Report points to microwave 'attack' as likely source of mystery illnesses that hit US spies, diplomat

The mystery illness first struck US government employees in the country's embassy in Havana in 2016.
The mystery illness first struck US government employees in the country's embassy in Havana in 2016.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The most probable cause of a series of mysterious afflictions that have sickened American spies and diplomats abroad in the past several years was radio-frequency energy, a type of radiation that includes microwaves, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has concluded in a report.

The conclusion by a committee of 19 experts cited "directed, pulsed radio-frequency energy" as "the most plausible mechanism" to explain the illness, known as Havana syndrome, although they said secondary factors may have contributed, according to a copy of the report obtained by The New York Times.

The strange illness struck scores of government employees, first at the US Embassy in Havana in 2016, and subsequently in China and other countries. Many of the officers suffered from dizziness, fatigue, headaches and loss of hearing, memory and balance, and some were forced into permanent retirement.

Central Intelligence Agency officers visiting overseas stations experienced similar symptoms, the Times and GQ magazine reported in October. The officers were travelling to discuss countering Russia covert operations with foreign intelligence agencies, a fact that adds to suspicions that Moscow is behind the episodes.

The new report reveals strong evidence that the incidents were the result of a malicious attack. It attributes the illnesses to "directed" and "pulsed" - rather than "continuous" - energy, implying that the victims' exposure was targeted and deliberate.

The US State Department gave the report to some congressional officials and others last Thursday (Dec 3) and Friday and told them not to share it. The Times and NBC News separately obtained the report last Friday, and NBC earlier reported the findings. The National Academies publicly released the report on Saturday evening.

The report does not point to a perpetrator, although it mentions "significant research in Russia/USSR" on pulsed radio-frequency technology.

The report also contains a stark warning about the possibility of future incidents and the US government's ability to detect them or to mount a response. The fact that American government employees reported afflictions not only in Cuba and China but also in Russia and other countries raises questions about how widespread the incidents may be.

The report recommends that the State Department act now to establish plans and protocols so it can immediately begin an investigation if similar incidents occur in the future.