History's Greatest Mysteries (2020) s04e18 Episode Script

The Mysterious Havana Syndrome

Tonight, a mysterious illness
strikes hundreds
of government officials.
In the middle of the night,
I woke up
and the room was spinning.
I had a terrible case
of vertigo.
I was frankly terrified.
Ongoing investigations raise
more questions than answers.
It's causing
a lot of confusion, frustration,
and really starting to feel
kinda like
they're in some sort
of bad spy thriller.
Now, we reveal the top theories
behind this bizarre epidemic.
This could have
been caused by something
that was already inside
the embassy staff quarters.
These chemicals have been used
in some of the most deadly
chemical attacks on the planet.
Could some foreign power have
developed a new sonic weapon?
What's behind the strange
known as Havana syndrome?
November 2016, Havana, Cuba.
As the sun sets on the island,
a U.S. diplomat and his wife
are unwinding with friends.
This couple
has just moved to Cuba,
and their names have been kept
anonymous in reports.
But the diplomat and his wife
are living in
an upscale development
called El Country Club.
They're having neighbors
over for drinks,
and suddenly
they hear this sound,
and it fills the air and sounds
kind of like cicadas,
only it's a more
piercing metallic sound.
The noise persists
through dinner.
At the couple's request,
maintenance workers check
the property for insects,
and look for any
electrical issues
that could be causing
the racket.
But they find nothing.
The sound lingers
for three months,
during which time
the couple falls ill.
He and his wife
have been feeling off
ever since shortly after
the sounds began
kind of cloudy
with difficulty concentrating.
After a while, the diplomat
shares his experience
with coworkers
at the U.S. embassy.
A colleague in his 30s
says that he also heard
this high-pitched sound
and started to experience
health issues.
And he plays some audio
that he's recorded
of the incident.
It's the same noise
the diplomat's been hearing
for months.
Days later, that diplomat
and his wife
are examined by doctors in Miami
and diagnosed with
concussion-like symptoms
headache, fatigue,
and balance issues.
More diplomats
and others start reporting
exactly the same set
of symptoms.
Over the next two months,
more than two dozen officials
in Havana are diagnosed
with the strange condition.
What's even worse,
is some of these victims
enter a second phase
of the illness
where they have even greater
cognitive difficulty
and trouble hearing or seeing.
It's really horrible.
These symptoms
have just appeared,
and there appears to be
no treatment.
You have to wonder,
what could cause this
in so many different people?
To try to learn why,
the U.S. government
opens an investigation
in January of 2017.
The first group
of embassy employees
are thoroughly examined
in the United States,
and a report is published
in the Journal of the American
Medical Association in 2018.
Perhaps most seriously
and notably,
the study concluded
that the patients
had sustained widespread injury
to brain networks.
There is a clear physical change
that has happened
to the brains of these patients.
It's visible in the MRIs.
But that change is minor
compared to the results
of several neurological tests
that target memory,
executive functioning,
and spatial orientation.
According to the study,
these same severe effects
would occur
after a devastating car crash
or explosion.
But none of these victims have
experienced that type of trauma.
At a loss, doctors dub
the mysterious illness
Havana syndrome.
Is some strange virus
or infection
spreading through
the American embassy?
This, of course,
is a huge concern
to multiple government agencies.
For no apparent reason,
their staffers
are suddenly
dropping like flies.
It's not killing anyone,
but it's making them
pretty much unable
to function in their jobs
and sometimes in
their daily lives.
In 2018,
the U.S. government
brings in the CIA,
Defense Department,
State Department, and CDC
to further investigate.
At the earliest
onset of symptoms,
these victims are hearing
a chirping,
a screeching, a clicking,
and they're also feeling
a certain pressure
in their heads.
They say they're hearing
these sounds in their homes
or in their hotel rooms,
and there's a certain
directionality to the sensation,
almost like it's coming
through a wall
or in a specific
part of the room.
Based on the victims' testimony,
officials believe
they have the answer.
Diplomats and CIA officers,
or spies,
are the ones who were afflicted.
This is not affecting
the general public.
So, the U.S.'s first guess
is that it could be
a covert sonic weapon.
In October 2017,
President Trump
holds a news conference
where he calls the incidents,
"a very unusual attack."
He's going public with the idea
that this is a weapon.
