Havana syndrome, the investigation and theories

WION Web Team
New York, United States Published: Jun 03, 2021, 09:56 AM(IST)

US flag (file photo) Photograph:( WION )

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“Havana Syndrome” brain injuries was first identified in Cuba, with some victims experiencing long-lasting and debilitating effects, more than 130 US officials.

According to leading experts in the field, in recent years portable microwave weapons with the capability to cause the mysterious series of “Havana Syndrome” brain injuries in US diplomats and spies have been developed by several countries.

Back in 2004, a US-based company also made a prototype of such a weapon for the marine corps. Codenamed Medusa, the weapon was small enough to fit in a car and temporarily incapacitate the target, but “with a low probability of fatality or permanent injury”.

Also Read | US still seeking clues to mystery illness afflicting diplomats and spies

A report on the prototype was previously available on the US navy website since removed. There is no evidence that the project was ever then beyond this stage. While the US project was reportedly shelved keeping in mind the ethical considerations preventing human experimentation, according to the scientists in the know, such considerations have not stopped US adversaries, like Russia and quite possibly China as well.

A professor of neurology and ethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, James Giordano says “the state of that science has for the most part been, if not abandoned, pretty much left fallow in the United States, but it has not been fallow elsewhere,”.

Also Read | Havana syndrome brain injury: 130 US spies, diplomats, officials hit by mysterious illness

He was brought in as an adviser by the US government in late 2016 after about two dozen US diplomats began falling sick in Havana, James Giordano is also the senior fellow in biotechnology, biosecurity and ethics at the US Naval War College. He was also a part of an assessment for US Special Forces Command, attempting to evaluate which countries were developing the technology and to what extent they had achieved their goals.

“It became clear that some of the work that was conducted in the former Soviet Union was taken up again by Russia and its satellite proxies,” said Giordano.

Also Read | White House begins probe on cases similar to Havana syndrome symptoms

According to Giordano, with technology that can be weaponised, China had also developed directed energy devices to test the structure of various materials. In 2018, a second major wave of brain injuries among US diplomats and intelligence officers took place in China.

While he is restricted from giving details on countries and what kind of device they have developed, Giordano revealed that the new weapons used microwave frequencies, a technology that is able to disrupt brain function without any burning sensation.

“This was important – and rather frightening – to us, because it represented a state of advancement and sophistication of these types of instruments that heretofore had not been thought to be accomplished,” he said.

A plausible explanation for the Havana syndrome is that a US adversary has succeeded in miniaturising and weaponising the directed energy technology needed to inflict tissue damage from a distance.

Havana Syndrome was first identified in Cuba, with some victims experiencing long-lasting and debilitating effects, more than 130 US officials, from various departments, including the state department, CIA and national security council (NSC), have suffered from a multitude of symptoms, including dizziness, loss of balance, nausea and headaches.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences, launched in December, says that the Havana syndrome injuries were most likely caused by “directed pulsed radiofrequency energy”. Some of the most recent incidents involve NSC officials experiencing crippling symptoms in broad daylight in Washington. While the state department, CIA and Pentagon have all launched investigations, none have yet come to any conclusions.

Pointing out that a weapon capable of inflicting brain injury that too from a distance will be too unwieldy to be used in urban areas, sceptics of the microwave weapon theory also signal to the decades of alleged US efforts that went into building such a device during the cold war and since, without any confirmed success.

Addressing sceptics, James Lin, the leading US authority on the biological impact of microwave energy, says that in fact a large apparatus would not be needed to focus enough energy on a small area, which can heat the area a minute amount and causing “a thermoelastic pressure wave” that can then travel through the brain, causing damage to soft tissue.

It is believed that the pressure wave is initially experienced as sound by the target. Lending credibility to this theory, many of the targeted US diplomats, spies, soldiers and officials being examined as part of the Havana Syndrome investigation have reported hearing strange sounds at the onset of the attacks.

“It’s not something that you need to have enormous amounts of space or equipment to do it.” Said Lin, professor emeritus in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Illinois. “You can certainly put together a system in a couple of big suitcases that will allow you to put it in a van or an SUV,”.

a company called WaveBand Corporation was behind the microwave weapon project for the US Marine Corps. They were paid $100,000 for the weapon prototype. The weapon codenamed ‘Medusa’, an acronym for Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio used the same technology as that suggested by Professor Lin.

According to the specifications of the contract, the prototype would “be portable, require low power, have a controllable radius of coverage, be able to switch from crowd to individual coverage, cause a temporarily incapacitating effect, have a low probability of fatality or permanent injury, cause no damage to property, and have a low probability of affecting friendly personnel”.

The navy document from 2004 (since removed from the Navy Small Business Innovation Research site) said the hardware had been designed and built, adding that “Experimental evidence of MAE [microwave auditory effect] was observed.”

While saying that he was limited in what he was allowed to say about the project, WaveBand’s former president and CEO, Lev Sadovnik, said, that the immediate effects of MAE were disorientation and the impression of hearing sounds. According to him a device capable of causing Havana Syndrome symptoms could be relatively portable.

“It’s quite conceivable that you can hide it in a car, or in a van but it would not work over a long distance,” he said. “You can do it through a wall, say, if you are in the next room in a hotel.”

While many of the victims and US officials believe that Russia is behind the Havana attacks, so far there is no compelling evidence to support this. In some cases, there were reports of Russian military intelligence (GRU) vehicles close to the scene of an apparent attack. But it would not be unusual for the GRU to tail US officials.

Calling the initial two dozen cases in Havana, a representation of a field test of the equipment, Giordano reiterated that while the development of such weapons had stalled in the US, it is continued by America’s adversaries.

According to him, while the US focuses on expensive weapons for traditional warfare, Russia, China and others are “very interested in, and dedicated to, developing non-kinetic tools that can be leveraged below the threshold of what would formally be considered acts of war, so as to engage in processes of mass disruption”.

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