A transcript of Episode 24 of The Politics of Everything, “The Case of the Sick Spies”
Tim Weiner: The building that houses American diplomats and spies in Havana is a heavily fortified compound, a big cube, and it sits right off of the main drag of the Malecon, by the ocean.
Jack Hitt: If you start talking to people who knew people who were there, and start piecing together the actual chronology, what appears to have happened is that a couple of members of the embassy staff, in their homes, started to hear these strange sounds at night. They were enormously loud, deafening, like a jet plane taking off next to your house.
Tim: The people who experienced the syndrome, most of whom we know to be state department employees, began experiencing dizziness, nausea, headaches—all of them severe—and over time, suspicion grew that they were being targeted by a hostile intelligence service.
Laura Marsh: You’ve just been listening to Tim Weiner and Jack Hitt describing Havana syndrome. That was the name given to the illness that started to affect Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba in late 2016. The embassy had only reopened the year before. It was still early days, but now more and more people were getting sick, and there was no clear cause for the symptoms. What was clear was the State Department’s response. They flew home the people who were sick. Then they cut staff at the embassy by 60 percent and downgraded the posting. In 2017, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, warned Americans not to travel to Cuba. Over the last four years, doctors, scientists, government agencies, and journalists have been trying to find out what happened in Havana. And this is where the story gets even stranger: The leading explanation is that the illness was caused by a foreign microwave attack.
I’m Laura Marsh, the literary editor of The New Republic.
Alex Pareene: And I’m Alex Pareene, a staff writer at the magazine.
Laura: Today on the show, we’re talking to a range of experts about what they think happened in Cuba, and what it might mean.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
So I remember hearing about the mysterious Havana embassy symptoms when they first started getting reported in the press a few years ago. When I first heard the weird audio weapon theory, I was probably a little credulous at first, just because I assumed that they must be basing the speculations on some existing weapon. But then I remember speaking to my co-workers at the time and finding myself more and more skeptical of that official narrative. I was wondering, what made you decide you wanted to do an episode on Havana syndrome, Laura?
Laura: I think the fact that it’s a sort of diplomatic mystery, right? There’s a lot at stake in the story. It’s about the United States trying to reestablish relations with Cuba. And then suddenly you have this idea that there has been a microwave attack. There’s just so much that I don’t understand about this story. I don’t understand why it happened, I don’t understand how it could have happened—all of that was really murky to me. So I wanted to talk to people who had actually investigated this to see how they put everything together.
Alex: That’s why we started with Jack Hitt, who had, I think, one of the best and more exhaustive stories on this, in 2019, in Vanity Fair.
Jack: That’s where it all starts—it’s an attack, it’s a secret weapon, some kind of sonic weapon. The Cubans had to know—if they didn’t do it, they had to know who did it. Remember, Trump, among the many things that came up during his campaign was that he was going to be ferociously anti-Cuban again. He met with the veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He’s signaled that we were turning the clock way back. We were going to make Cuba ungreat again, right? It was well known that he was going to do everything he could to reverse the Obama-Biden policy of trying to normalize relations.
Alex: Under Obama, the U.S. Embassy in Cuba grew its staff enormously, and then under Trump, even prior to two dozen people leaving for medical reasons, they had been reducing the size of it, right?
Jack: That’s right.
Laura: This is one of the first theories about what happened, which is that Cuba itself is involved in some kind of attack on these U.S. diplomats. Here’s what Tim Weiner thinks of the idea that this was a Cuban attack.
Tim: It’s not their M.O.
Laura: Tim is the author of a history of the CIA and also a recent book on the history of the relationship between the United States and Russia.
What would their M.O. be, typically?
Tim: To conduct relations on the level of, “We spy on you. You spy on us. That’s what countries do.” But not to screw with you at that level. There is one hostile intelligence service that has been doing this sort of thing in different ways to American spies and diplomats abroad—and it’s the Russians.
Laura: The question I have is, why attack the Cuban embassy? What would be in it for Russia to attack American diplomats in Cuba?
