting mass domestic hysteria to wreak bellicose havoc internationally. It seems the time has perhaps come, then, to diagnose a syndrome with a different sort of geographic specificity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.