Sound, like anything,
can be and has been weaponized.
It's not something
we think about
because we can't see it.
But at certain frequencies,
it can cause vomiting
and internal distress,
and maybe even death.
It's something
the Nazis tried to harness
during World War II.
The Nazi regime
had a team of scientists
working on wonder weapons
which they claimed
would revolutionize the war.
And their chief architect,
Albert Speer,
developed one that's called
the acoustic cannon.
The idea is to kill
or injure someone
by focusing or magnifying
soundwaves on a reflective dish.
At a distance
of around 600 to 1,200 feet,
the sound is reported to cause
vertigo and nausea
by vibrating structures
in the inner ear.
At closer ranges, it could
even damage internal organs.
But this weapon
has one serious flaw.
It's huge.
The reflector dishes are so big
that it's hard to maneuver,
and any damage to the dishes
would render it
entirely inoperable.
While the Nazis' acoustic cannon
was never used in battle,
it paves the way
for modern versions.
In the early 2000s
the U.S. developed a weapon
that it called an LRAD
long-range acoustic device.
These LRADs are capable
of projecting
very powerful pulses
or beams of sound
up to two miles away.
And if you set it
to emit high-decibel chirping
or a beeping sound,
it could also be used
as a deterrent.
Nowadays, our military
uses LRADs
for everything
from crowd control
to repelling pirates
from cruise ships.
At a high enough decibel,
LRADs can be used as weapons.
They're certainly capable
of creating pain,
nausea, imbalance,
and even permanent hearing loss.
It's a promising lead,
but experts say
there's one problem
with the sonic weapon theory.
LRADs are not subtle weapons.
They are definitely
very, very loud.
And given that none
of the patients in Havana
reported hearing a loud sound,
their reports
are not really consistent
with the use of an LRAD.
So, the next question becomes,
could some foreign power have
developed a new sonic weapon,
one that somehow produces
the same effects
by primarily using sound outside
the range of human hearing?
There's no evidence
found in Cuba.
But in 2019,
the Chinese Academy of Sciences
announces a prototype
for the first
portable sonic gun.
The Chinese claim
that they use focus waves
of infrasound.
These waves painfully vibrate
the subject's eardrums,
eyes, and brain.
It may mess with the inner ear,
causing vertigo and imbalance.
Infrasound may also cause
nausea, vomiting, bowel spasms,
and potentially affect
internal organs like the heart.
In field tests,
according to the Chinese team,
it produced extreme discomfort.
Of course, this thing
had to have been developed
and tested years prior to 2019,
possibly even
field tested covertly.
According to
the South China Morning Post,
which first reported the story,
this device has been approved
for mass production
by the Chinese government.
If that's the case,
it's definitely been
in the works for quite a while.
Still, many doubt
this technology
is the source
of Havana syndrome.
In the end, infrasound
would be a poor choice
because it spreads
in all directions.
It'd be difficult
to target specific individuals.
Infrasound can't be
easily focused.
It would also affect
the user of the weapon,
probably more so than some
of the targets,
since they're closer
to the source.
And frankly, the effects
from an infrasonic weapon
would probably be more annoying
than debilitating.
In February of 2022,
the Office of the Director
of National Intelligence
and the CIA state
that there's still a possibility
that this could be
a sonic weapon in Havana,
but it would need to be placed
extremely close to the target,
meaning against a wall
or through a window.
In some of these Havana cases,
the victims were in
secure facilities
away from public access.
So, is it possible
that this was a sonic weapon?
But is it probable?
In 2016,
after more than two dozen
American diplomats
develop a mysterious illness
called Havana syndrome,
some government officials
suspect an ultrasonic weapon.
But computer security engineer
Dr. Kevin Fu
has a more surprising theory.
My laboratory
uses analog signals
to break into computer systems
with lasers, acoustics,
and soundwaves.
In other words,
Dr. Fu specializes
in hacking some of our most
sensitive electronics
to identify security flaws
and protect against them.
A few of the examples
include creating
a homemade radio transmitter
to induce fatal heart rhythms
in a defibrillator.
We have used laser pointers
over hundreds of feet
to take over
voice-controlled assistance.
We have also turned hard drives
into listening devices
through some of the mechanisms
on the inside
of the spinning discs.