Tim: Vladimir Putin, in his present incarnation as president for life of Russia, has been in different ways trying to wreak revenge against the United States and the West for the collapse of the Soviet Union—to weaken the United States, to hurt the United States, to damage our democracy and, with it, our diplomacy, as a means of both wreaking revenge and showing the world that American democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Alex: This is as close as we currently have to an official explanation of the cause of Havana syndrome. There have been medical studies looking into what the syndrome is. But in terms of what caused it, all we really have to go on is reporting in mainstream media outlets like NBC News, which said, in 2018, that U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia was responsible for mystery attacks on diplomats in Cuba and elsewhere. Anyone who follows Russian intelligence operations knows that they are not shy about harming the enemies of the Russian government, they’ve been linked to numerous assassination attempts and so on, so I can understand why it would be easy to believe that the Russians using some unknown weapon had attacked American diplomats.
Laura: The question is, what would that weapon look like?
Jack: The weapon theory went through a number of different permutations, in part because when the first members of the Havana embassy complained about this sound, they actually recorded it. It is this loud buzzing sound, and many of them claim to have heard this. The problem with that is that several scientists who study cicadas stepped up to note that this was almost certainly the screech of the Jamaican cricket. And then one cricket expert came up and said, even though it’s super loud, the sound wouldn’t harm a human being. The only way that a Jamaican cricket could harm a human being is if you took the cricket and stuck it in your ear.
Alex: So that was the “sonic canon” theory.
Jack: Exactly. As someone pointed out, for it to actually work, you would have to have something on the decibel of a jet plane outside the house to actually burn the inside of your ear. I didn’t know this until I started reporting this story, but apparently, there are three levels of sound out there in the known universe. There’s infrasound, which is below the human hearing range. There’s acoustic sound, which we can hear, and then there’s ultrasound. And so there are a variety of different theories about—well, OK, so it wasn’t acoustic sound, then it has to be ultrasound. Oh, that’s not working, then it was infrasound. And then it went to microwaves, and I believe the most recent is radio-frequency energy. We’re really exhausting all the wavelengths, we’re really coming to the end of all possible known waves. Maybe x-rays—I mean, we have to look into that.
Laura: So the FBI had looked into these three types of sound, ruled them all out, correct? And so then the theorizing moves on. The next preferred theory was microwaves. How was that supposed to work?
Jack: The main microwave theory had to do with something called the Frey Effect, and to the extent that I can, as a journalist, even describe this, since I really don’t know what I’m talking about, supposedly the microwave would jiggle the water molecules in your ear.
Alex: That’s the way a microwave heats up—
Jack: That’s the way a microwave works, right?
Alex: It excites water molecules.
Jack: Exactly. So this would excite water molecules and raise the temperature in your inner ear—and I’m not making this up—by one one-millionth of a degree. And this effect was said to possibly cause some kind of burning or damage inside your ear, and that would be the source of all the various symptoms. The problem with that theory is that the guy who discovered the Frey Effect, back in 1974, his name is Kenneth Foster, he stepped up and said that would be impossible, and this is a quote: “Any exposure you could give somebody that wouldn’t burn them to a crisp would produce a sound too weak to have any effect.”
Jack: It would burn your inner ear, it would actually incinerate you.
Alex: If we had a microwave gun that you could turn on someone’s brain, it certainly seems like it would be more likely to cook them from the inside than cause concussion symptoms—I say speaking also as a journalist who does not know the science.
Laura: But you’re speaking as someone who has definitely reheated food in the past.
Alex: There’s another theory that maybe burglar alarms crossed with microwaves could cause that effect, and this would just be random chance—that we all have these burglar alarms and smoke detectors and they all emit this kind of ultrasound on a below-hearing or above-hearing level, and if they intersected with a microwave that would cause some kind of sound that could cause this, but that would be just an accident, a freak accident. And that was immediately dismissed. Because, of course, the whole point of this is that there has to be intentionality here, there has to be an evil empire directing a secret weapon. So if it was just a freak accident, involved burglar alarms or smoke detectors, that’s no good.
Laura: So at this point, talking to Jack, I felt like we had just entered the realm of spy fiction.
Alex: Yeah, the discussion of what kind of weapon it could be—and especially when I read coverage about how our guys here in the U.S. are trying to reverse engineer what these Russians had—it reminded me of Cold War–era spy fiction, the way that it also was about the promise of technology, meaning we could have ever more incredible weapons to use ourselves, in addition to this sort of missile-gap discussion of, like, the Russians have a microwave gun and we don’t.
