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Mysterious health attacks like those seen in Cuba have come to DC


The White House, the South Lawn, and part of the Ellipse are seen from the observation deck of the Washington Monument on October 1, 2014, in Washington, DC.
Enlarge / The White House, the South Lawn, and part of the Ellipse are seen from the observation deck of the Washington Monument on October 1, 2014, in Washington, DC.

At least two US government officials in the Washington, DC, area have experienced mysterious health incidents that are strikingly similar to the brain-damaging “health attacks” that plagued US diplomats in Cuba beginning in 2016.

Last November, a National Security Council official reported being sickened while near the Ellipse, the White House’s large, oval-shaped southern lawn, according to a report by CNN. In a separate 2019 incident, a White House staff member said she also experienced something akin to a health attack while walking her dog in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. The 2019 incident, which occurred just after Thanksgiving, was first reported by GQ last year. The magazine wrote at the time:

According to a government source familiar with the incident, the staffer passed a parked van. A man got out and walked past her. Her dog started seizing up. Then she felt it too: a high-pitched ringing in her ears, an intense headache, and a tingling on the side of her face.

The staffer also said she had experienced a similar incident just a few months earlier, in August of 2019, while she was traveling in London with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. According to GQ, the staffer reported again feeling a tingling in the side of her head, which was facing the window of her hotel room, as well as intense pressure and ringing in her ears. All of those symptoms stopped when she left the room.

The accounts are eerily similar to those from US and Canadian diplomats in Cuba, as well as later reports from US diplomats in China. Many of the diplomats reported experiencing directional high-pitch sounds, grinding noises, and/or vibrations that led to a constellation of symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, balance problems, ringing in the ears, nosebleeds, difficulty concentrating and recalling words, permanent hearing loss, and speech problems. A medical case report of some of the victims concluded that they had sustained “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.”

Ongoing investigation

Since the first reports occurred among diplomats in Cuba, the puzzling condition has often been dubbed “Havana syndrome.” The cases led the US to dramatically reduce staff at the US embassy in Havana.

On Thursday, CNN reported and NBC News confirmed that federal agencies are now investigating the two incidents on US soil, as well as the more than 40 cases reported in diplomats who were sickened abroad.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers on Thursday that she would work to get them more details on the investigation, NBC News reported. So far, details appear scarce because the investigation is classified.

“Our concern obviously with the classification is because it’s protecting sources and methods and it’s critical to our national security,” Haines said during testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

The bizarre incidents and health effects have led to much public speculation on the potential cause. Scientists in Cuba and elsewhere have suggested that the syndrome may be a collective delusion, or mass psychogenic illness (MPI). Others have suggested that the irritating experiences may simply be due to the clamor of mating crickets or malfunctioning surveillance equipment. Officials in Canada have suggested the effects may be caused by overexposure to pesticides.

A report released late last year by a committee of scientific experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the “most plausible mechanism” that explains the diplomats’ experiences and symptoms is directed pulsed radiofrequency energy. To support their conclusion, experts pointed to significant research conducted in Russia/the USSR on pulsed RF exposures.

The finding feeds into a persistent idea that Russia is behind the attacks and is carrying them out with some sort of clandestine, portable, microwave-based weapon. Since the cases came to light in Cuba, US personnel have also reported similar incidents while in Russia. Defense officials told CNN that Russia is among the top suspects but that China is suspected as well.



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