So, when Dr. Fu first
hears about Havana syndrome,
he realizes, "Hey, this sounds
kind of like a phenomenon"
"I've encountered before.
"My whole job
is to glitch out electronics,
and maybe that's what
this is a glitch."
Dr. Fu believes
the Havana syndrome conditions
could have occurred without
any massive secret weapon.
This theory states that
this could have been caused
by something
that was already inside
the embassy staff quarters.
According to Fu,
there's a good chance
the afflicted American officials
were under surveillance
while in Cuba,
a detail he thinks is key
to solving this puzzle.
I believe that some kind
of unintentional accident
with malfunctioning
eavesdropping devices
may have caused the sensations
that the witnesses reported.
When Fidel Castro
comes to power in 1959,
American diplomats
are unwelcome in Havana
for nearly 20 years.
But in 1977, the United States
reopens a limited
diplomatic relationship
to work with Cuba
on areas of mutual interest.
From then on, the Cubans
keep a pretty close watch
on any American diplomats
in their country.
As a State Department
official, you'd come home,
and maybe you'd see
the TV on or the window open,
and you might be thinking,
what's happening?
And then you realize
that Cuban spies
want you to get this message,
that if you think
you're being watched,
you probably are.
It's almost
like a game sometimes.
There are reports of things like
an undercover CIA agent
finding his tires punctured,
or maybe his family pet
is poisoned.
Eventually in 2015,
an American embassy
reopens in Cuba.
One year later, the first cases
of Havana syndrome are reported.
This is one reason
why the sonic weapon theory
never made sense.
Why would the Cuban government
initiate a brazen attack
on American officials
at the very moment
when they were reopening
diplomatic relations?
It just doesn't add up.
That doesn't mean the Cubans
quit spying on Americans.
Of course not.
Everybody spies on each other,
and we find their devices
So, when we looked
at what the witnesses
reporting about
the sensations in Havana,
we started brainstorming
about all sorts
of different kinds of conditions
that could make
an eavesdropping device
produce the same signals
that the witnesses heard.
If you're going to
conduct a spying operation,
you can't just hook up
a hidden camera to Wi-Fi.
You've gotta do it in a way that
will go completely undetected.
And we know that one way
spy devices
secretly transmit information
is through
the ultrasonic frequency range.
Ultrasound technology
is most commonly used
in healthcare applications,
motion detectors,
and pest repellents.
It's generally considered
But Dr. Fu's team
has discovered a scenario
where ultrasonic transmitters
could become dangerous.
There's an interesting phenomena
when two signals
interfere with each other
to create a third tone.
It's called
intermodulation distortion.
So, although ultrasound
is not audible,
and is designed
not to be audible,
if two ultrasonic transmitters
come together
and cross paths in the air,
they can produce a byproduct
that is quite audible
to the human ear.
Dr. Fu's team is able
to replicate this phenomenon,
creating the same
metallic chirping sound
recorded by American diplomats.
If you listen
to the audio recordings
of some of the incidents
and the sound
from our experiments
in the laboratory,
we found that the two signals
were essentially identical.
But could these sounds
actually make people sick?
According to Dr. Fu,
it's possible.
We don't know if these
particular sounds caused harm,
because our experiments were all
confined to the laboratory,
not involving human subjects.
But we do know that sound
can cause harm.
It can cause nausea,
internal distress,
it can even cause harm
to the human body
at intense enough frequencies.
But not everyone's convinced.
It doesn't make any sense
as an intentional act,
at the very least.
If you're spying on somebody,
you do not want your devices
that you're using
for surveillance
to drive away the people
that you're trying to spy on,
which is exactly what happened.
The reason why Dr. Fu
and many others
have researched this
is because there's no answers
to what is causing
the Havana syndrome.
The U.S. government hasn't been
able to figure it out.
At least Dr. Fu
has replicated the noise,
and that's more than most people
have accomplished.
Part of the scientific process
is about exploring
many different hypotheses,
some of which may turn out
to be incorrect or less likely.
But we hope that the research
done in my laboratory
is helping us come closer
as a community to a conclusion
to solve this mystery.
the mysterious Havana syndrome
only impacts U.S. diplomats
in Cuba.
But by March of 2018,
diplomats at another embassy
in Havana fall victim.
It starts happening
to the Canadian embassy staff.
