Saturday, 08 April 2023 07:07

Havana Syndrome

The Russian Embassy in Havana. Credit: Ramón Campos Iriarte

A team of reporters from VICE World News tries to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding a bizarre illness.

A sharp sound. Followed by body numbness. Difficulty speaking. Extreme head pain. Since 2016, U.S. officials across the world – in Cuba, China and Russia – have reported experiencing the sudden onset of an array of eerie symptoms. Reporters Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson try to make sense of this confusing illness that has come to be called Havana syndrome. This episode is built from reporting for an eight-part VICE World News podcast series by the same name.

The reporters begin by tracking down one of the first people to report Havana syndrome symptoms, a CIA officer working in Cuba. This “patient zero” explains the ways Cuban intelligence surveil and harass American spies working on the island and his own experience of suddenly being struck with a mysterious, painful condition. When he reports the illness to his bosses at the CIA, he learns that other U.S. officials on the island are experiencing the same thing.

A CIA doctor sees reports from the field about this strange condition happening in Cuba. He’s sent to Havana to investigate the cause of the symptoms and whether they may be caused by a mysterious sound recorded by patient zero. But during his first night on the island, the CIA doctor falls ill with the same syndrome he is there to investigate.

In the third segment, reporters Entous and Anderson head to Havana to visit the sites where people reported the onset of their symptoms, looking for answers. The team shares reporting-informed theories about who and what could be causing Havana syndrome.

Dig Deeper

Listen: Check out the entire VICE World News podcast series “Havana Syndrome”

Read: The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome (The New Yorker)

Read: We Set Out to Solve the Mystery of Havana Syndrome. Here’s What We Found. (VICE)

Read: ‘Deny Everything’: Why the US Hasn’t Solved the Mystery of Havana Syndrome (VICE)

Watch: What is Havana Syndrome? (VICE)


Reporters: Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous with VICE World News | Producers: VICE Audio’s Julia Nutter, Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Ramón Campos Iriarte, Annie Aviles and Kate Osborn | Editor: Jenny Casas | Original music: Steve Bone | Special thanks to Pran Bandi and Nicole Pasulka | Engineering: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Executive producers for Reveal: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s me. I wish I could talk to you. Something’s wrong with me.
Al Letson: It’s November, 2020, just outside the White House. A national security official is on his way home when he hears a sharp ringing in his ears. His body starts to go numb. He’s having trouble moving his hands and fingers. He calls his wife, no answer, so he leaves her voicemail, but he’s struggling to speak.
Speaker 2: I started feeling bad about an hour ago. I [inaudible] a sense of balance and basically for the last hour, it felt like I’m having a stroke or something.
Al Letson: Eventually, he manages to call a car to take him to the hospital, but doctors have no idea what’s going on with him. It’s not until a few days later that he has a theory.
Speaker 3: There has been a significant increase in reports of health incidents affecting US spies and diplomats in recent months.
Al Letson: What he experienced felt eerily similar to the symptoms reported by US officials in Cuba and China and Russia.
Speaker 4: A range of debilitating symptoms including headaches, nausea, vertigo, trouble seeing or hearing.
Al Letson: This mysterious illness came to be called Havana Syndrome. All previous cases were in other countries, this one was the first reported on American soil. Though it wasn’t known publicly, the first victims of this illness came forward in late 2016. Most were US spies who got sick while working undercover.
Speaker 5: Suspected cases have spread across more than half a dozen-
Speaker 4: More than 130 possible cases now reported across the globe.
Al Letson: Many say they are still sick and don’t feel like they’ve gotten a straight answer about what happened or why. The public also hasn’t gotten a lot of answers from the US government. What is this illness and is it some sort of attack from a foreign adversary?

This week, we’re partnering with Vice News and reporters, Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson. Adam is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter with the New York Times. He’s covered national security, foreign policy, and intelligence agencies for more than a decade. Jon Lee’s been a staff writer with the New Yorker for 25 years and wrote a well-known book on Cuban Revolution leader, Che Guevara. The two just finished an eight-part series called Havana Syndrome. Adam and Jon Lee’s reporting starts with the search for one of the first people to get sick.
Speaker 6: Got the mic going.
Speaker 7: Just Adam, you’ve been speaking to him. What are we calling him?
Adam Entous: His real name is [inaudible]
Speaker 7: Yeah.
Adam Entous: We just don’t want to have that used in the podcast.
Speaker 7: Yeah, really.
Al Letson: We’re not using his real name. Instead, we’re calling him Tony. We’re also granting anonymity to two other sources in this episode who reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome. This is to protect their identity and safety since they’ve all worked in national security and covert operations. Their accounts have been verified through documents. The two reporters went to meet Tony after months of negotiating an on the record interview.
Speaker 6: Let me get next to you.
Speaker 7: That’s good.
Adam Entous: Hey, man, great to meet you in person.
Speaker 9: Yeah, it’s nice to meet you. Come on in.
Adam Entous: This is Jon Lee.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Hey. How are you? It’s great to meet you.