Laura: And it kind of hearkens back to this much earlier era when that felt like more of a possibility. So it’s weird to see this floated again in the explanation of something that happened in 2016.
Alex: Yes. So I asked Jack what he thought of the comparison between these weapons and what were effectively science fiction weapons from the 1960s.
They didn’t really work, but there was actual military and intelligence research behind some of these, right?
Jack: Right. But they do work. The problem is that they’re the size of semi-tractor trailers or ice cream trucks, these huge vehicles that they would back up. And you’ve probably heard of some of them—L-rad, a long-range acoustic device, I think it has been used, we’ve heard the military has at least threatened to use against some protesters the device that actually causes this kind of burning sensation in your ear, but it’s this gigantic weapon that’s the size of a truck. The other thing that DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] came up with during the Cold War, my favorite, is called Medusa, which stands for “mob excess deterrent using silent audio.” So let’s just say the Pentagon, and DARPA specifically, has been trying to create this weapon and not succeeding. You know, if you could create this weapon and reduce it to a ray gun, some sort of Flash Gordon interstellar galactic weapon, it would be amazing, because 30 or so years of intense Pentagon research has not yielded one. So maybe somebody made this quantum leap without anybody else in the world finding out about it and managed to get it into Cuba and allegedly China and Russia, and directed it at one or two people in those other countries—but mostly in Cuba, right—but let’s just say the odds of that seem remote.
Laura: Right. Because what you’re describing is essentially a kind of sniper attack using a weapon that the United States has never been able to develop but that maybe another country could have. That would be how this would have to have been carried out, because the attacks are targeted, they’re only affecting Americans on diplomatic business in Cuba, Russia, China, and some Canadians.
Jack: Well, Canadians who lived in the same neighborhood and spoke with the Americans. So none of the other embassy officials from all the other countries were affected, only people who played soccer with the Americans in their off time, right?
Laura: So where I ended up with the weapon thing is that, basically, it just seems really unclear whether there could be a weapon like this.
Alex: Right. I mean, I think we have motive, perhaps we have opportunity, but we don’t have the weapon. If this were Clue, we’d be unfinished. We would not be able to win a game of Clue.
Laura: Absolutely not. But what we do have is two dozen people who definitely did get sick and have since been part of studies about what they experienced.
Alex: The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in early 2018.
Jack: They examined the symptoms and the brain scans of the various people. That study is very tenuous. It barely says that something happened. There is no physical evidence that anything happened to anybody in Cuba. So they don’t find any torn tissues or burned eardrums or anything that would signify that something had altered the physiology of their heads. And yet they said that they had all the symptoms of a concussion. Once this report came out, this was widely referred to as the “immaculate concussion.”
Laura: Just to clarify, that isn’t to say that the people who reported the symptoms didn’t have the symptoms. No one is questioning that they had the symptoms. But there was no injury, no physical injury or trauma that usually would be associated with symptoms like that.
Jack: And if you look at the JAMA study, the editors actually append a note at the top of their own magazine saying there’s a lot of symptoms here that don’t actually have any physical evidence, and so we urge caution in reading the study that we’re publishing. It’s very rare for JAMA or any scientific journal to publish a study and say, “We really don’t think this study is any good.”
Alex: The Journal of the American Medical Association followed up that study with a second, published in the summer of 2019. Here’s Adam Gaffney, a physician and writer who’s been following the story since it was first reported.
Adam Gaffney: The second study was an MRI study, and it reported basically that there were structural issues, just to simplify it, that seemed to appear on the brain MRIs of these individuals, who were evaluated at the University of Pennsylvania. The reality is that many of the kinds of symptoms and impairments that these individuals were found to have—and there was no control group, it was just these individuals—are not uncommon. In one article published in the Journal of Neurology, two neurologists noted that, in fact, the threshold of normal was basically 40 percent, that with the standards used, 40 percent of all people would fall below the abnormal level.
Alex: So according to Adam, this study was using a definition of normal brain scans that 40 percent of the population might not meet, meaning it’s hard to say what conclusions you can draw from these scans.
Adam: That’s a major problem. And so it very well might be that we’re seeing very common sorts of impairments. The second issue is this study used these very advanced MRI techniques that are used in research studies, and the kinds of things they found are not necessarily uncommon. You can do studies even on things like depression, and you will find abnormalities with these advanced MRI techniques. Long story short, these are not specific findings.