This is very strange
because the Canadian embassy
is about three miles away
from the U.S. embassy,
so it's not like
they're adjacent or anything.
Canadian diplomats
and their families
start reporting exactly the same
kinds of symptoms
U.S. embassy staff had reported.
nausea, dizziness.
40 Canadian diplomats fall ill,
and so the Canadian government
ends up pulling its diplomats
out of Cuba.
By 2019,
Canada's workforce in Havana
is reduced by half.
This illness, whatever it is,
is severely limiting
their ability
to conduct
diplomatic relations in Cuba.
That same year,
Canadian officials
launch their own investigation.
At this point,
the Americans are probably glad
to have the help.
We've got no clear motive,
no clear means,
and no good suspects.
It's causing a lot
of confusion, frustration,
and really starting
to feel kinda like
they're in some sort
of bad spy thriller.
Among the Canadian researchers
is Dr. Alon Friedman,
who works at a highly regarded
brain research center
in Nova Scotia.
Dr. Friedman is a neuroscientist
who studies
the blood-brain barrier,
and in particular, the chemicals
that can cross that barrier,
which typically
protects your brain
from most chemical attacks.
Although some researchers
have looked at the causes
being maybe sonic or physical,
Dr. Friedman is looking to see
if it may be a chemical
While the blood-brain barrier
does protect against
a lot of chemicals,
it turns out that the number
of chemicals
that can cross
that blood-brain barrier,
still very large.
And so, Dr. Friedman wants
to look at every possibility.
It's not even really finding
a needle in a haystack.
It's looking at a haystack
and not knowing
if there are any needles inside.
Dr. Friedman
conducts brain scans and MRIs
on 23 Canadian diplomats
and their families.
Initial evaluations confirm
the Canadians
have damaged brain tissue
just like the Americans.
In addition, Dr. Friedman
conducted a range
of blood tests,
as well as something
called mass spectrometry.
Mass spectrometry is a technique
that creates a fingerprint
for a chemical,
allowing you to tell
exactly what is there
and how it's comprised.
Specifically, he was on
a search for neurotoxins,
because all the symptoms
are consistent
with some sort of damage
or effect on the nervous system.
Turns out,
they find neurotoxins.
They find them in every single
symptomatic patient
that they test.
Everyone has some toxins
in their body,
but based on this study,
it appears that
the Havana syndrome
could have been caused
by a chemical weapon.
The pattern of brain injuries
in the patients from Havana
are consistent with regular
low-dose exposure
to a class of neurotoxins called
cholinesterase inhibitors.
These chemicals have been used
in some of the most deadly
chemical weapons attacks
on the planet.
Now, cholinesterase inhibitors,
as the name suggests,
inhibit cholinesterase
from working.
This chemical is crucial
for the communication
between the brain
and the muscles.
If your brain cells
cannot talk to each other,
then you have problems thinking.
Some cholinesterase
inhibitors have been weaponized.
One famous example is sarin.
Originally developed
by Hitler's Nazi Germany,
it was so devastating that even
Hitler was scared to use it.
Another variant of this chemical
is called Novichok.
This was a chemical that
was found in the bloodstream
of Russian opposition leader
Alexei Navalny,
who was poisoned in 2020.
cholinesterase inhibitors
can be very dangerous,
even deadly.
And so, Dr. Friedman
wants to find out
exactly what kind
of cholinesterase inhibitor
is affecting these patients.
After further testing,
Dr. Friedman's team
is able to identify
the chemical.
It isn't as nasty
as sarin or Novichok.
It is something else
called temephos.
is not particularly lethal,
but regular exposure
can cause symptoms
such as dizziness,
sensitivity to sounds
symptoms that align
with what was reported
in Havana syndrome.
When the Havana syndrome
first hits the news,
a lot of people are saying
this sounds a lot like a weapon.
But there's also
a less sinister possibility.
Temephos is used widely
throughout the world
as an agent
to control mosquitos.
It attacks the nervous system
of the larvae,
preventing them
from turning into adults,
and therefore helping
to stop the spread
of mosquito-borne illness.
It is in a sense a pesticide.
Dr. Friedman concludes
that these diplomats
and their families
have been exposed to pesticides.
Could high levels of pesticide
actually be responsible?
In March of 2015, Zika is
officially detected in Brazil,
and by 2016,
the World Health Organization
has declared it
a public health emergency.
