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Explained | Havana Syndrome, legality of cryptocurrencies, India’s imports from China, and new Vande Bharat trains

Explained | What is the ‘Havana Syndrome’ that has afflicted many American diplomats around the world?

What did the latest investigation find? Are the latest results consistent with earlier findings?

February 06, 2022 03:10 am | Updated 03:10 am IST

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on the ‘Havana Syndrome’. File

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on the ‘Havana Syndrome’. File

The story so far: A recent U.S. intelligence report says that ‘ Havana Syndrome ’ — a collection of symptoms and related brain injuries, reported by U.S. officials, particularly diplomats in embassies — could be caused by pulsed electromagnetic energy or close-range ultrasound . These findings are somewhat different in tone from a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report from January, which, in a majority of cases, suggested other causes for the phenomena, such as underlying medical conditions.

What is it?

‘Havana Syndrome’ is a colloquial name given to a set of symptoms such as dizziness, hearing loss, headaches, vertigo, nausea, memory loss and possible brain injuries first reported by 16 U.S. Embassy staff and their family members in Havana, Cuba, in 2016-17. There have been other instances of the phenomenon, which has mostly impacted U.S. officials. A staffer traveling in India with CIA Director Bill Burns complained of ‘Havana Syndrome’ like symptoms last September. Officials were reportedly very concerned, as per reports, that an adversary could have obtained a confidential CIA travel itinerary. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris’s arrival in Vietnam was delayed after reports of an ‘anomalous health incident’ or AHI, in Hanoi. Other countries from which American officials have reported AHIs include Colombia, Russia, China and Uzbekistan. Cases ascribed to the ‘Havana Syndrome’ have also been reported from within the U.S.


What did the latest investigation find?

A panel, constituted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA, said on Wednesday that some of the ‘Havana Syndrome’ cases could have been caused by pulsed electromagnetic energy in the radio frequency. The results of the investigation did not point to who may have been behind the phenomenon, nor commented on their motivations.

A partially redacted report summary finds that the symptoms of AHI are “genuine and compelling.” Some individuals were affected in the same space, and they showed temporary elevations in biomarker levels that are linked to cellular injury. Significantly, the investigation found that a subset of the AHIs could have been caused by external stimuli and could not be explained by known medical and environmental conditions. Psychosocial factors alone do not explain the core characteristics, the report finds, although they may cause other incidents or contribute to long-term effects. These other incidents could occur via hypervigilance or reactions to stress especially among individuals who are security-oriented. The investigation identified four “core characteristics” that describe all AHIs. First, a hearing impact. Second, the existence of other almost simultaneous symptoms such as a loss of balance or vertigo. Third, a “strong sense of locality or directionality.” Fourth, the absence of other conditions, medical or environmental, that could have caused these symptoms. The core characteristics could plausibly be explained by pulsed electromagnetic energy, possibly sent using nonstandard antennas and techniques, from as far as “tens of hundreds of metres”, including through building materials,“ the report says. Ultrasound, from a nearby source, could also explain the AHIs, the panel finds, as it rules out biological and chemical agents, ionising radiation, bulk-heating from electromagnetic energy, and sound of various frequencies as “implausible explanations.”

Are the latest results consistent with earlier findings?

The interim results of a CIA investigation into ‘Havana Syndrome’ were reported by the American press in January. The investigation concluded, for the time being at least, that it was unlikely that a foreign power was attempting, in a sustained manner, to attack U.S. officials and diplomats. The majority of the cases were thought to be caused by medical conditions —including undiagnosed bacterial infections and brain tumours, the Associated Press reported. Only in a “few dozen” cases was the jury still out and foreign interference had not been ruled out in these instances. Lawmakers criticised the CIA for releasing an interim report that was inconclusive. While the panel’s investigation does not contradict the CIA’s findings, the thrust of it is different, pointing to the plausible involvement of an external frequency source and thereby leaving open the possibility that an actor —such as a country adversarial to the U.S. —might be behind some of the cases.


What happens next?

The publicly available part of the recommendations of the latest study seem to suggest a focus on collecting more data and identifying AHIs more clearly, such as by developing more sensitive and specific tests for biomarkers and rolling out more objective clinical measurements for the incidents. Another recommendation is communicating better to U.S. government employees in order to reduce the impacts of psychosocial factors and neurological disorders, irrespective of their causes. U.S. government bodies, such as the CIA and the State Department, also continue to investigate the source of these possible attacks.

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