Jack: So there were a number of different scientists who stepped up and said, “What are you talking about?” For instance, the main symptom that everyone complained of was tinnitus. And one in six Americans—that’s more people than have Covid—have this problem. It’s very common, and many of the symptoms that were described in there are common enough. So unconnected to physical injury, it’s empirically difficult to step up and say this has to be a secret weapon.
Alex: As you say, even if you take the MRI study and it says, well, these brains look different, that’s obviously not proof that a weapon was used on them, right?
Laura: Looking at the medical literature and talking with Jack Hitt about the kind of weapon that could be used here, there’s nothing that disproves the notion that this was a foreign attack using weapons. There’s just also nothing that actually confirms it.
Alex: We have a collection of symptoms. We have people suffering from them. We have medical research into it. And we have one explanation for it so far. Is there another?
Jack: I think the most likely explanation, the Occam’s Razor explanation, the one that accounts for all of the facts as we know them in the simplest possible way—but for journalists, the least satisfying—is what’s known as mass psychogenic illness, or what used to be called mass hysteria. That’s a bad word. Hysteria makes people think of people running into the streets, screaming, alien invasions, and mass makes it sound like it’s thousands of people, but most mass psychogenic illnesses actually involve about a dozen or two dozen people. “Conversion disorder” is the other phrase that is often used, and it’s called conversion disorder because intense stress, under pressure, is converted into real physical illness. And really the key thing that all of these conversion disorder scientists and doctors that I talked to said is that these are real symptoms. Conversion disorder makes you sick. So these people, when they came and said, “I have ringing in my ears, I have these headaches, I can’t remember things, I feel like my brain is melting”—that’s what they felt. They’re not malingerers. The JAMA article dismissed the idea of mass psychogenic illness—they said, we interviewed all these people and they’re not faking it. That’s what malingering means.
Alex: But conversion disorder isn’t faking it—you feel it.
Jack: Can I just tell a little personal anecdote?
Alex: I would love it.
Jack: Many years ago, I was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and I quit because I got a book contract. So I was out on my own with this little advance in my little apartment in the West Village and a girlfriend who had just quit her job to go back to graduate school. We were under intense financial stress. And I started fainting. I would be walking down the street, and I literally would have to just grab a stop sign, and sometimes I would just slump against the wall and fall to the ground. Now, many years later, we also have The Sopranos, and we know what that is. I mean, conversion disorder is real. I went to the doctor. I insisted that I must have a brain tumor. I forced him to scan my brain. It was like right out of a Woody Allen movie: “I know I have a brain tumor!” I still have that CAT scan. And it came back, and he said, “You have a beautiful brain. You are under an enormous amount of stress. Get a little bit more exercise.” I did that, and it went away. So, I mean, this is a very unappealing story.
Alex: Right. Having a brain tumor is much more dramatic, especially as someone writing books—like, I could get a brain tumor book out of this, right?
Jack: The doctors and conversion disorder specialists that I talked to looked at this, and at these symptoms, because all of them are pretty much unmeasurable—if someone says they have a ringing in their ears, there’s no way to measure that, right? Someone says they have a headache, you can’t see that. All the instances of conversion disorder throughout time, the symptoms are always very much the same—the ringing in the ears, the loss of memory, the fainting. And so if you look at Havana, you have a situation where the embassy is under an enormous amount of pressure, it’s a closed system, all these guys are under secrecy and under oath, feel like they’re in a hostile environment. And there’s all this talk of closing down the embassy and shipping everybody home, and the job loss and so on, coming out of the Trump administration. So some of these doctors looked at this and said, the simplest explanation is that this is a classic instance of conversion disorder, of mass psychogenic illness.
Laura: How does the mass aspect of it work? Because what you described, with being stressed and then becoming very ill, I think that makes a lot of sense to anyone who’s either experienced it or seen someone close to them experience it. Do we know anything about how the contagion element of it works?
Jack: Just that these people are often in a pressure bubble of some kind. I ran across an incident in the Midwest where, like, 20 sophomores and juniors or something at a school who were under pressure to take a test suddenly all had contagious bouts of vomiting and missed the test, and it was one of those things where “I heard so-and-so has this mysterious illness,” and you also don’t want to take that test, and next thing you know, you’re vomiting. You know, if you Google back 10, 20, 30 years, you will see that there are many instances, especially in schools, where a tight group will suddenly have a mysterious illness.