The Zika virus is
transmitted by mosquito bites.
Countries are spraying
for mosquitoes like crazy.
Tropical and semitropical places
like Cuba
are using vast quantities
of temephos.
And the timing seems to fit.
Cuba reports its first outbreak
of the Zika virus
in March of 2016.
The first American diplomats
report symptoms
of the Havana syndrome
about six months later.
Canadian records
confirm that in 2017,
the Canadian embassy
and its grounds
increased the use
of temephos pesticides,
which roughly coincides
with symptoms
in their embassy workers.
In fact, the EPA
has actually outlawed temephos
as a residential pesticide
because of its neurological
But not everyone's convinced
Friedman's solved the mystery.
Temephos was being used
all over the place
throughout the Americas,
not just at
diplomatic residences.
It was in
Cuban government offices,
Cuban homes, and dozens
of other places
where Havana syndrome
didn't occur.
What about Brazil?
What about Colombia?
If temephos caused this illness,
you'd have seen it affect
a much larger group worldwide.
Dr. Friedman still believes
a chemical could be the cause.
This doesn't mean
that it couldn't be
a neurological agent
of some kind at play.
Friedman couldn't test
for everything.
He tested for a handful
of likely candidates,
and it's possible that there
was something else at play
that he didn't test for.
In the end, we can't rule out
that the Havana syndrome
may have been caused
by chemical exposure.
Is there another
chemical weapon out there
that we don't yet know about?
Hopefully not, but maybe.
As growing fears about
the mysterious Havana syndrome
threaten relations between
the U.S. and Cuba,
the Cuban government launches
its own investigation.
In 2018, Cuba's officials
announce their findings,
and identify
a surprising new culprit.
From very early on,
the United States has believed
that Cuba is behind
Havana syndrome somehow.
I mean, you give it that name,
the president goes on
live television
to blame the Cubans,
this is a very bad look
for them.
Some in the White House
are actually calling this
an act of war,
so the Cubans are very anxious
to clear their name.
The Cuban government
interviews about 300 neighbors
of these diplomats.
They say that they've gone
to the living quarters
of embassy staffers,
that they've analyzed
air and oil samples,
and that they've conducted
dozens of medical examinations
to see if people
in the surrounding area
were afflicted, and they say
they find nothing.
The Cubans are saying
there's simply no known
form of energy
that can selectively
damage the brain
the way the doctors describe.
They're even doubtful
that there's a syndrome at all.
Instead, they offer
an alternative explanation
for both the sounds
and the symptoms.
The Cuban government
in their report
theorize that this was not
caused by sonic weapons,
and the chirping noise
heard by everyone was crickets.
The rest of the symptoms,
the Cuban government says,
could be caused by stress.
After all the hours
evacuating diplomats,
conducting extensive
medical tests,
to suggest that maybe people
were just worn down
by the sound of crickets?
That feels like an insult.
Two biologists,
UC Berkeley's Alexander Stubbs
and the University of Lincoln's
Fernando Montealegre-Zapata,
research Cuba's claim.
To them, that metallic
chirping noise
recorded in Havana
sounds vaguely familiar.
These biologists
had a massive database
of the sounds of different kinds
of insects,
their mating calls.
And what the biologists found
is that the sounds
that were recorded in Havana
match precisely that of one
particular kind of insect,
the Indies cricket.
And moreover,
this particular Indies cricket
is resident in Cuba.
For confirmation,
they use state-of-the-art
audio technology.
Forensic audio analysis can be
incredibly specific these days.
Soundwave patterns can be
kind of like fingerprints.
They can even be used
to convict killers.
So, what's interesting
is that when you apply
some of these acoustic
forensic techniques
to what was recorded in Cuba,
it's an exact match
of the cricket mating call.
crickets aren't as menacing
as a sonic weapon
or a deadly neurotoxin,
but this isn't
your garden variety cricket.
The Indies cricket can chirp
at 100 decibels,
the same volume
as a subway train.
You can imagine
that if you had a couple
in your residence, that could be
a really rough night,
especially if you're not
habituated to those sounds.
If you're from another country
and this is the first time
you've ever heard it,
that could be
extremely disruptive.
According to the Cuban report,
the crickets
may be magnifying stress
that the diplomats
are already experiencing.
