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Washington’s “Havana Syndrome” Promoters Have a Lot to Answer For

The CIA’s abrupt turnabout on the issue of imaginary microwave ray guns left a lot of lawmakers without a favorite political prop.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio listens during a Senate hearing.
Alex Brandon/Getty Images
Florida Senator Marco Rubio was an early adopter of the Havana Syndrome craze.

Earlier this month, the federal agency most beloved by national security reporters threw some cold water on a conspiracy theory that corner of the media ecosystem has been peddling for years: Per interim findings of a CIA investigation described widely by spokespeople, “Havana Syndrome” is not a sustained campaign targeting U.S. personnel with directed energy weapons around the world. (The CIA did stipulate, however, that it can’t yet definitively rule out “attacks” in about two dozen cases out of hundreds, which smacks of a face-saving consolation prize for everyone involved.) 

Even for those of us typically skeptical of the CIA, the announcement amounted to an undeniable and significant sea change: Previously, CIA Director Burns had reportedly been referring to the officially named “anomalous health incidents” as “attacks” in private, had tripled the number of medical specialists working on the issue, tapped a bin Laden manhunt alum to lead the investigation, and warned Russia of “consequences” if it was found to be behind the incidentsa serious response he’d garnered wide praise for, from both lawmakers and self-identified victims of directed energy weapons. The fact that the agency is now explicitly declaring that no international plot to trigger common symptoms of general malaise among U.S. government employees exists underscores what many of us outside “the Blob” already knew: that there’s never been a lick of credible evidence backing the imagined nefarious cause of Havana Syndrome.

This welcome reversal makes more than a few public officials look very stupid, which may explain why several of them immediately downplayed the report. Senator Susan Collins described her surprise “at the findings, which seem to contradict other testimony that we have had.” Representative Adam Schiff said this was “a first step … but far from the last” to unravel the mystery. “Everything we’ve been told up to this point has been different,” railed Senator Bob Menendez. “All of a sudden we come up with a different conclusion?” Their apparent disappointment that diplomats are not, in fact, being hunted across the globe with ray guns islet’s be honestincredibly funny. It also illustrates the extent to which Havana Syndrome has become a political prop.

Looking back at five years of media coverage of Havana Syndrome—as I have done compulsively, for better or worse!—some things have become rivetingly clear. For one, it isn’t just that we lack sufficient or evidence that these cases of nonspecific illness among U.S. employees were caused by microwave lasers—there’s never been much evidence at all. Additionally, it’s not certain that too many people within the government actually ever believed this crap in the first place. But if the ostensibly noble cause of American innocents getting sniped with sci-fi gear never seemed irrefutably true, it was at least politically useful. And elected officials were happy to trot it out whenever it made for some good political theater.

The few dozen cases of American emissaries experiencing symptomsincluding fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and tinnituswhile serving at a high-stress moment of political tumult in Cuba may well have faded into obscurity were it not for the chest-thumping of Senator Marco Rubio, who enthusiastically promoted what had been nicknamed “Havana Syndrome” as proof that the Cuban government was just as worthy of draconian sanctions as Rubio had spent his political career insisting they were. Rubio began dropping hints about the Cuba investigation before any details had been made public, held kangaroo court-style public hearings on the matter, and made repeated assertions such as, “It’s a documented FACT that 24 govt officials & spouses were victims of some sort of sophisticated attack while stationed in Havana.… It is impossible to conduct … without the #CastroRegime knowing about it.”

Fellow anti-Cuban hawk Menendez followed suit, emphasizing that “if senior Cuban officials didn’t order these attacks, they must’ve been aware or given tacit approval to foreign agents to operate in Cuba.” Meanwhile, whether or not the Trump administration bought these sensational explanations, it was more than happy to seize on the alleged illness-inducing weapons as a flimsy pretext to dramatically scale down U.S. diplomatic presence in Cubawhich was, of course, what it had already been planning to do in the first place.

Later, as suspected cases of Havana Syndrome spread to other countries, suspicion seamlessly shifted from Cuba to Russia as the rogue state bent on zapping the brains of people working across a variety of government agencies. This made it a handy outlet for #Resistance-friendly bluster, evoking a detested president’s coziness with the Kremlin. Senator Jeanne Sheehan said reports of alleged directed energy attacks were “deeply troubling and should spur the Trump administration to do everything in its power to protect federal employees from these attacks and investigate the full scope of this threat,” eventually leaking letters from her office admonishing the Trump administration’s response to the press. Senator Mark Warner, too, criticized Trumpland’s response: “This is an area where the previous administration just whiffed.… Victims of these attacks weren’t taken seriously enough, for years.” Multiple Democratic lawmakers condemned agencies’ indifference toward Havana Syndrome victims after a New York Times investigation in 2020.

The incoming Biden administration pulled out all the stops to show a sharp contrast with its predecessorlike the CIA, the State Department also made a point to demonstrate a serious interest in Havana Syndrome, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken raising the issue with Russia and holding public press events about the investigation. (That didn’t stop Senators Sheehan and Collins from jointly writing an open letter condemning the State Department last September for not taking adequate care of victims in its ranks.) Meanwhile, bipartisan bills to fully cover health care and other living costs for alleged victims of Havana Syndrome passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, and lawmakers continued latching onto the cause: scoping out photo ops with victims, penning op-eds sharing their harrowing stories, and doing as many cable news hits as possible to blather about the ongoing efforts to get to the bottom of the “attacks.”

In short, public officials across the political spectrum have used Havana Syndrome as go-to fodder for performative saber-rattling for years, and now they’re barely able to conceal their despondency that the expiration date on this tactic has suddenly and unexpectedly arrived from the very agency that had provide it with ballast. For some, the latest tack has taken an almost progressive turn: Blinken emphasized that Havana Syndrome victims’ symptoms are real and shouldn’t be stigmatized; Schiff stressed, “We owe those who serve our nation the highest quality care and the acknowledgment that they are heard and believed.”

They’re not wrong about that part: Those who serve our nation, as well as everyone else, does deserve the highest quality care. Moreover, no illness should be stigmatized, and we owe it to people who say they are suffering to believe their testimony and provide treatment. In fact, follow this logic to its conclusion, and provide a better health care system for everybody, why not?

But what should be stigmatizedand what we’re under no compunction to believe for a single secondis the baseless insistence that debilitating symptoms of Havana Syndrome were caused by ray guns devised by a hostile foreign aggressor. And we should absolutely stigmatize the public officials who opportunistically built their political brands, while dragging the nation toward military conflict, on a delusion.