Adam: The famous example is, fainting can sometimes seem to be contagious. One person faints, and another person faints around them. And this isn’t because people are weak-minded. We’re all susceptible to suggestion. We’re all susceptible to placebo effects. And we’re all susceptible to what gets referred to as “nocibo” effects, where you experience unpleasant things because you’re expecting it. You look at the side effects report for the Covid vaccines; there were definitely side effects, but you actually see pretty high rates of side effects in the placebo arm, which is getting saline. All of us can have this. It’s just human nature. It’s how we perceive the world.
Alex: Keep in mind, as we have already heard, this was a time of great upheaval at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Relations between the two countries had just changed enormously, almost overnight. We talked to Natalie Shure, a journalist who has been investigating Havana syndrome and who is, full disclosure, married to Adam Gaffney.
Laura: And what she points to is that these attacks began in November 2016.
Natalie: For me, that’s really when it starts to click, when you start to read some of the context in which these alleged abnormalities appeared, and in which the alleged attacks happen. The first one was reported, I believe, right after Trump was elected. And I think it became pretty clear to anyone working on the ground in Havana that their entire job was about to change in a way that viscerally affected them. We’re all of a sudden taking a 180, changing our entire diplomatic strategy with the country that they’re stationed in. That means that, all of a sudden, their relationships in their community, whatever they’re working on, it’s completely different. That’s really stressful, right?
The second person with these symptoms, I believe, reported them three months later, in February. And because of a CDC report that was FOIA’d by Buzzfeed, we know that after the second case—so after two people with symptoms that included things like dizziness, headaches, fatigue, very common symptoms—after just two of them, the whole group in Havana, all of the Americans serving there, were basically gathered and told, “Listen, there are some mysterious symptoms that some people are experiencing. We don’t know what we’re dealing with. So if you feel something like fatigue, headaches, dizziness, there might be some secret attacks going on, targeting your family, just keep an eye out. If anything seems amiss, be sure to call us, or if you want to get tested, let us know.” Of course, that opens the floodgates, right?
Laura: At this point, I am feeling like the mass psychogenic illness explanation really makes a lot of sense.
Alex: Yes, I definitely believed that political context made a tidy explanation for what happened. There was just one problem that came up when we were talking to Tim: Havana is actually a very nice place to be posted.
Tim: It’s just not that high-stress a zone. I’ve been a reporter—seven times in Afghanistan and in various war zones and hell holes—so I know what stress is like. The American Embassy in Baghdad in 2004, that was stressful, I’m sure. Various CIA outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 20 years—that’s stress. Being the second secretary in Havana? Not so stressful. Havana is a great place. Cubans love Americans. They don’t like our government, we don’t like their government. It’s fine. Let’s have some rum.
Alex: So even under the early days of the Trump administration, Havana is kind of a …fun posting?
Tim: Have you ever been to Havana?
Alex: I would love to go, but I haven’t.
Tim: Well, all right, let me try and restate this. The building out of which Americans operate in Havana is a fortress. And the only way you could penetrate it is with a microwave weapon—or a tank, maybe. To explain this away as some sort of psychosomatic ulcer? I don’t buy it.
Laura: That’s really useful. So essentially what you’re saying is, this is not such a stressful post that we would see symptoms here that you wouldn’t see in any kind of spy work.
Tim: Yeah. In my experience, that would not be a hard hardship post. Stress may seem like a one-size-fits-all explanation that you could fit on this. I don’t buy it.
Alex: So once again, I found myself compelled by an explanation from the most recent person I talked to. Maybe Havana was not that stressful. Where does that leave us, Laura?
Laura: I mean, I think that where that leaves us is that we’ve considered two explanations now, and both of them feel like they’ve fallen apart.
Alex: Or at least we cannot point to a big stack of really compelling evidence that says, like, this is the definitive explanation.
Laura: So what do you think we should do next?
Alex: I think we should ask Natalie and Adam what they think about it.
Laura: We’ll be back after the break.
Laura: Adam and Natalie, we talked to
Tim Weiner, who spent a long time reporting on the CIA. I was asking him
about the stress theory, and he said, “Well, you’re wrong, because Havana is
not a stressful posting.”
