Havana Syndrome: is it real, and who's causing it if so?

For nearly a decade, there have been isolated reports of strange health problems in United States diplomatic and espionage personnel stationed in sensitive parts of the world, such as Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Although there is no typical case, there are some commonalities in many of the cases.

The symptoms usually have a sudden onset. Victims describe hearing strange noises, feeling severe pain in the head and elsewhere, and other neurological symptoms. Some of them have proved to sustain serious brain trauma injuries and suffered chronic debility from the attack. Some victims have been struck inside offices or hotel rooms, while others were outside — one attack allegedly occurred on The Ellipse in Washington, DC.

Of course, US government investigations into these incidents have sought to determine several things, including (a) whether the attacks are real, or simply a product of psychological stress and conventional illness, and (b) if they are real, what is causing them. The matter is complicated by the fact that diplomatic issues are involved, as well as national prestige.


A recent year-long investigation by news organisations, including the web-based Insider, Germany's Der Spiegel, and CBS's 60 Minutes revealed on 31 March that there is strong circumstantial evidence pointing to Russian operatives who have been seen in the vicinity of many of the attacks. Although no "smoking-gun" evidence such as hardware or caught-in-the-act scenarios have come to light, the Russians are known to be researching directed-energy weapons, which the US and other countries have already deployed in certain areas.

Directed-energy weapons work by generating powerful radio-frequency or microwave energy and directing it in a concentrated beam toward a target. (There are also weapons of this kind that use infrared or visible laser beams, but those are easily blocked by walls and are probably not being used in these cases.) Depending on the power level and the nature of the target, the results of an attack can range from simple heating to crippling damage in the case of a hardware target such as a missile, or severe physical injury in the case of a biological organism.

One problem in trying to discover material on this topic is that no one who has a working unit wants to brag about what it can do. Undoubtedly, many animal studies have been done in this area, but to my limited knowledge, there is very little on it in the open literature.


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Besides that, the US government, or at least some people in it, seem reluctant to name names even if they do have strong evidence that, for example, Russian spies are causing most of the Havana syndrome cases. National Review reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said as recently as a year ago that they thought enemy action as a cause of Havana Syndrome was "very unlikely". And Sen. J. D. Vance's reaction to the 31 March news reports was dismissive, to say the least — he said it felt like "a lot of journalists have lost their minds."

As a microwave engineer, I admit that this whole controversy inspires in me a sense of frustration, because the one thing that is true about directed-energy weapons is that they are extremely easy to detect, given the proper equipment. Unfortunately, depending on the nature of the weapon, the proper equipment can be costly and inconvenient to use.


There are wideband radio receivers that can sense radiation ranging in wavelength from below the AM broadcast band (roughly 0.5 to 1.5 MHz) well into the microwave region (3 to 30 GHz, billions of Hz). But if the energy is powerful enough (and it would have to be to cause the symptoms that victims report), the receiver doesn't have to be complicated at all.

A set of wideband printed antennas going to detector diodes monitored by a low-power (but well-shielded!) microprocessor could form an electronic version of the old radiation badges that used to be worn at all times by workers in nuclear reactors (and still may be, for all I know). And produced in enough quantity, these units could cost under a kilobuck each, possibly much less.

The point is, if we are looking for conclusive proof of both the cause of these attacks and the fact that they do indeed occur, a fairly small amount of engineering effort would result in an abundance of data in case anyone wearing such a sensor was attacked. This project would cost something, but the lives of diplomats and other personnel abroad are worth something too.

But no technical solution that ends up getting used by people is purely technical. Someone has to need it enough to make it and deploy it. And there are abundant indications that in this situation, as with many other issues relating to the US's relationship, such as it is, with Russia, the administration seems eager to smooth over issues that arise rather than taking firm countermeasures. If such smoking-gun knowledge that portable directed-energy monitors could provide is something that the US government doesn't want to know, the US government isn't going to go to the trouble of looking for it.

To my mind, this is a dereliction of duty to protect your own people from harm. At least one diplomat resigned his post rather than run the risk of suffering an attack similar to what several of his colleagues received. When things get this serious, it seems that any technical means available should be taken to protect people against these attacks, and getting hard evidence of them first would take us a long way toward that goal.

As more news about Havana Syndrome becomes available, political pressure to do something may change some minds in the government where it counts. But for all the public knows at this moment, our diplomats and other personnel abroad are sitting ducks, waiting for another directed-energy-weapon attack. And figuring out what these attacks are and who is doing them is the first step toward preventing them.

What, if anything, should the US government do about reports of Havana Syndrome? Leave a comment below.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering in the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics.

Image: Pexels


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