On Thursday, DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Management Randolph D. Alles sent a memo to department personnel encouraging them to report “unexplained health incidents” to medical officials within DHS or to the State Department. The memo goes on to announce that “DHS is partnering with our interagency colleagues to ensure comprehensive public health protocols are implemented and care options are available” to affected personnel. A DHS official provided the memo to The Intercept on condition of anonymity to avoid professional reprisal.
The memo suggests that concerns about “multiple symptoms following an unusual auditory or sensory event,” in the past limited to the State Department and CIA, have spread to DHS, an agency unlike the other two in that its operations are primarily domestic (although some of its personnel do operate in foreign countries). Claims of mysterious health problems, mostly neurological, first originated among several State Department diplomats in Cuba in 2016 — earning the broad range of symptoms the moniker “Havana Syndrome.”
Earlier this month, the Biden administration’s National Security Council announced that it was formally investigating the reported injuries, which are said to have affected over 130 people, while the CIA has developed a special team to gather intelligence on the reported episodes. CIA Director Bill Burns has also met with individuals who reported symptoms and briefed lawmakers on the matter. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, D-Va., and Vice Chair Marco Rubio, R-Fla., praised Burns for his “renewed focus on these attacks” in a statement on April 30.
But whether or not Havana Syndrome even exists continues to be hotly debated. “It’s not clear whether the information we’re getting is correct or incorrect,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told Avril Haines, President Joe Biden’s director of national intelligence. The DHS memo itself notes, “The precise nature of the injuries suffered by affected personnel has varied and whether a common cause exists for all individuals, regardless of location, has not yet been established.” Proponents of the syndrome’s existence and cause, however, point to a National Academies of Science report last year which concluded that the symptoms are real, and the most plausible cause is “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy.”
Former CIA officials who spoke with The Intercept broadly agreed on the existence of Havana Syndrome but not on its perpetrator, which has been variously attributed in speculation to the Chinese, Russian, or Cuban governments. While the symptoms described are broad, they converge on their neurological focus — often resembling the effects of simple head trauma.
The DHS memo describes the gamut of reported Havana Syndrome effects: “an intense, high-pitched piercing sound followed by unexplained specific medical symptoms, including hearing loss, dizziness, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), balance problems, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and vision changes.” Anyone experiencing those symptoms “is encouraged to notify DHS Workforce Health and Safety and the Chief Medical Officer” or to “Immediately alert the DoS [Department of State] mission’s Health Unit and Regional Security Officer.”
One of Havana Syndrome’s most prominent skeptics, Sharon Weinberger, D.C. bureau chief for Yahoo News (and formerly an editor at The Intercept), has maintained that there are myriad other potential explanations for the symptoms and that no leading theory has been established in a peer-reviewed journal. The author of “Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld,” Weinberger is an expert on directed energy weapons and has argued that known microwave weapons are far too large to operate covertly and unable to penetrate walls.
Talks with retired CIA officials have revealed a deficit of trust between personnel and the agency’s Office of Medical Services. As The Intercept reported earlier this year, CIA headquarters received vaccines for Covid-19 as soon as they were available in early January, while officers working overseas had to wait for months, to the consternation of many. That distrust, while understandable, can lead personnel to seek out their own answers in the absence of any scientific consensus. DHS, for its part, appears interested in keeping emerging medical reports within official channels.