Natalie: Havana was probably a good posting to have in a lot of years. But I do think that if you look at exactly when this happened—late 2016, early 2017—it seems like there is reason to believe that, circumstantially, that might have been more stressful than usual. It can also be personal stress, and it can have a sociogenic character—“sociogenic” means spread socially, subject to influence from peers and community and things that you’re hearing. I think a lot of the people maybe already had some dizziness that they might not have noticed, and then suddenly they hear, “Oh, maybe there are secret weapon attacks, be on the lookout for any strange symptoms.” And then suddenly you notice that when you stand up, you are feeling a little dizzy, and maybe you wouldn’t have taken note of that before, but now it’s fitting into a fact pattern that’s really distressing to you. And then you’re going to notice that you’re more forgetful recently. I think that these things snowball in ways that feel very familiar in our own lives. Maybe it is your job, maybe it is your posting. Maybe you just got in a fight with your wife. There are plenty of reasons that people feel certain ways.
Laura: Why do you think people are so resistant to the idea that this could be caused by stress or by exposure to a group in which there is some kind of psychogenic illness?
Adam: I think there is still stigma around the notion of mental illness causing physical suffering, or at least lack of familiarity. The reality is that depression, for instance—and this isn’t just specific to the microwave attack issue, but to step back for a second—things like severe psychological distress or severe depression can be experienced predominantly physically. Meaning that for some people, what is most distressing or noticeable may in fact be physical symptoms, not mental symptoms. But I don’t think we give that adequate understanding, and I think that it gets dismissed. I want to be very clear—I’m not making any kind of assessments of any individuals, I’m just dealing with the big questions here.
Laura: As you guys have pointed out in your tweets, there’s a very large number of journalists, serious people who report on diplomatic relations, who report on Russia, national security, who seized on this story and presented it as a story about a Russian attack on the United States. What was your reaction to seeing the story framed that way? And what do you think is going on there?
Natalie: Well, it’s really important to recognize that, I think, three long-form features that I’m aware of, deeply reported stories in ProPublica, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine, appeared about this in 2018 and 2019, basically all coming to the conclusion that it is very likely a sociogenic functional neurological disorder. And then the story reappeared somewhat recently, really being peddled by national security reporters. So those are people who I don’t think are very well versed in a lot of this literature, who aren’t engaging with it as a health topic very seriously. It’s funny because it’s changed character politically. Initially, it was posited that the Cubans are doing this, when it was Havana syndrome in 2016, 2017, and that was used by the Trump administration as a pretext to seriously tamp down our diplomatic presence in Cuba and reorient ourselves in terms of our diplomatic stance toward the country. And then, I think, as time went on, this was pushed by maybe more liberal-leaning people— “Hey, look, the CIA and the Trump administration by extension are trying to suppress the story of these attacks because they are in cahoots with Putin.” And so it’s served two different political ends, in ways that I think people found to be reifying of the narratives that they had already preferred, but neither of which had much expository value in terms of what really happened.
Laura: What do you think about the fact that it started as a story about what was happening at the embassy in Cuba, but then it spread to these other outposts, like China, Russia, other parts of the world where the U.S. has a sort of uncomfortable relationship? How did the story develop when those cases were added?
Adam: I think, first off, this spread to multiple continents should heighten skepticism about the particular weapon theory. But second thing, just reinforcing Natalie’s point, this has served different political agendas at different times. It was used to sort of wreck detente with Cuba that had been established during the Obama administration. And then I think, more recently, it’s been seen as a way to criticize Trump for not taking firm action with Russia, which has been, obviously, a long-standing story. I think it’s very interesting through the political lens, in terms of the agendas that it has supported.
Laura: What do you guys think are the political implications of accepting stress as the explanation?
Natalie: I think that it would be huge embarrassment. If we do accept that this was a function of stress, then we also have to admit that we pushed Cuba away again under a completely phony pretext. And I think that that’s a really uncomfortable thing for people to deal with. I think that there have also been many people who have been very critical of the Trump administration in light of what they see as the suppression of the truth about these attacks and what they see as Putin and Trump working in cahoots with one another. That narrative also falls apart if you accept that these symptoms are stress-induced, or induced by a means that isn’t a secret microwave attack. So I think that a lot of people have a lot of face to lose if that happens.