The Havana syndrome
has some classic telltale signs
of psychogenic illnesses.
There are studies that show
that people
who have been exposed
to long-term stress
have similar brain scans
as the Havana victims.
That stress
might be self-perpetuating.
After the news
of a possible weapon
hits the media, the diplomats
are put on alert.
They're told that someone
could be watching them at home.
They're told not to sleep
or to stand near their windows,
and to report
any strange symptoms.
They're afraid
for their families.
They can never feel safe.
But those suffering
from Havana syndrome
strongly disagree.
Several people got sick
before there was an alert,
before it reached headlines
and people went into panic mode.
And the first four cases
were CIA officers.
These are people who are trained
to deal with massive amounts
of stress.
With opinions split
over the cricket theory,
the U.S. government calls in
an elite scientific team
to conduct its own analysis.
The federal government
has a semi-secret advisory board
known as JASON.
It was originally called
Project Sunrise,
and was later changed
to the name JASON
from Greek mythology.
It was formed in the aftermath
of the Soviet Sputnik launch
in 1960.
JASON attracts the
nation's most elite scientists
to advise on defense matters,
kind of like what we saw
in World War II
with the Manhattan Project
when Einstein and Oppenheimer
were researching nuclear energy
and weapons.
Today, there are between
30 and 60
of our country's best scientists
involved in JASON,
and they're only activated
when there's a particularly
difficult task at hand.
And at this point,
the U.S. government
sees Havana syndrome
as such a difficult matter,
that then they turn to JASON.
Through a Freedom
of Information Act request,
JASON's top-secret 2018 report
is released to the public.
And while much of it
is redacted,
the JASON scientists
concur that the noises
on the Havana recordings
are crickets.
While they agree
on the source of the sound,
they don't agree
on the source of the illness.
The report goes on to say,
"It cannot be ruled out
that the perceived sounds,
"while not harmful,
are introduced
"by an adversary as deception
"so as to mask
an entirely unrelated mode
of causing illness
in diplomatic personnel."
Basically, they're saying
these crickets
could be a distraction to hide
another form of attack.
And suddenly,
the Cubans blaming the crickets
seems really convenient.
Maybe the Cubans
are involved, maybe not.
Either way, once again,
we're left with no idea
what's making our people sick.
December 2017, Moscow, Russia.
CIA operative
Marc Polymeropoulos
is asleep in his hotel room
when he is awakened
by a strange sound.
In the middle
of the night, I woke up
and the room was spinning.
I had a terrible case
of vertigo.
I couldn't get up.
I was falling over.
I had tinnitus,
which is ringing in my ears.
I had a splitting headache
in the back of my head.
And overall, there was just
this incredible feeling
of being disoriented.
I was I was frankly terrified.
At the time,
Marc believes he has a bad case
of food poisoning.
I had been in Iraq
and Afghanistan,
been shot at
a whole bunch of times,
but I was flat-out scared.
A veteran operative,
Marc's been posted
on covert missions
all over the world.
I was the Deputy
Chief of Operations
of the Europe and Eurasia
Missions Center
that entailed oversight over
all CIA's clandestine operations
from Dublin, Ireland,
to the farthest regions
of Russia,
which encompasses 11 time zones.
So, my position at the time
was the equivalent
of a three-star general.
It was a routine trip
where I'm talking
to my counterparts in
the Russian Security Services.
Marc's symptoms
subside for a few days.
I was eating at a very
fancy restaurant in Moscow,
and the symptoms came back,
particularly the vertigo.
I remember clearly that
the room started spinning again.
The headaches came back
even more severe,
the tinnitus,
the ringing in my ears.
And I had to get back
to my room,
and in effect, for the last
couple days of my trip,
I didn't really do much.
The vertigo was so disorienting,
and I kind of crawled up
the stairs of the airplane
to finally make my way back
to the United States,
hoping that, you know,
these symptoms would get better.
As time goes by, however,
his symptoms only get worse.
I proceeded to go
to multiple doctors,
and these included allergists,
infectious disease specialists,
multiple neurologists,
pain doctors.
And for months and months,
they could find no way
to alleviate my symptoms.
But still, it was a mystery
to them what occurred.
One year later,
news breaks of a similar illness
affecting diplomats in Havana.
I still was having
these symptoms,
I still was feeling
incredibly ill.
