Russian intelligence unit linked to Havana Syndrome cases

Members were placed at the scene when the health incidents were first reported

Cars in Havana. The illness is named after the Cuban capital where the first case was detected. AP
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Energy weapons wielded by a Russian intelligence unit may be behind Havana Syndrome, a mystery illness believed to have affected hundreds of US officials posted abroad, an investigation has found.

The Insider, an independent Russian investigative newspaper, reported members of a Russian military intelligence (GRU) segment, known as Unit 29155, may be responsible for the reported health incidents involving US personnel.

Those affected by the syndrome, named after Cuba's capital Havana where the first case was detected in 2016, complained of dizziness, headaches and an intense and painful sound in the ears.

According to the year-long investigation, which Insider carried out in collaboration with 60 Minutes and Germany's Der Spiegel, senior members of Unit 29155 received awards and promotions for work related to the development of “non-lethal acoustic weapons”.

The unit is known within the US intelligence community, according to the report, with global scope for “conducting lethal operations and acts of sabotage”, a former high-ranking CIA officer specialising in Russia told The Insider.

“Their mission is to find, fix and finish, all in support of Vladimir Putin’s imperial dreams.”

Russia has previously denied any involvement and on Monday dismissed the latest report.

"This is not a new topic at all; for many years the topic of the so-called Havana Syndrome has been exaggerated in the press and from the very beginning it was linked to accusations against the Russian side," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"But no one has ever published or expressed any convincing evidence of these unfounded accusations anywhere.

"Therefore, all this is nothing more than baseless, unfounded accusations by the media."

In 2022, US intelligence concluded intense directed energy from an external source could have caused some cases of the debilitating syndrome, which causes symptoms such as dizziness or brain damage.

However, an extensive US intelligence community investigation said it was “very unlikely” Russia or another foreign adversary was responsible for most of the health incidents.

That official, describing the conclusions of an interim report on the condition, said a majority of 1,000 cases “can be reasonably explained by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors, including previously undiagnosed illnesses”.

Last month, National Institutes of Health researchers found no significant physical evidence of brain injury in a group of federal employees suffering symptoms of the ailment.

An NIH official said the studies sought to identify structural brain or biological differences and did not seek to determine whether some external phenomenon was the cause of symptoms, nor could they rule that out.

The mysterious ailment was first reported among US embassy staff in the Cuban capital in 2016.

But the Insider report said the first incident of “Havana Syndrome” symptoms may have happened earlier.

It said: “there were likely attacks two years earlier in Frankfurt, Germany, when a US government employee stationed at the consulate there was knocked unconscious by something akin to a strong energy beam”.

US Congress passed the Havana Act in 2021 authorising the State Department, CIA and other US government agencies to provide payments to staff and their families who have been affected by the ailment during assignment.

Havana Syndrome

Since the first cases in Cuba, there have been reports of Havana Syndrome among US diplomats and intelligence officials in countries including China, Russia, Poland, Georgia and Colombia, in the territory of Taiwan and in Washington itself.

In 2017, diplomats and family members along with intelligence officers stationed in Vienna began experiencing the same symptoms, while the State Department moved employees and their families from the Chinese city of Guangzhou after cases were reported in 2018.

A CIA officer was removed from Serbia in late 2021 after suffering serious injuries consistent with Havana Syndrome, while a member of CIA director William Burns' team had to receive medical attention after reporting symptoms during a visit to India in the same year.

What are the symptoms?

People affected by the condition have reported a wide range of symptoms.

Sufferers have described initially hearing a noise, such as screeching or clicking, before developing feeling an intense pressure or vibration and a loss of balance or ear pain.

These include dizziness, nausea, headaches, ringing in the ears, anxiety and memory loss. Some have been so badly affected they have chosen to retire from active service.

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 showed subtle brain changes in those affected, however, that was contradicted by more recent research from a US government research team, which found no evidence of injury among sufferers.

How could energy weapons cause Havana Syndrome?

US intelligence experts concluded that radio waves could have caused some of the cases. It is possible to create concealable devices that, using moderate amounts of energy, would direct electromagnetic energy to cause injury in a targeted person. They said ultrasound could also have been used, but it would have to be close to cause damage.

The experts did not say whether such devices exist, nor did they conclude whether such attacks did take place, or who could have been behind them.

During the Cold War, high-powered beams designed to disable electronics were used to strike the US Embassy in Moscow from the early-1950s to mid-1970s. Espionage was determined to be the most likely motive, according to the New York museum, Spyscape.

It says dozens of countries are known to have active high-power microwave research programmes, including the US, Russia and China.

Updated: April 01, 2024, 2:02 PM