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New Data on the Havana Syndrome


It all started when diplomats who were posted to the American Embassy in Havana alleged that someone was targeting them with sonic waves.

This site has taken a continuing interest in the fact-finding that has occurred since 2017 trying to identify the sources of illness in the staff at the embassy in Havana Cuba. Noise pollution is one of our ongoing and poorly understood problems. The events in Havana are an especially intriguing case that has baffled government officials and researchers.

This all started when diplomats posted to Havana alleged that someone used sonic guns to beam radio waves into the American embassy. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis held a classified briefing seven years ago raising the possibility that American staffers were being targeted by a sonic device perhaps mounted on a vehicle. Many had real but vague symptoms often mimicking the effects of inner ear infections. He took the precaution of asking embassy personnel to sleep in the middle of their rooms and away from windows. Six months later he ordered the evacuation of nonemergency staff and families.


Tear gas, rubber bullets and stun guns all leave  their marks on flesh or the psyche. But individuals traumatized by sound will show less external evidence that they have been attacked. Yet, as any viewer of science fiction films can attest, it seems plausible that exposure to high frequency energy could inhibit a person’s cognitive capacities. Most disturbing of all, the research done on a selection of Americans, and later, Canadians, Austrians and others, asserted that there was at least some damage to the bones of the middle ear, as well as the inner-ear canals that help an individual keep their balance. Several years ago, Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, found these nearly immobilizing effects in some of the 50 embassy staffers, again suggesting the potential for near total incapacitation.  A Penn study also reached a similar conclusion.

What gives all of these concerns some credibility is the known history of the Russians to use sonic devices (electronic or acoustic) a pattern first noticed when the American Embassy in Moscow experienced high energy waves beamed at the building in the 1970s. But that was primarily for eavesdropping, not trying to inflict brain or nerve damage. But why not “sonic guns” as well deployed in a Russian client state? Numerous assassinations in other countries and the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine are reminders of the Kremlin’s outrageous overreach.

Skeptics who have since studied the Havana Embassy episode argue that there are reasons for doubt about claims of the alleged sonic attack. Their most convincing argument is that ultra-high frequency sound waves do not easily penetrate buildings or dense materials. While some microwave (or radio) waves can pass through solid surfaces, they, too, can be blocked using the right materials.

Other theories for the sonic attacks in Havana are iffy, but can’t be dismissed. One is that local crickets are very loud. Some residents in Cuba say their 6000 Hz pitch can literally drive you crazy. Imagine doubling the loudness of the cicadas and crickets we hear in late summer in the United States.

In early 2022 news reports in the New York Times and elsewhere indicated that federal efforts to explain the Havana syndrome focused on identifying common sets of medical and psychological conditions that would allow more comparative study of cases arising from high stress settings. Interestingly, there were similar reports of illness from Americans stationed in Austria and China, among other locations. The task was to sort out the normal stresses that come with a new foreign assignment from specific cases centered on complaints of headaches, nausea, ringing in the ears, and other conditions.

And now we have a new study. This month The National Institutes of Health issued a report noting that they failed to find solid evidence for sonic attacks in any capital. While they did not dismiss the possibility of foreign agents seeking to disrupt workers in a building, they concluded that the symptoms of the victims closely mirrored the common effects of workplace stress. That conclusion, of course, is mostly rejected by the attorneys of the those who were afflicted. Some claim that the “no evidence” conclusion is a government coverup. Others offer the novel view that the “no evidence” conclusion about sonic invasions is not proof. As one attorney noted, the NIH was trying to claim that “the absence of evidence is evidence. And it is not.” (NYT, March 19, 2024).

But the attorney is in error. The absence of evidence in an area where you expect to find it is evidence of a sort; it is called negative evidence. And it can be a valid form of proof to assist in reaching a conclusion that a presumed cause is simply not present.

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 Somatic Contagion?

It makes no sense to dismiss a victim’s complaints. But there is another explanation in the real social phenomenon of a “collective psychogenic disorder,” where symptoms of one individual begin to trigger perceptions of the same problem in others. This is a natural social phenomenon. It is one reason there are a lot of uninfected people seeking COVID-19 tests when they are more conscious of the widespread discussion of symptoms and cases around them. In fact, most seeking COVID tests get negative results for the virus. They have simply linked high public awareness of its symptoms with the effects of their winter allergies or respiratory irritations.

I suspect that the likelihood of a collective psychogenic origin is one reason recent government efforts have turned to developing a formal diagnostic rubric for the syndrome. It might standardize what is now still an impressionistic set of symptoms. As researchers have pointed out, many routine medical anomalies are likely to produce symptoms that can look like those of the Havana syndrome.  What about middle ear bone damage (otosclerosis)?  It is actually not that rare.  We are sometimes unbelievably hard on our ears.

The need for better uniformity of diagnosis arises from the recent Havana Act, which allows for compensation to members of the C.I.A., State Department, or others who become sick while on foreign assignment. While there may be no sonic guns at work in these instances, it is undoubtedly a stress on embassy staff to function in a hostile country.

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