When I heard about what had
happened to officers
at the U.S. embassy in Havana,
I had actually at the time
thought I could have experienced
the same thing.
Convinced there's a connection,
Marc takes his complaint
to the CIA's
Office of Medical Services.
And I went and I asked
CIA doctors there,
take a look at me, but in about
a 10-minute quick interview
and exam, they thought I did not
look like the U.S. officials
who were afflicted
by Havana syndrome.
But really, what was interesting
and pretty alarming
is that officers that I knew
would stop by my office
and they'd say,
"Hey, something happened to me."
Their symptoms
were very similar.
They had an event occur,
usually in a hotel room.
It was the same things,
such as vertigo,
splitting headaches.
And like myself,
they were all involved
in Russian operations.
Unfortunately, there still
was a lot of resistance
from inside the Office
of Medical Services.
But really in that timeframe,
I started suffering
from brain fog
and had a bout of several weeks
where I lost
my long-distance vision.
the result of all this,
I couldn't perform my duties.
And in mid-2019,
I made the decision
that I would retire.
believes he may be one
of the first to experience
Havana syndrome
outside of Cuba.
In June 2018,
nearly a dozen diplomats
are evacuated
from Guangzhou, China,
with similar symptoms.
Since then,
even more possible cases
have popped up in Georgia,
Poland, Taiwan,
and the list goes on
Colombia, Kyrgyzstan,
Uzbekistan, and Austria.
Cases have even been
reported on American soil.
At least two cases
of Havana syndrome
have been reported
in the United States,
including one on the south side
of the White House.
We don't know if these cases
are linked,
we don't have
any idea of the cause,
but some doctors have dubbed it
"the immaculate concussion."
Now that Havana syndrome
is happening outside of Cuba,
it opens up a staggering array
of possibilities.
It doesn't have to be caused
by something developed in Cuba,
but it does have to be something
small enough to be smuggled
into Cuba
and into other countries.
And I'd say that
if these many attacks
in various countries
are connected,
that pretty much rules out
the accidental theories
like pesticides
or poorly-calibrated
listening devices.
It seems more likely
that this is originating
from a country
with more influence than Cuba.
I don't think they have
the capability
to pull off so many incidents
in so many countries
across the world.
So, the question becomes,
is there a weapon that could
possibly fit the bill?
Something small, portable,
and in the hands of a government
connected enough
to global politics
to get an advantage from
causing that kind of panic?
When cases of Havana syndrome
start surfacing worldwide
in 2018, U.S. officials
can't find a definitive cause.
But former spies like
Marc Polymeropoulos
believe they know the source.
Obviously, I wasn't there
in Cuba, but when talking
to the victims,
it is very similar
with what I felt at that hotel
in Moscow in 2017.
thinks he's the victim
of a unique deadly weapon.
Of course, you've heard the word
"microwave" before.
Most of us have microwave ovens
to heat food.
The difference
with a microwave weapon
is not the fundamental kinds
of waves it's producing.
They're still microwaves.
It's that they're producing them
at much, much higher energy.
In other words,
you've supersized the system.
There's a small device
on the inside of the microwave
that emits tiny, tiny
radiofrequency signals.
And these tiny radiofrequency
signals heats up molecules.
In the case of a microwave
you're not simply heating up
a cup of coffee,
but you're actually heating up
human tissue.
A high-powered microwave weapon
may explain the symptoms
the nausea, the vertigo,
the headaches,
even the reported sounds.
It can really do a number
on the electro-neurological
functions of the brain.
Unlike a sonic weapon,
which are very difficult
to focus into a narrow area,
microwaves are very easy
to direct.
You point a microwave one way,
and that's the way it goes.
It will not hit the person
who's firing it
or impact
the surrounding neighborhood.
Microwave technology has
been rapidly advancing recently.
Is it possible that a weapon
has been developed that can
target a single individual,
fit in a suitcase,
and be deployed from
a few hundred yards away?
Well, the U.S. has already
created something pretty close.
In 2004,
the U.S. Marine Corps
commissions the development
of a microwave weapon
code-named MEDUSA.
MEDUSA, or Mob Excess
Deterrent Using Silent Audio,
this was basically
a nonlethal microwave ray gun
that could be channeled
at people,
and it could potentially
incapacitate them.