Adam: I agree with Natalie. I might make a broader kind of philosophical medical point, which is that I think it would drive home the fact of how difficult it can be for all of us as individuals to sometimes know the causes of our physical symptoms, our physical suffering. It can be really difficult. I think that’s an uncomfortable thing to assert because it veers into a sort of denialism, but I think it’s true. We can be wrong, and doctors can certainly be wrong, too, to be clear. I think it might lead us to a broader point of that sort.
Laura: How do you think that this fits in with the heightened attention on the U.S. relationship with Russia in the last four years? There’s such a range of opinion on this, from people who certainly acknowledge a range of attacks on the United States by Russia to people who see Russian aggression toward the United States as the explanation for almost everything that’s happened in politics here for the last four years. Where do you think this story fits into that?
Natalie: So, the evidence that Russia had anything to do with the attacks that I don’t believe ever even happened—that evidence is practical nonexistent. And there’s no doubt in my mind that if this potentiality was being raised about any other country, that wouldn’t fly at The New York Times or at GQ, two outlets that recently pushed a very jingoistic version of this story reifying the idea that these were weapon attacks and that Russia was behind it. I think that’s a function of the fact that people have been pushing stories wherein Russia is a very reductive, two-dimensional, evil character. And that feels true enough that it doesn’t require much more inquiry. I think that’s a shame, and it’s sort of amazing to step back and see that this sort of story has been accepted by the mainstream so wholeheartedly because it’s Russia and not another country.
Adam: I would just add, I think this just goes to show why we have to be critical of the science, because these sorts of things can lead countries to war, right? I’m not saying this will, and I’m not saying that it’s even on par with that, but these sorts of things can, and that’s why we have to be so critical and only assert what we know.
One way to see these kinds of things is as real outliers, as really fascinating, bizarre sorts of medical fascinomas—“This is something interesting, we’re going to write about this.” But I think it really is on a spectrum with common lived experience in a way that gets missed. An example: At one point, last March, I suddenly felt like I might have symptoms of Covid. It was very mild things that I noticed—maybe a little tickle in my throat, a little bit of tightness in my chest, stuff like that. And then I got tested. It goes negative. And it occurred to me afterward, “Wait. I always feel like that.” Literally, my own concern and worry that I might infect my ICU was what was making me aware of my own symptoms in a way that, once I was no longer worried about it, I came to recognize is actually always my baseline throat sensation. I think that’s why you get some of the pushback, because people effectively feel that you’re saying that people who have symptoms that may have a psychogenic component are sort of unwell. They’re actually just human.
Laura: But the thing that makes it a mystery is all of the political tensions that surround these groups of people—our relations with Cuba, our relations with Russia.
Adam: You might call it a sociopoliticogenic illness.
Laura: Coined on the show!
Alex: There’s nothing worse than a podcast that does not solve a mystery, but at least this was only one episode instead of an entire season.
Laura: Well, I don’t think we were ever going to solve the mystery.
Alex: No, I don’t think we were, either. But I’m curious: Where do you stand on Havana syndrome now, compared to when you were first thinking about this episode?
Laura: So my opinion on this has changed, in that when I came to this story, I felt like I was a fully paid-up skeptic—I was very skeptical of the idea that this could be a foreign attack carried out with a microwave. And now I feel more like I’m just someone who doesn’t know what happened. Every time I feel like I’ve tried to come up with an explanation, there’s something that doesn’t work.
Alex: I came into this not believing in a Russian microwave attack, and I remain a nonbeliever in a Russian microwave attack.
Laura: I think that’s fair.
Alex: I mean, obviously, no one can actually come out and say, “I’ve figured it out.”
Laura: Right. I think if you want to do that, you can, and you can use it to support whatever political agenda you have. The only thing that you cannot say with 100 percent confidence is that you know what happened.
Jack: Well, let me just say, as a reporter, I’m as guilty of this as anybody, but the first time I heard the phrase “sonic weapon,” I was like, “Oh yes, I want to report this story.” I talked to my editor, I was like, “There’s a sonic weapon! I’ve done DARPA reporting before, I’ve got sources inside the Pentagon, I’ve gotta find out about the sonic weapon!”
Alex: And instead you found out about crickets.
Jack: Crickets. And then, of course, it’s this lousy explanation that makes too much sense. Oh yeah, right, I’ve actually experienced stress, so what you’re saying totally makes sense to me … sadly!