The government is hiding something about the “Havana syndrome”

A “60 Minutes” report is just the tip of the iceberg

By Brian Karem


Published April 23, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Palm Trees in Havana, Cuba | The CIA seal | Ear ache (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Palm Trees in Havana, Cuba | The CIA seal | Ear ache (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

You can’t expect transparency from our government.

This is especially true when it comes to the so-called Havana syndrome – a generic term used to describe a variety of symptoms that have plagued diplomats and embassy workers since it first came to light in Havana, Cuba nearly a decade ago.

The symptoms have since been seen across the globe, including in Northern Virginia. The U.S. government has told us on a variety of occasions that there is nothing nefarious going on. But as reported exclusively here in Salon a year ago, and more recently on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” there is reason to believe the series of health concerns the government labels “Anomalous Health Incidents” or AHI’s, is manmade and possibly of Russian origin. 

Last year Mark Zaid, one of the premiere attorneys handling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the country, filed a FOIA on behalf of a federal government whistleblower and myself to get more information regarding the Havana syndrome. Zaid and the whistleblower believe the government knows and is covering up the cause. It is unlikely, however, according to reliable sources that the U.S. government is responsible for causing Havana syndrome. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously defended the government workers who came forward to report their symptoms. “Their pain is real,” he said. “I have no higher priority than the health and safety of each of you.”

Congress responded last week to the latest “60 Minutes” report and has asked President Biden for more information about the cause. This week a judge heard testimony from Zaid about the latest FOIA request, and even the judge showed concern about the government’s lack of cooperation.

We need your help to stay independent

“There’s not a lot of transparency,” United States District Judge Amit Mehta said during the hearing. The Obama-appointed judge presided over the 2023 Google antitrust trial, and handed out an 18-year sentence to the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection – calling Rhodes’ actions a “peril to our democracy.”

This lack of clarity only leads to a proliferation of a wide variety of conspiracy theories, most of them crazier than the truth, and includes accusations of everything from our government experimenting on its citizens to space aliens doing the same.

The government was supposed to provide expedited service to our request for information, but so far has told us little more than there may be as many as 391 pages of information. We still do not know, months later, what that information actually is. Judge Mehta said in the hearing that while providing information was supposed to be expedited, it “wasn’t reflected in the facts.”

This lawsuit continues ongoing efforts to bring needed transparency surrounding the U.S. government’s knowledge of Anomalous Health Incidents (“AHI”) impacting federal employees and their family members. “The American public deserves to have a straight answer from the U.S. Government regarding AHIs and the impact that has been and is continuing to be felt by U.S. Government personnel, both overseas and domestically,” Zaid explained. 

As Zaid said on the “Just Ask the Question” podcast this week, the roots of the “Havana syndrome” could be traced back to the “Moscow Signal,” an event that occurred during the Cold War.  It was a reported microwave transmission varying between 2.5 and 4 gigahertz directed at the Embassy of the United States, Moscow from 1953 to 1976, resulting in an international incident. 

It is believed the microwave signal was used to turn on “The thing,” which was a gift from Russia to the U.S. – a large seal – that hid a listening device.

Since then, the question has become whether or not the technology has advanced and been weaponized, with suspicions of handheld devices used to induce the symptoms called The Havana syndrome.

While that sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, it’s not nearly as wild as the conspiracy theorists who believe the U.S. government is using its citizens as Guinea Pigs. “I do not believe that the U.S government is torturing or using these devices on its own citizens,” Zaid explained on the podcast. It is the introduction of the extreme conspiracy theorists who are also contributing to the misinformation that has led many reporters to ignore the problem.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

There have been many theories about the cause behind the Havana syndrome, and as Salon exclusively reported last year, the wide range of symptoms could be traced to a variety of energy weapons. At the time, the government, however was still denying that possibility, instead telling us that there was no reason to believe AHIs were caused by human activity.  The issue first came to light in 2016 after diplomats from Canada and the U.S. stationed in Cuba reported a variety of symptoms, ranging in severity from and pain and ringing in the ears to cognitive dysfunction. One national security source, speaking on background, said, "This most definitely occurred before 2016. We just don't know for how long, who was involved or why.

The problem has led to potentially long-term health problems – and a question of government liability for those health consequences. “This is real. There is a problem and the government hasn’t been honest with us,” Zaid said.

This lack of clarity only leads to a proliferation of a wide variety of conspiracy theories, most of them crazier than the truth, and includes accusations of everything from our government experimenting on its citizens to space aliens doing the same.

Speaking on background, a Department of Defense official I spoke to Saturday said there is “hypothetically a huge problem here. If our enemies have created a handheld microwave or radio device that can cause these symptoms, who would want to work overseas? Worse, it appears that if this is manmade, then it happened here in the United States – and that would be an act of war.”

The same source also said the government either has or is developing ways to detect energy weapons, “if they exist.”

While the source would not say whether or not he believed the source of the Havana syndrome is manmade, he did say, “If it is, then it is a frightening weapon. The untraceable ability to harm, permanently disable or even kill someone from a distance is a serious, very serious matter.”

That seems like something out of a lunatic conspiracy, but as several FOIA requests and lawsuits have shown, and as the “60 Minutes” piece explained, this is one issue the U.S. government is taking seriously – even as it stymies the public in trying to find the answers.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

MORE FROM Brian Karem