Adam’s source is tall, mid-thirties. He’s built and good looking. Leonardo DiCaprio could play him in the movie of his life. He’s casual in a black baseball cap, plaid button down and gym shorts.
Speaker 6: Okay.
Speaker 9: There’ll be times that, there’s going to be quite a bit that I can’t say.
Adam Entous: I’m prepared that this might be an awkward interview. While I know that he used to work for the CIA, he can’t actually tell me that. The CIA won’t allow it.
Speaker 9: I was a US government employee that was affectionately referred to as Patient Zero. I was down in Havana in 2016 when all the attacks started happening.
Jon Lee Anderso…: So what were you told your job would be?
Speaker 9: I can’t discuss that.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Okay, so it wasn’t a diplomatic job?
Speaker 9: And this is hard for me because I have to walk a line. I was a US government employee stationed in Havana.
Jon Lee Anderso…: At a time when the US and Cuba had restored diplomatic relations.
Speaker 9: Correct.
Adam Entous: There’s a history here. Two and a half years before in December, 2014.
Barack Obama: Good afternoon. Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.
Jon Lee Anderso…: President Obama makes a surprise televised announcement that he’s ordering the full restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Barack Obama: We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.
Jon Lee Anderso…: At the same time, in Havana on Cuban state television-
John Brennan: [Foreign language].
Jon Lee Anderso…: President Raul Castro informs the Cuban people of the news. One of the last standing vestiges of the Cold War is seemingly being pulled down in the Americas. The world learns that the two countries have been engaged in secret talks for months, and now there are plans to fully reopen the Cuban Embassy in Washington as well as the US Embassy in Havana. They shut the embassy in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution had dramatically changed the relationship between the two countries. But since the seventies, the Americans had maintained a bare bones diplomatic mission where people could do basic things like process visas, stuff like that, and that was it.
Barack Obama: Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world.
Adam Entous: Within the US intelligence community, the conversations were less about lofty ideals and more about the nitty gritty business of spying, especially because you’re dealing with some of the best spies in the world.
John Brennan: I had served in a number of positions that CIA, which afforded me access to counterintelligence matters.
Speaker 7: John Brennan, CIA director under Obama.
John Brennan: And I knew that the Cubans had been quite successful over the years to suborn individuals to work on their behalf.
Adam Entous: We talked to Brennan in 2021.
John Brennan: And the Cuban Intelligence Service, which has been trained by the Russians, is a very competent and a professional one.
Jon Lee Anderso…: During the Cold War, Russia had spent a lot of time and energy working with Cuban officials to improve their trade craft despise, but since then, Cuban intelligence was said to become so good that they had outgrown their KGB trainers. Now, the Cuban Intelligence Service was amongst the most talented in the world, and had spent decades focusing its efforts squarely on the United States.
John Brennan: A lot of folks were skeptical that the Cubans were ever really going to cooperate with the United States, that they were not going to change their stripes.
Jon Lee Anderso…: But on the US side, for those skeptical of diplomatic efforts, the opening could offer a Trojan horse of sorts.
John Brennan: Just the way the CIA wants to get close to a lot of our adversaries around the globe, because once you have that up close and personal access, it affords you new opportunities as far as your intelligence objectives are concerned.
Adam Entous: What he means is the opening could help the CIA with what they call the recruitment cycle, spotting future assets, assessing their value, developing them as informants and recruiting them as spies.
Speaker 9: For me, I was I gung-ho. I wanted to take the most challenging thing I could take.
Adam Entous: The Cuba office, which Tony was part of, has been something of a backwater within the CIA for years. A very low priority, partly because Cuban intelligence was so good it made it hard for the CIA to do its job. But that’s changing just as Tony is getting ready for his assignment on the island. The office is part of the Western Hemisphere Mission Center, which recently got a new chief of operations. He’s a tough talking veteran of Russia House, the CIA office that runs covert operations in Russia, and he wants the CIA to be more aggressive across Latin America, including in Cuba.

