The U.S. government wants to start solving several unsolved riddles in 2021. The CIA has been ramping up its investigation into why hundreds of U.S. officials have been experiencing strange symptoms like headaches, discomfort or pressure in the head, dizziness, and eyesight issues in the last year.

U.S. personnel stationed around the world have reported potential attacks, and there are even suspicions that one event occurred near the White House.

“I’m certainly persuaded that what our officers and some family members, as well as other U.S. government employees, have experienced is real, and it’s serious,” said CIA Director William Burns, according to NY Mag.


In late 2016, CIA officials and State Department personnel working at the American embassy in Havana initially reported symptoms of what became known as the Havana sickness. They experienced hearing loud mechanical noises and/or feeling uncomfortable pressure, similar to the feeling of speeding in a car with one window half down.

Some people had reported feeling as though they were hit by a beam of energy when the symptoms first appeared. There have also been reports of vertigo, eye issues, and difficulty concentrating. In addition, some ambassadors and agents developed hearing loss due to the auditory symptoms, with some cases being so severe that workers were compelled to conclude their tours early and return to the U.S. for study and outpatient treatment.

Some people have reported only having pain in specific settings, such as hotel rooms or apartments, but not anywhere else. For example, according to the New York Times, in 2019, a military commander drove into an intersection and experienced severe nausea and headaches, which subsided once they drove off.

Others have suffered from long-term difficulties such as severe migraines, sleeplessness, and hearing loss. According to NBC News, up to 200 officials have been diagnosed with Havana syndrome. About half of them being CIA officers or their families, and the other half being Defense Department and State Department workers.

Where is this phenomenon reported?

Russia, Poland, Austria, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, China, Kyrgyzstan, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan are where the Havana phenomenon has been reported. In mid-July, one government insider told NBC News, “It is global, but there seems to be an awful lot going on in Europe.” Vienna, a global center of spycraft since the Cold War’s early days, has recently become a focal point: Nearly two dozen American personnel in Vienna have experienced symptoms since President Biden entered office.

Even on American soil, American leaders may have reason to be concerned about the Havana syndrome. In April, members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees announced that two potential Havana-style attacks in the United States were under investigation, including one involving a National Security Council official just south of the White House.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip from Singapore to Vietnam was postponed in August after the U.S. embassy in Hanoi issued a warning about a “report of a recent possible anomalous health incident,” the government’s term for Havana syndrome symptoms. 

CNN reported in September that an American traveling in India with CIA Director William Burns had experienced Havana Syndrome-like symptoms and needed medical assistance. There were no specifics about the person’s symptoms. However, the episode allegedly enraged Burns, and it was interpreted by some CIA officers as a warning that rivals could hurt even individuals in the agency’s closest circle.

Possible causes

According to reports, U.S. officials initially suspected that Americans in Cuba had been targeted with a secret sonic weapon that worked outside the normal range of human hearing.

According to BuzzFeed News, in 2018, Congress directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the illness, resulting in the Cuba Unexplained Events Investigation. However, the officials’ medical histories were judged to be insufficient to explain their symptoms, and the time between the pain they experienced and subsequent testing “hindered CDC’s ability to discriminate patterns in the data,” according to the study.

According to one physician who contacted BuzzFeed News, the study’s findings implied that “essentially the CDC is saying that they have no idea what happened in Cuba.” The New Yorker met with experts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, who studied the brains of 40 American patients stationed in Havana using modern MRI scans.

According to the study, there were symptoms of brain damage, but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls. It was as though they experienced a “concussion without a concussion,” according to one doctor. Some neurologists have proposed the hypothesis that the attacks in Cuba could be explained by mass hysteria, in part due to the absence of proof of any physical harm.

After four years, some intelligence officials believe the symptoms are an unintended result of an energy device used to collect data from smartphones or computers. Foreign governments may now be using the symptoms as a weapon after witnessing how well they affect people.

Last December, scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report claiming that the symptoms were produced by a directed, pulsed radiofrequency (RF) radiation device, including microwaves. However, intelligence personnel has yet to unearth conclusive evidence that such a device is to blame for the symptoms.

Some officials in the Trump and Biden administrations believe the military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) is to blame for the attacks. However, no substantial evidence linking the GRU to individual cases has been produced.

Government’s top priority

Following years of inexplicable diseases weakening American intelligence, the CIA said in December that it would launch a concentrated probe directed by senior CIA officers and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. When William Burns, Biden’s CIA director, was approved in March, he promised to step up the effort.

 “I am absolutely determined—and I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy on this in the four months that I’ve been CIA director—to get to the bottom of the question of what and who caused this,” Burns told NPR earlier this month. 

As part of that endeavor, he’s tasked a seasoned officer who helped lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden with leading the task force. The identity of the agent is kept a secret.

There is no fixed schedule for the intelligence study into the Havana syndrome, unlike the landmark UFO report delivered to the Senate in June—and its follow-up on suggestions for better data-collection techniques due early this fall.

The Senate passed the bipartisan Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act in June. While it may take time to figure out what causes Havana syndrome, the act provides further financial and medical support to American officials experiencing symptoms. The House followed suit on Sept. 21, passing the bill overwhelmingly.

Sign up to receive our latest news!

By submitting this form, I agree to the terms.