These microwaves can
stimulate the parts
of the inner ear and mimic
an actual audio signal.
This gets interpreted
by the brain as sound.
This is what's called
the Frey effect.
MEDUSA can make you
feel like you're hearing
different kinds of sounds,
even recognizable sounds
like voices inside your head.
This could be the source
of the sounds
reported by those
experiencing Havana syndrome.
Although the U.S. has been
toying with these weapons
for about 20 years,
we know of another country
that has been using them
for longer.
The Russians deployed
a microwave weapon
against the U.S.
during the Cold War.
Starting in 1953
and continuing until 1976,
Soviet authorities aim
a near-constant microwave beam
at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
Their goal was to
interfere with communications
inside the U.S. embassy.
Intelligence officials
called it the Moscow Signal.
Although they detected it
early on during routine checks,
American officials
kept it quiet.
It's only when the American
ambassador to Russia,
Walter Stoessel,
threatens to resign in 1975,
that members of his staff
are informed.
The embassy officials
get tested,
and many of them have elevated
white blood cell counts.
And Walter Stoessel, like two
of three ambassadors before him,
dies of cancer.
And Stoessel had a severe form
of leukemia
that reportedly caused
his eyes to bleed.
Over 100 employees
file for damages
against the U.S. for exposure
to the Moscow Signal,
but a State Department study
found there was
no convincing evidence
of adverse health effects.
Now, the lawsuits are dropped,
and it basically
fades from public view
until these afflictions,
these mysterious cases
arise in Havana.
Could Havana syndrome
be the next phase
of a decades-old
covert operation?
In my view, what happened to,
you know, my colleagues
at the U.S. embassy
in Havana, Cuba,
and what's happened
to myself and some others
is absolutely a continuation
of what the Soviets
were doing to us
at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
That said, you know, we do have
another adversaries.
We have the Chinese,
we have the Iranians.
And it is entirely possible
that more than one country
is doing it.
Polymeropoulos isn't
the only spy who believes this.
There's actually another account
that is more shocking than his.
In 1996, NSA Officer Mike Beck
suffers sudden severe fatigue
while on assignment
in a classified foreign country.
This predates Polymeropoulos
and the Havana syndrome cases
by about 20 years,
but Beck and his attorney
believe it's all related.
Beck cannot reveal
what country he was in,
but his attorney stated
it was a hostile nation
that was not China or Cuba.
Beck's job was to go
to a diplomatic building
and make sure that
it wasn't being bugged.
And while there
with his partner,
he does find
a suspicious device.
The very next day,
they both get symptoms
that are now associated
with the Havana syndrome.
Beck fully recovers,
but 10 years later,
both he and his partner
develop the same form
of Parkinson's disease.
Beck is certain
this isn't a coincidence,
so he files a claim
for workers' compensation,
something that people do
every day.
Only, Beck's employer
is the NSA,
and his claim relies
on top-secret information.
as part of his claim,
the NSA actually provides Beck
with a declassified document
which may finally prove
what happened to him.
The memo Beck was given states,
"there is intelligence
information from 2012
"associating the hostile country
"to which Mr. Beck traveled
in the late 1990s
"with a high-powered
microwave system weapon
"that may have the ability
to weaken, intimidate,
or kill an enemy over time,
and without leaving evidence."
It goes on to say this:
"intelligence information
indicated this weapon
"is designed to bathe a target's
living quarters in microwaves,
"causing numerous
physical effects,
including a damaged
nervous system."
Is this proof
of the Havana syndrome?
Well, no.
But it does prove
what happened to Beck
may be the same thing
that happened in Havana.
But at the very least,
we now have confirmation
that such a weapon exists.
And if we ever find evidence
that that weapon is in Cuba
or some other country,
it may explain everything.
Meanwhile, though we can't say
why it's happening,
we know this illness is real.
And on October 8th, 2021,
Congress passes the Havana Act
to compensate
government officials
who've experienced
brain injuries
as a result of Havana syndrome.
So far, 1,000 people
have come forward
claiming injuries related to
the so-called Havana syndrome.
And while the investigation
remains active,
no concrete evidence
has been found
that a U.S. adversary
is responsible.
I'm Laurence Fishburne.
Thank you for watching
"History's Greatest Mysteries."
Previous EpisodeNext Episode