He tells case officers things like, “If you aren’t getting surveillance 24/7, you aren’t doing the job right.” He wants the CIA to take the gloves off in Havana. We asked the CIA for official comment on this, but they declined. In many ways, Tony is a perfect candidate for a job like this. He’s totally green, which you’d think in any other job disqualifies him, but green CIA officers are often the best because this is their first deployment. Foreign adversaries haven’t tagged them yet, and they have something to prove so they go in hungry and they’re willing to take risks.
Jon Lee Anderso…: And you can expect that if the CIA is now going hard on Cuba after not doing so for so long, Cuban spies aren’t going to like it.
Speaker 9: I was hit pretty hard and pretty heavy right off the bat.
Adam Entous: Tony said he felt like they had it out for him from the start, which was bizarre because he was supposed to be the green officer, the one they didn’t know about.
Speaker 9: There was a guy that sat outside my driveway in a plastic chair 24/7. They rotated with a radio.
Adam Entous: Cuban counterintelligence officers would literally follow Tony and other Americans around the island. But if Tony managed to lose them, to get in the black, as they say in the business, the Cubans could track their cell phones and find them.
Speaker 9: They use your phone as beacons. So anytime I came and left from my house, they’d radio me and then car surveillance would pick up or they’d use camera surveillance and do point to point.
Adam Entous: Cuban intelligence would do other things to just mess with suspected spies and diplomats who they saw as a threat.
Speaker 9: They’d defecate in your house, cut your internet lines. They’d drain your water cisterns. You only had water every couple of days.
Adam Entous: I’ve been hearing stories like this for years. Spies go to crazy lengths to tell their adversaries, we’ve got our eyes on you.
Speaker 9: Before my time, they’ve killed people’s dogs. They’ve urinated in mouthwash. They’ve put feces under your door handles, so you’d come and grab them. They’d flatten your tires or they’d do some sort of damage to your car. This was just part of this long game of them always letting you know that they’re there, letting you know that they can get to you, but also they want to find what gets under your skin and they exploit it.

