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The curious case of 'Havana Syndrome'

The U.S. Embassy in Havana is slowly reopening this year after a mass evacuation of U.S. civil service workers.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana is slowly reopening this year after a mass evacuation of U.S. civil service workers.

The U.S. embassy in Cuba restarted full service earlier this month. It closed for nearly six years after staff got sick in what the Central Intelligence Agency called “anomalous health incidents.”

Approximately two dozen American diplomats in Havana, Cuba, first heard piercing, metallic hissing in 2016. They began experiencing nausea, vertigo, headaches, and other cognitive ailments. But doctors haven’t figured out what could have been making them sick.

Theories include the use of sonic weapons launched by foreign actors like Russia. The CIA has dismissed that idea, saying most cases of “Havana Syndrome” actually stem from other pre-existing medical conditions. Still, the CIA says some cases are unexplainable.

The new investigative podcast “The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome” explores what we know about this mysterious illness – and what questions remain.   

Journalist Nicky Woolf walks listeners through the international story and theories of what happened.

The whole story has left many diplomats and CIA officers experiencing these ailments disillusioned, though some recompense from the federal government is on the way.

“It’s incumbent on [the CIA] to provide the medical help we require, which does not include telling us that we’re all making it up,” former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos told GQ Magazine. “I want the Agency to treat this as a combat injury.”

A CIA spokesperson offered this statement from the agency.

“At CIA, we have no more profound obligation than to take care of our people, and our steadfast dedication to this issue is unwavering. We have expanded access to care and resources significantly, and, in partnership with other intelligence and government agencies, we committed to undertaking the most rigorous investigation possible into reported anomalous health incidents. We assembled a large team of some of our very best officers focused exclusively on this issue, with a commitment to following every single lead. As we have learned more, we have been able to identify very real medical, environmental, and technical factors that credibly explain a majority of reports, and many others were submitted out of an abundance of caution. Director Burns has said he has great confidence in the professionalism of the people, who come from both the CIA and the wider Intelligence Community, who are carrying out this mission, in their commitment to objectivity, and in the findings they have reached to date.”

We speak with Woolf, Polymeropoulos, and one of the medical investigators of “Havana Syndrome.”

Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

Chris Remington, June Leffler