Last month, an incredibly vague but also weirdly specific memo started making the rounds at the Pentagon. It was about something Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin labeled an “anomalous health incident,” which is defined “a series of troubling and sudden sensory events.” An “AHI,” as it’s called, could involve headaches or make you feel hot. It could be accompanied by sounds or make you feel pressure. Michael Wilner, a senior national security and White House correspondent for McClatchy, says “AHI” is Pentagon speak for something you may already know about: “Havana syndrome,” which is named thus because it first emerged in Cuba in late 2016. Since then, one incident after another has piled up in other countries: China, Russia, Austria. Diplomats, CIA operatives, and even White House employees have been struck. The Pentagon memo was essentially an acknowledgement that, if you work for the department, you could be at risk. The list of things that are actually known about Havana syndrome is short, but Wilner says that if you look closely, the way the Biden administration is reorienting its priorities right now tells you all you need to know. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Wilner about how Havana syndrome is becoming a national security crisis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Havana Syndrome got its name because of some incidents that happened in Cuba in late 2016 and early 2017. Can you explain what happened?
Michael Wilner: So about 26 or so U.S. government officials were stationed in Havana, and the intelligence officials and diplomats felt a sudden onset of several concerning symptoms: hearing loss, vertigo, pressure in the head.
And this was when they were in their homes.
Somewhere in their homes around the embassy. And because of the large cluster, it became a significant event.
You’ve spoken to people who’ve had symptoms. How do they describe what it feels like?
The problem is that the physiological symptoms are different for every person. One person I spoke with collapsed with pain in the head and said they were very nauseous. It was really the sudden onset of it, with no clear explanation, that flagged for them that this was an unusual phenomenon.
It’s been tough for the intelligence community to get its arms around because the symptoms are so amorphous. Back in 2017, when the Trump administration was dealing with the fallout of the original attacks, there was doubt that the ailments were even real. It seems to me like doubt was baked into the response to what was happening with these officials employees in Cuba. At some point, the University of Pennsylvania was looped in, and State Department employees starting going to the brain injury center there to be evaluated. At least one reporter noted that before folks came, some significant contingent of the doctors said, This is probably psychosomatic. This isn’t necessarily a real thing.
The FBI doubted it. There were elements of the intelligence community that had their doubts. This essentially led to a period of stasis: You had government officials who were reluctant to come forward. There was a lot of concern at the time that this was mass hysteria, and it wasn’t until cases started popping up elsewhere that the debate was resurfaced over what might be causing these events.
I wonder if the turning point was when people who worked in the White House started experiencing something that sounded very much like what had happened in Cuba.
Within the White House, they couldn’t really avoid the topic. One national security official was walking to his car out of the White House compound, collapsed due to the sudden onset of heat and pressure in the head, and had to get care immediately. There was another case in the suburbs of Washington with an individual U.S. government official who was walking their dog, and both the dog and the official had sudden pressure symptoms in their heads.
These two incidents happened in quick succession, which caused the Trump administration to commission a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Their best hypothesis as to what was causing the attacks was microwave energy directed at American officials. That idea is still holding water, even as more attacks happen and more information comes to light.
We’ve seen cases in Vienna, a hot spot for espionage activity. We’ve seen cases in Vietnam so concerning that they delayed Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip from Singapore—she was on the tarmac for three hours as her security detail tried to figure out if it was safe to proceed. We’ve seen cases in London and in Serbia. The accumulation of these cases is concerning, but it has provided an accumulation of evidence, and that has bolstered the confidence, in this administration, that this is a real pattern.
The difficult part of reporting this Havana syndrome story out is that there are so many breadcrumbs. Take what high level officials are calling these incidents: Publicly, President Joe Biden and his administration are using that “anomalous health incidents” language. But there are signs that some high-ranking officials want to be more explicit. Earlier this year, during his confirmation hearing, CIA Director Bill Burns called them “attacks.”
Up until that point, there really was no official in a senior capacity, much less someone from the intelligence community, coming forward and describing these as attacks. They haven’t said there is a government or state actor that’s behind it, but it is known to the government that the technology that would be required, the reach, and the motive are unique to a select number of state actors.
It sounds like you’re saying that to understand what’s happening with Havana syndrome, you need to look at the subtext as much as the text. Even though Biden hasn’t been explicit, he’s been putting people in charge of investigating Havana syndrome, who have been so trusted within government that it implies he is taking those theories seriously.
There is a lot of implication in this story and not a lot that’s explicit, and obviously that makes it hard to report on. The careful wording of everything the administration says on this is due to a lack of confidence in what it knows. We’re also talking about intelligence officers being affected in the field and privacy concerns for diplomats. There are a lot of reasons why they can’t talk about the specifics in each and every case.
Three consecutive administrations have suspected that Russia is behind this phenomenon for several reasons. Russia is known to have microwave energy technologies that it’s deployed as a surveillance tool—it has the reach, especially in the countries where we’ve seen reported cases, be it Vietnam or Austria or the U.K., certainly the Washington area, and of course Cuba. The Russians are known to operate and thrive in the gray. They deploy poison and cyberweapons that give them plausible deniability. This fits within that pattern, so it has long been suspected that Russia is the most likely culprit.
Biden’s team, during his first in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, brought this up with the Russians, and that is not an insignificant thing.
Do we know what happened once he brought this up?
We were told before the meeting that this would not likely come up because the team wouldn’t mention it if they didn’t have the confidence that Russia had something to say. So it was quite surprising to us when we discovered that, in fact, it had come up. It’s telling.
There was confidence.
There was something to talk about with the Russians, and they had something to contribute here. I would say the other big revelation in the past couple weeks or months has been in this workforce guidance that’s gone across the national security space. The direction to U.S. government personnel is move away from the immediate area with everyone else if you feel sudden symptoms. To us, that is a clear clue that the government is considering the working theory that this is a directed energy attack of some kind from somewhere. And it’s operating based on that theory, even if it hasn’t fully proved it yet. It has always been a challenge for the United States to come up with options to respond to this.