For someone like me, that level of harassment was awesome. It made me happy because I felt like I had joined a club. They hated me, they knew that I was being good at my job. They would use the harassment and the surveillance to send you a message that they were upset with you. If you played by their rules, they kind of left you alone and you got to do things. If you weren’t playing by their roles or you were pulling stuff and they weren’t happy with it, they would let you know.
Adam Entous: Tony’s there for about two months when he experiences something new, and frankly, terrifying on December 29th, 2016.
Speaker 9: We were on a skeleton crew at the embassy as a whole because everyone had cleared off for the holidays and for New Years. And I’d come home and my pattern was to come home and then go to the gym and I would usually come home and watch a few episodes of a downloaded show or something. I’m just laying on my bed with my laptop next to me and I’m watching this show. I’m in my dress clothes, I’m in a shirt and my suit. And then, all of the dogs in the neighborhood started barking. They would bark periodically, but I’d never heard them all go off at once, and I think that struck me immediately as unusual. And then this loud sound just blasted into my bedroom. I guess my gut reaction was that it was LRAD.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Long-range acoustic devices. Ships sometimes use them to ward off pirates. These days, police officers in the US use them to ward off protestors.
Speaker 9: They can blast loud sounds of a distance that make it very uncomfortable for you to the point that you just have to get out of the beam of what it is.
Jon Lee Anderso…: But he doesn’t move.
Speaker 9: And so my assumption was that this was just the next iteration of harassment, so it seemed like they were trying, in my mind, to get me annoyed. And I’m incredibly stubborn, and so my whole plan was to not do anything.
Jon Lee Anderso…: He doesn’t want them to think that whatever they’re doing is working, so he’s pretending that he’s not affected by it, but he is.
Speaker 9: And it just ratcheted up and it got really uncomfortable. It started very, very loud, like ear piercingly loud, and then I thought, okay, well, this is obnoxious because you can’t hear the show anymore, so you put captions on and you don’t want to show any sign of discomfort because if there is video in the room, they’re watching that.
Jon Lee Anderso…: This goes on for about 20 minutes.
Speaker 9: But then there was the physiological pain, and so the pressure started in the head and then the discomfort in the ear. I just picture those old wood vices in shop class in high school. It just felt like someone was just turning that and my head was in it. Then the severe, severe ear pain started. So I liken it to if you take a Q-tip and you bounce it off your ear that you get that jarring. Well, imagine taking a sharpened pencil and then poking that off the eardrum. And so at that point, I then took a pillow and wrapped it over and around my head, so my left arm had the bulk of the pillow up against my left side, and then I was using my right hand over the top to kind of block the pillow on the right side of my ear. And frankly, it did nothing. It didn’t even start to mitigate anything.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Did you move from the bed?
Speaker 9: So no-
Jon Lee Anderso…: Because you’re thinking-
Speaker 9: That would’ve been the smart thing to do.
Jon Lee Anderso…: You didn’t go to the window and look out either.
Speaker 9: No, no. I assume they’re watching, if not, they’re listening. And so I sat there and just stuck it out. I’m talking to my brother by texts kind of walking through it because I’m on my bed going, if this ratchets up and I die, they’re going to write this off as a heart attack or an aneurysm.
Jon Lee Anderso…: This is a recording of the sound that Tony heard. He thinks maybe this will help the CIA figure out what’s going on. Tangible evidence that the Cubans have escalated the harassment to an unprecedented level.
Speaker 9: And so I rolled off my bed, hit the ground, kind of jolted me out of whatever it was for the most part. I still could feel it, it still hurt, but I wasn’t in that blackout tunnel anymore. And I got out of my bedroom, ran down the hallway and went into my kitchen. Once I was in the kitchen, it was more of like, am I still in it? I couldn’t hear anything. I would talk to myself and I could feel the vibration in my chest, but I couldn’t hear anything. And so then you do a head to toe assessment and you go, do I feel pressure? Do I feel pain? Well, there’s residual pain, but my head’s not in a vice anymore. I must be out of it. And I spent the rest of the night on the couch, just in pain, just praying for the sun to come up.
Jon Lee Anderso…: The next morning, he’s not feeling the acute pain anymore, but he decides to tell his bosses about the incident. So Tony sends his bosses in both the State Department and Langley a report detailing what happened, but that doesn’t stop the noise. Every time he goes home, it starts up again and he keeps getting these painful physical reactions to it.
Speaker 9: I would still wake up in pools of blood gushing out of my nose. Couldn’t stop it until I was out and down through the house somewhere else. Multiple times, just like just pouring out, head pressure, head pain.
Jon Lee Anderso…: These debilitating events are all starting to have other impacts too.
