A US intelligence officer traveling with CIA director William Burns has reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome while the two were in New Delhi, India earlier this month.
The development, as reported by the US media, has apparently angered the CIA director and could lead to an ‘egregious escalation’ in case an opposed power was found to be involved in the ‘attack’.
This is the first instance of the phenomenon being reported in India, at least on record, and could have diplomatic implications. The syndrome was first reported in Cuba in late 2016. The mysterious neurological illness has afflicted American spies and diplomats in several countries.
According to US media reports, in the past few years, US officials have reported around 130 such attacks across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others.
So what is this ‘Havana syndrome’, what are its causes, and why it’s considered an ‘attack’ and not a mere disease? Let’s discuss all in detail.
What is the ‘Havana Syndrome’?
Havana Syndrome refers to a set of mental health symptoms that were reported to be experienced by US intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba.
In late 2016, US diplomats and other employees stationed in Havana (capital of Cuba), reported feeling ill after hearing strange sounds and experiencing odd physical sensations in their hotel rooms or homes.
The symptoms typically included nausea, severe headaches, vertigo, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems, and hearing loss, which have since come to be known as "Havana Syndrome".
In all, more than two dozen American diplomats and members of their families in Cuba and China and at least 14 Canadian citizens in Havana reportedly have experienced similar symptoms.
While the symptoms have resolved for some of the affected employees, for others, the effects have lingered and posed a significant obstacle to their work and affected the normal functioning of lives.
What causes Havana Syndrome?
To date, no one is entirely sure. But, initially during the Cuban experience, being in a country that had been hostile to the US for over five decades, the suspicion was on Cuban intelligence that did not want US-Cuba relations to normalize.
A section of experts has altogether dismissed the existence of such syndrome, saying that the stressful environment of foreign missions was behind US diplomats experiencing such symptoms.
Robert W Baloh, a professor of neurology at UCLA, called it a mass psychogenic (stress-related) condition. He mentioned that the situation was similar to the way people feel sick when they are told they have eaten tainted food even if there was nothing wrong with it. Hence, it’s nothing but stress-triggered illness.
However, others have initially speculated it to be a "sonic attack".
Further study by scientists in the US and medical examination of the victims began to suggest that the victims may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system.
It was said to have built a pressure inside the brain that generated the feeling of a sound being heard.
Greater exposure to high-powered microwaves is said not only to interfere with the body's sense of balance but also impact memory and cause permanent brain damage.
It is suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves are sent through a special gadget that Americans have begun calling ‘microwave weapon’.
Do ‘Microwave weapons really exist?
‘Microwave weapons’ are supposed to be a type of direct energy weapons, which aim for highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser, or microwaves, at a target.
Like in a microwave oven, an electron tube called a magnetron produces electromagnetic waves (microwaves) that bounce around the metal interior of the appliance, and are absorbed by the food.
The microwaves agitate the water molecules in the food, and their vibration produces heat that cooks the food. So how do these waves affect the human body?
People exposed to high-intensity microwave pulses have reported a clicking or buzzing sound, as if seeming to be coming from within your head. It can have both acute and long-term effects - without leaving signs of physical damage.
According to a BBC report, China and Russia have been both engaged in microwave research and could have repurposed tools developed for industrial use.
However, after 5 years of data collection, experiments, and medical examination of victims, the US has as yet not been able to come up with any conclusive evidence suggesting that the ‘microwave weapon’ is a reality.
No one seems to yet have an idea of what the mechanics of this weapon is and how it functions. There is also a question mark on how the so-called weapon is able to specifically target individuals and not affect all the people in its range.
Some medical experts in the US have begun to completely debunk this theory, calling the syndrome a psychological illness amplified by widespread fear of being targeted.
Conclusion | Why would this happen in India?
Sources in the Indian security establishment say they are not aware of any such weapon being in the possession of an Indian agency.
Even if there was one, it’s unlikely that the government would admit to having such a counter-espionage technology. So, could a foreign country use Indian soil to target US officials? Sources say it is highly unlikely.
"Why would an Indian agency target the US? Given the geopolitics of today, they are our closest friends," an intelligence official said.
"Even if we were to assume that the Russians or the Chinese have been able to bring in such equipment without our knowledge, once such a thing comes out, it negatively impacts relations between our country and theirs. Why would they risk that unless they want to hurt us as well?" another intelligence official said.
So in all, we can believe that this attack wasn’t done by India until further investigations conclude the matter. Also, without further research and information on the existence of such weapons and resulting syndrome, it’s hard to say if all of this is actually true.