Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 02 September 2023

Centre to look into ‘Havana Syndrome’

Source: By The Indian Express

The Central government has told the Karnataka High Court that it will look into the matter of the ‘Havana Syndrome’ in India, in response to a Bengaluru resident’s recent petition. A single-judge bench of Justice Krishna Dixit disposed of the petition on 27 July 2023 after the Centre’s counsel agreed to examine the case. It directed the Centre to do so within three months.

The petitioner had approached the court requesting a writ of mandamus for an enquiry on Havana Syndrome in India and the prevention of high-frequency microwave transmission in India.

What is Havana Syndrome?

Havana Syndrome refers to a set of mental health symptoms that are said to be experienced by United States intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. It is worth noting that in general, the word ‘syndrome’ simply means a set of symptoms. It does not mean a unique medical condition, but rather a set of symptoms that are usually experienced together whose origins may be difficult to confirm.

What is known as the Havana Syndrome typically involves symptoms such as hearing certain sounds without any outside noise, nausea, vertigo and headaches, memory loss and balance issues.

As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba in late 2016. This was about a year after the US opened its embassy in the capital city of Havana after ties between the two countries were normalised in 2015. Some US intelligence officials and members of the staff at the embassy began experiencing sudden bursts of pressure in their brains followed by persistent headachesfeelings of disorientation and insomnia.

Where else has Havana syndrome been reported?

Since the Cuban incident, American intelligence and foreign affairs officials posted in various countries have reported symptoms of the syndrome.

In early 2018, similar accusations began to be made by US diplomats in China. The first such report was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate. An American employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017.

In 2019 and 2020, such incidents have been reported from within the US — particularly in Washington DC. One incident was even reported at The Ellipse, a lawn adjacent to the White House.

According to US media reports, in the past few years, its officials have reported more than 130 such experiences across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others. A New York Times report from 2021 said US Vice-President Kamala Harris was delayed for three hours as she was about to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, after a US official in Vietnam reported the symptoms.

In India, the first such case was reported in the same year, when a US intelligence officer travelling to New Delhi with CIA director William Burns reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome.

What are the causes of Havana Syndrome?

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 or a section within the Cuban establishment that did not want US-Cuba relations to normalise. It was then speculated to be a “sonic attack”.

However, further study by scientists in the US and medical examination of the victims began to suggest that they may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system. It was said to have built 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 to impact memory and cause permanent brain damage. Low levels of microwaves are also emitted from mobile phones but they are not targeted.

It was suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves were sent through a special gadget that Americans then called a “microwave weapon”.

The use of microwaves as a counter-intelligence tactic has been experimented with since the Cold War and both Russia and the US have made attempts to weaponise it. There have been reports of US embassy officials in Moscow experiencing mental health issues due to the suspected use of microwaves in the 1970s.

So what do US reports say on Havana Syndrome now?

After many 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 the “microwave weapon” is a reality. No one seems to have an idea 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 outrightly debunked this theory, calling the syndrome a psychological illness amplified by widespread fear of being targeted.

A report from several US security agencies in 2023 concluded that it was unlikely that a foreign adversary of the US could be behind the “anomalous health incidents”. “This conclusion…confirms what we already knew,” Cuba’s Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio told Reuters in an interview after the report’s release, saying the US government “leveraged” it to derail relations with Cuba.

And what do we know of Havana Syndrome in India?

As of July 2023, the 2021 incident was the only reported occurrence of the syndrome in India. Sources in the Indian security establishment said in 2021 that they were not aware of any weapon with such capacities being in the possession of an Indian agency. Even if there was one, it was unlikely the government would admit to having acquired such counter-espionage technology given the sensitive nature of intelligence work.

“But why would an Indian agency target the US? Given the geopolitics of today, they are our closest friends,” an intelligence official told The Indian Express in 2021.

“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.

Without discounting US anxieties over it, another former R&AW officer said, “If a foreign power is doing it, why will they target the US alone. Why aren’t other countries reporting the same? Barring the Canadian embassy in Havana, there have been no such reports from officials of any other country anywhere in the world. This is not to say that the US assertions may not be true. But it’s a curious case.”