Speaker 9: I could normally write a cable in an hour what would be a couple pages. I would walk away, come back 20 minutes later, edit, send, done. That same thing would take me 4, 6, 8 hours, but you would come back to edit and it would be completely incoherent, beyond incoherent.
Al Letson: Tony tells his CIA bosses what’s going on and he learns he’s not the only one experiencing this. The sound and symptoms that follow are happening to CIA officials and diplomats across the island.
Speaker 9: We were getting taken out like flemings down there. It was like fish in a barrel. Every time we sent someone down there, they were coming back injured.
Al Letson: The CIA responds next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’ve been following Tony, a former CIA officer, who was stationed in Havana after diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were restored. He and a dozen other people at the US Embassy were sick with what would become known as Havana Syndrome. Two months after Tony’s experience, he’s advised by a colleague to send a cable to the CIA’s medical office. One of the people who gets that cable is a CIA doctor.
Jon Lee Anderso…: So how would you like to be identified?
Dr. Andrew: Dr. Andrew. I’m a physician. I’ve specialized in occupational environmental medicine and toxicology for nearly 40 years.
Al Letson: Before joining the agency, Dr. Andrew had years of experience investigating medical mysteries for the US government. He was trained to run everything down to the last 1% of possibilities. Like with Tony, we’re not using his real name because he doesn’t have permission from the US government to speak on record. Dr. Andrew remembers how he felt when he got the report on what was happening with Tony and his colleagues in Havana.
Dr. Andrew: It was a strange communique where it came from some of the things about it.
Al Letson: He also gets a copy of the sound Tony recorded.
Dr. Andrew: I don’t know what it was. It was some je ne sais quoi. You just look at it and you say, boy, this is disturbing. So I decided to go ahead and pursue it.
Al Letson: Dr. Andrew was sent to Havana to examine Tony and the others. It’s April, 2017 and he’s traveling under an assumed name. He gets into Havana late at night, checks into the famous Capri Hotel. He goes up to his room and heads right to bed.
Dr. Andrew: I was awakened with severe right ear pain. I sat up in bed. My first thought was, I’ve got to be dreaming. My second thought was, is this really happening? And around then, I started to hear the sound that I had heard on the audio tapes before, a sort of grinding or mosquito sound.
Al Letson: Only a handful of people even know he’s in Cuba, but it appears the guy the CIA tasked with investigating the syndrome gets it himself. Before we continue, a quick note that this segment contains references to suicide. Reporters Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous pick up Dr. Andrew’s story with what happened on his first day in Cuba.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Later that morning, during a meeting at the embassy, he realizes just how debilitated he is.
Dr. Andrew: And my mind is just all over the place. I’m having so much trouble, and I remember saying to myself, “Andrew, listen to him. He’s talking to you. He’s about to ask you a question. Come on man, get it together here.”
Adam Entous: So when Dr. Andrew returns to the states, he gets checked out at the University of Miami and he is diagnosed with a vestibular injury. That’s the system in the inner ear that helps with balance. Dr. Andrew is determined to get to the bottom of this, but his colleagues are more skeptical.
Dr. Andrew: I had colleagues who looked at the cable and immediately said, “Oh, this is crazy. They need to man up. This is just stress and they need to live with it and move on.” And I said, “Well, what about brain injury or brain problems, whatever?” They said, “No, no, we’re not going to go there.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “That’s the 600 pound gorilla in the corner. That’s what everyone’s worried about. Whether you believe it or not is irrelevant. If you don’t address it, you’re just ignoring it.”
Jon Lee Anderso…: Dr. Andrew says that instead of relying on his expertise, his colleagues at CIA were looking for outside experts and doctors who would confirm what they believed or wanted to believe, that Havana syndrome wasn’t real.
Dr. Andrew: Everywhere that they went and didn’t get the message they wanted, they doctor shopped, they went elsewhere.
Adam Entous: At the time, there are three main camps within the cia, those who believe the patients, those who are skeptical, and those who are agnostic. In fact, I’m told that the Deputy CIA director, Gina Haspel, who would take over his director is in the agnostic camp. And as months pass, the CIA’s inability to get intelligence on what happened fuels skepticism in the building.
Dr. Andrew: They were already starting ad hominem attacks against people. This one’s crazy, this one’s after money. I was malingering. All these sorts of things were being alleged about the people in the group that was sick.
Jon Lee Anderso…: What Dr. Andrew is suggesting here is that some at the CIA were pushing back at the victims claims that they’d been injured in Havana.
Adam Entous: We asked the CIA about these claims to try to corroborate them, but they declined to comment.
Jon Lee Anderso…: In the fall of 2017, the person in charge of Dr. Andrew’s office suggests he should retire, and he ultimately leaves in August of 2020.

I’m kind of mystified by why the same government that would have allowed you and funded you, and then in the face of this cluster of very serious health episodes that we now call Havana Syndrome, why they would choose to sideline, ignore it, and even denigrate the record of some of you.
Dr. Andrew: One of the sayings in the intelligence community is, deny everything, admit nothing, and make counter accusations. So the facts were against them. Everything was against them, so they had to make ad hominem attacks to discredit the doctors, the patients, and everyone.
Jon Lee Anderso…: It’s starting to feel to Dr. Andrew, like the CIA is doing all it can to sweep this under the rug, or worse, actively cover it up.
Speaker 9: In those early days, people weren’t talking to each other.
Adam Entous: The CIA has very little information. Still, in the months following what happened to Tony, he says they kept sending more people down.
Speaker 9: I left the island in mid-February right before the first of March. People that got sent in to replace me and my colleagues weren’t informed of why we were off the island. They were just told, you have to go in and fill in this position, which is standard. Hey, we need someone to go do X, Y, Z jobs. You are the flyaway. Go fill in. But they come out and they’re injured with the same patterns, but they haven’t talked to us. They don’t know why they were filling in. We were getting taken out flemings down there. It was like fish in a barrel. Every time we sent someone down there, they were coming back injured.
Jon Lee Anderso…: In February, 2017, the CIA and State Department reach out to a prominent ear, nose, and throat doctor based in Miami. After studying these patients, the doctor suspects that they’re actually suffering from a brain injury.
Adam Entous: Pretty soon, the US government stopped sending suspected Havana Syndrome patients to the doctor in Miami who gave the traumatic brain injury diagnosis. The CIA declined to comment on this, but according to Tony, someone was trying to doctor his medical records.
Speaker 9: It was sent into the various agencies and the state, and then efforts were made to call Miami and have TBI removed from my records. They thought it was scary, it was too severe of an issue, and efforts were made to have that removed from my medical records because they didn’t want it to be as severe as it was. I was at the top physical, psychological, emotional place I could have ever been in my life. I was just a force to be reckoned with and I was gung-ho to do my job and within six months I was a zombie and non-functional as a human being.
Adam Entous: He goes back to his supervisors at Langley, asks for help, but says he’s still pretty much on his own at this point. Tony says he is feeling like a pariah ignored by the CIA. It’s that combination of factors that brings Tony to almost do something drastic.
Speaker 9: Everything went to shit. And I said, “All right, you’re done. That’s fine. Check out.” I think I’m done. I think I’ve given it everything now. I think that this part of my story is over, and so I made plans to kill myself at that point. And so I just started making plans, you write your letters to family. I think I kind of sat there and before making that ultimate choice, I kind of gave myself a chat. Kind of like in Havana, you do a head to toe assessment. You go, all right, before you’re here, before you make this that you can’t come back from, what are you going to do? And I gave myself an out.

I go, you have just a little bit left in you. Push. Use all that up and in a week if you’re still here, we’re still on the floor, we’re still [inaudible], you’re allowed to go. And so, gave myself a week and within two days after that moment, I got a call from one of the doctors at work and said, “We’ve got you into UPenn. The whole team’s going to see you. And so I went up to Penn and went through everything with them and they go, “What [inaudible] happened to you?”
Al Letson: Tony and the others with symptoms of Havana Syndrome are sent to the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. The UPenn doctors put the group through a battery of tests, each doctor being careful to not consult with the other so they can come to independent conclusions. In the end, they find that the symptoms these patients are experiencing are similar to those of a concussion. As for what could cause this so-called immaculate concussion, that remained unknown. So Adam and Jon Lee head to Cuba to investigate where Tony and the others first got sick.
Speaker 14: Okay, so what just happened?
Jon Lee Anderso…: We drove into a highly secure area. I think we picked up a tail because they were wondering what the hell we’re doing because nobody does that, basically.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. By January, 2022, the search for answers about a strange illness hurting American spies and diplomats brought reporters, Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous to Havana, Cuba.
Speaker 16: I had a friend that used to live in that building.
Jon Lee Anderso…: You ever see, remember Robert Salas, the photographer?
Al Letson: They’re looking for the sites where the first cases were reported.
Kate Osborne: Do you mind wearing this as a backpack?
Al Letson: Their executive producer, Kate Osborne, was also there.
Adam Entous: At the beginning of the block is a multi-story cement building. So this is the … 113 is what we’re looking for. It’s going to be on the left.
Jon Lee Anderso…: You want to walk up to the end and then come back?
Adam Entous: Just to see, get a sense of the-
Speaker 7: Let’s do this fairly quickly because there’s some fairly official looking guys here.
Al Letson: The crew is looking for the house where former CIA agent, we’ll call Tony, first experienced symptoms of Havana Syndrome.
Speaker 18: Typically, this is where a lot of foreigners have been given, granted residences through one of the state agency that provides housing for diplomats and foreign technicians. This is a kind of typical house, not dissimilar to the one I lived in. It’s very sixties, kind of low level Flinstones kind of-
Adam Entous: After talking to a lot of my sources, what I learned before coming to Havana is that in the weeks leading up to Tony’s incident that normal spy versus spy harassment appeared to be ratcheting up.

He arrived in Havana in mid-October and from the moment he arrives, they are all over him and this increased harassment coincided with the arrival of a new CIA station chief in Havana, though I can’t confirm that the two events are related. Recently, what I found out was that around the summer of 2016, there was an increase in the harassment and it became more hostile, if you will, less innocuous. Rather than it just being evidence of somebody coming into your home, it became more abusive, more threatening. An embassy employee would come home, often their houses are surrounded by a fence, a wall, so it’s like a compound sort of arrangement, and when they enter the compound, in the lawn, they found knives which have been kind of stabbed into the earth up to the hilt.
Speaker 18: So the tall building, the five, six-story building is about 200 feet away from where we’re standing.
Adam Entous: The neighborhood is filled with mostly low slung houses like Tony’s, but this tall building just dominates the street. He can’t come or go without passing it. So he was on the bottom floor, so it was like a two bedroom, like an office and a kitchen and a bathroom, and then behind that gate was where he would keep his car. And every time he left the gate, he’d see, as he was coming out past this building, there’d be this flurry of activity that he believed was related to following him. He believes that his tail, the people that would follow him around, that they had their base of operations, they’re listening posts as they call it, was in that multi-story building and they would swarm when he left. And if they were going to break into his house to check on the bugs, that’s when they would do it, when they saw that he left.

Take one of the house and take one of the second [inaudible].
Speaker 19: Go slow?
Adam Entous: Yeah, just go slow and just basically [inaudible].

No, he doesn’t have to pause even. Well, here we have the security around here. We may not be able to do this outside without attracting attention. There’s the security guy right in front of us.
Speaker 19: [inaudible] Okay, we cannot stop here.
Kate Osborne: Yeah, understand.
Speaker 19: We’re in a high security area.
Kate Osborne: Yeah, so just take [inaudible] So what just happened?
Jon Lee Anderso…: We drove into a highly secure area and the driver was jumpy before we went in because he said, “I can’t stop here. There’s nowhere I can stop.” In fact, the house right next door was the Ministry of Interior facility and they had a security people outside and they very much noticed us. We were followed by a car. It followed us at a discrete distance, just to make sure we were out of the neighborhood and when we turned around and went back, I think we picked up a tail because they were wondering what the hell we’re doing because nobody does that basically.
Adam Entous: What this trip kind of clarifies to me, the arch, which is a bunch of CIA guys being sent here year after year after year and being able to do absolutely nothing because the Cubans are so good at preventing them from doing anything and they get harassed, usually nothing big, like minor annoyances.
Jon Lee Anderso…: And then the opening of relations between the US and Cuba.
Barack Obama: Good afternoon today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.
Adam Entous: The CIA sees an opportunity to ramp up its activities here and it’s beginning to happen and the Cubans get afraid that they’re losing control and that this was a Trojan horse and so they decide we need to set the Americans back, we need to neuter the station so they decide to ramp it up and it’s step by step. It’s scorpions, pissing on shirts, flat tires, messages on cars. These are the kind of things that are escalating from what it used to be, but nothing incredibly traumatic. And then suddenly, something really traumatic and totally strange and unprecedented happens.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Could the Cuban government really have been behind Havana Syndrome, and if so, what would that actually look like? What could they have used to target those diplomats and spies?
Ramon Campos Ir…: There’s a easy counter argument to all of that, which is the technology.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Producer, Ramon Campos [foreign language].
Ramon Campos Ir…: We’ve talked to experts who all believe this is not something you can go and buy at a Radio shack.
Adam Entous: Early on in our reporting, we spoke with a weapons expert at Georgetown University Medical Center, someone who the State Department had actually consulted with. He told us he thought the patients may have been targeted with radio frequency waves or electromagnetic pulses.
Ramon Campos Ir…: So it’s not like the Cubans could have been like, okay, well this is the moment to do this. Let’s just, out of the magic bag, this amazing freaking technology that no one’s ever seen or heard of and just put it to use next week. If it happened with the compliance of the Cubans, they must have been approached by someone else.
Jon Lee Anderso…: That rang a bell for me.
John Brennan: A lot of folks were skeptical that the Cubans were ever really going to cooperate with the United States, that they were not going to change their stripes.
Jon Lee Anderso…: I was reminded of something we were told earlier.
John Brennan: The CIA wants to get close to a lot of our adversaries around the globe.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Former CIA Director, John Brennan. If you remember, he was unusually candid about how the CIA planned to operate in Cuba.
John Brennan: Because once you have that up close and personal access, it affords you new opportunities as far as your intelligence objectives are concerned, and an intelligence officer’s objectives is to try to gain as much insight as they can into what’s happening in other countries.
Adam Entous: Higher ups wanted their officers in Cuba to step up their spying. They wanted to keep an eye on what the Russians and the Chinese were up to and that meant upping operations in Cuba.
Jon Lee Anderso…: That may very well have freaked the Cubans out and perhaps pissed them off.

Based on our reporting over the past four years, this is the story that makes the most sense to me. Someone within the Cuban government had to have been behind it, but with some help and perhaps with approval from a very senior figure. I’m talking, Fidel Castro. He’d been out of the government for some time, but retained huge symbolic authority and been vocal about wanting to slow down the [inaudible] with the Americans. Remember, a lot of this harassment began just before he passed away. I’m told that a high up official within Cuban intelligence, a close ally of Fidel’s, was identified by embassy officials as the likeliest person to have organized the attacks behind the Havana Syndrome. He’s the person with the likeliest motive given their understanding of his position.

That said, he would not have the technological capability, but my source says the embassy knew who would, the Russians. Russia’s been toying with microwave technology as weapons for years. We know that generally speaking, Vladimir Putin has been looking for and finding ways to go after the US for over a decade, but apparently, when the US and Cuba restored relations, this spooked Russia. So the CIA goes into Cuba guns blazing, which freaks out the Cubans, they respond aggressively. And with help from the Russians, unleash a difficult to trace weapon on CIA officers to get them to back off. In fact, my State Department source says that out of all of the theories his team studied at the embassy, this was the only hypothesis going.
Adam Entous: To be clear, Russia and Cuba have denied involvement with these incidents and we asked the Russian embassy about whether the country has been upping its intelligence presence on the island, but they didn’t get back to us.
Jon Lee Anderso…: By the end of the Trump presidency in January of 2021, the number of suspected Havana Syndrome cases is skyrocketing. The government is basically casting a wide net, trying to catch anything that could turn out to be connected to Havana Syndrome. In the months that follow, hundreds of reports of unexplained illnesses pour in. It seems like every day there’s a new case being reported somewhere. In Germany-
Speaker 21: German police are investigating cases of the mysterious Havana Syndrome at the US Embassy in Berlin.
Jon Lee Anderso…: In Colombia-
Speaker 22: [foreign language]
Jon Lee Anderso…: And in India-
Speaker 26: [foreign language] Intelligence Agency, CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, Havana Syndrome-
Jon Lee Anderso…: Vietnam-
Speaker 27: A visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to Vietnam in August was delayed when several US personnel there reported symptoms and at least two had to be medevaced.
Jon Lee Anderso…: And the Stans, Kurdistan and Uzbekistan.
Adam Entous: Apparently in the first few months of 2021, there was a huge cluster of cases in Austria. I broke the story in the New Yorker and pretty quickly it was all over the news.
Speaker 28: We are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among US Embassy Vienna, so the symptoms are sounding very much like the Havana Syndrome.
Jon Lee Anderso…: When the dozens of cases in Vienna pop up, I can’t help but think that what happened in Vienna and what happened in Havana were really similar. These are the two biggest outbreaks of Havana Syndrome that we know about. They both happened during US presidential transitions. Havana cases start in 2016, Obama to Trump and then Vienna at the end of 2020, Trump to Biden, which is a very unstable time in the US. Both outbreaks also happened in countries that are diplomatic battlefields for the Americans and Russians. These Havana Syndrome incidents are of a kind, they bear a signature on them and it seems to me that the signature is Russian.
Adam Entous: The only evidence I see linking Russia to Havana Syndrome is circumstantial. And of course, Russia has denied any involvement in any incidents. Hey, guys. Adam here. Jon Lee, I hope you’re doing well.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Throughout the course of our reporting, we’ve had a what’s up group with a production team where Adam and I have been sending each other voice memos to share reporting and leads.
Adam Entous: Listen, I just got off the phone with senior US intelligence officials regarding the intelligence community’s expert panel findings. Super interesting.
Jon Lee Anderso…: The CIA had done something quite extraordinary. It made a public announcement.
Speaker 29: A new interim report from the CIA says most cases of Havana Syndrome are the result of other illnesses or environmental factors and are not the work of a foreign adversary.
Jon Lee Anderso…: That was pretty stunning. The CIA, not famous for making preemptive statements about anything, had come out to say that most of the cases said to be Havana Syndrome are nothing more than environmental factors or psychogenic. The CIA had asked its staff to report any odd health symptoms that they had experienced that couldn’t be explained. Other government agencies had done the same and that huge dragnet brought in around 1700 cases. And a lot of those reported cases barely qualified, things like runny noses, mild headaches, food poisoning, et cetera. In other words, most of those cases that were reported could not plausibly have been Havana Syndrome.
Adam Entous: A lot of people thought the CIA announcement disqualifying hundreds of cases was big news and it gave the skeptics something to crow about. From their point of view, the CIA was effectively saying, there’s nothing to see here. But I personally thought it didn’t solve the mystery, it didn’t address the cases that we’ve been focusing on like what happened to Tony.
Jon Lee Anderso…: Two weeks after that CIA report comes out, I’m in South America and I get this voice memo from Adam. He’d just gotten off the phone with a group of senior US intelligence officials.
Adam Entous: They were telling me about a separate report written by a panel of outside experts brought in by the intelligence community to examine what could have caused these symptoms. Effectively, what they have decided is that they don’t believe that psychogenic factors explain these core cases, the ones that we’ve been talking to, the people that we’ve been talking to, so the ones in Havana and other places that describe a directional nature of the pressure that they feel and the sound. They’re basically saying that they don’t think psychogenic factors play a role in those injuries. They found that pulsed electromagnetic energy plausibly explains the core characteristics of Havana Syndrome in these cases.
Speaker 9: All I did was report what happened to me and I got injured, and I’ve seen other people come back from various places with other injuries doing their jobs, and they’re treated like heroes and I got treated like I’d done something wrong.
Adam Entous: Tony is unable to work. He’s medically disabled. He says he is seen over 100 doctors, but none of them have really fixed him. His health problems are similar to many victims that I’ve spoken with. They also feel ignored, sidelined by their own government and they’re angry about it. Despite his condition, Tony has been able to put his skills to use organizing dozens of his former colleagues to demand support from the government. Last fall, President Biden signed the Havana Act into law, which means some of them will get compensation. The CIA’s investigation into Havana Syndrome hasn’t stopped. Even though the government has narrowed down the list of potential cases, there are about two dozen that they still can’t explain, and some of those cases are in fact outside of Havana, meaning Havana Syndrome remains a global mystery.
Jon Lee Anderso…: To me, the Havana Syndrome has already been incredibly effective for whomever unleashed it. Even if there are only a handful of “true cases”, it’s caused a far and wide ripple effect, freaked out US officials all over the world. All they had to do, it seems, was hit us in a few key places. From there, the alarm that it caused did much of the rest of the work. Like maybe this is a both and situation, meaning yes, our people were hit with something and then also, there are some cases that are psychogenic.

If I was the foreign adversary behind this, I’d be pretty satisfied. This worked out pretty damn well for them. To top it all off, our officials have been left relatively defenseless. Without a smoking gun, we can’t come out and declare war on anyone, and we kind of look like wimps complaining of some mysterious ailment that there’s no hard evidence for, except for the symptoms and we haven’t even come out and said as much, so we’re basically sitting ducks waiting for the next Havana Syndrome.
Al Letson: Earlier this year, seven other US intelligence agencies joined the CIA in concluding that Havana Syndrome was probably not caused by a weapon or foreign adversary. Some current and former officials say the CIA hasn’t done enough to investigate the cause of their symptoms, so the mystery still hasn’t been solved. Throughout their reporting, Jon Lee and Adam dug up a lot more stories and evidence that might connect Havana Syndrome to Cold War era grudges and experimental weapons. You can hear all of that on the Vice News Podcast, Havana Syndrome. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcast.

This week’s show was reported by Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous with Vice World News. It was produced by Vice Audio’s, Julia Nutter, Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Ramon Campos Iriarte, Annie Avilés, and Kate Osborne. Original music by Steve Bone. Special thanks to Praying Bandy and the Nicole Pasoka. Jenny Casas edited the show. Nicki Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Our show was engineered by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo Arruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Katherine Styer Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers, are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.