Mysterious brain injuries have plagued over 130 US spies and diplomats. Were they attacked with a microwave weapon?

·13 min read
Marc Polymeropoulos with the Red Square and the Kremlin, an art piece of a mask with a needle punctured through its eye made in art therapy, the CIA seal, the US Cuban embassy building, and the US and Cuban flags behind him on a gray background.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer, believes he was attacked in Moscow in 2017. Marc Polumeropoulous; Sergey Alimov/Getty Images; Gary Hershorn/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Insider

Once a week, Marc Polymeropoulos goes to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for art therapy and acupuncture. The interventions aim to address the same problem: Polymeropoulos has had a persistent headache for years, which he can trace back to a fateful trip to Moscow in December 2017.

"It's been three years of a splitting migraine," he told Insider. "I have pressure on the top of my head and in the back of my head all the time."

Polymeropoulos, now 52, was working for the CIA when he went to Russia - he said the agency sent him on a 10-day visit.

Marc Polymeropoulos
Marc Polymeropoulos in Moscow's Red Square, December 2017. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

"Ultimately, probably a trip I wish I hadn't taken," Polymeropoulos said.

One night, he woke with a start in his hotel room. His ears started ringing and the room spun. He was beset with vertigo.

"I was falling over. I had no control," he said. "Everything was spinning so wildly."

Polymeropoulos didn't know what to call his set of symptoms at the time, but they have since earned a nickname: Havana Syndrome, a reference to the location of the first reported cases. At the US embassy in Cuba in late 2016, diplomats and their families started experiencing headaches, vertigo, and hearing loss after hearing buzzing or clicking sounds. Examinations revealed strange and unexplained brain injuries.

Since then, more than 130 US diplomats, intelligence operatives, and other personnel stationed primarily in Russia, China, and Cuba have experienced the same mysterious issues. But the cause and mechanism continue to stump medical experts. Theories have ranged from pesticides to a microwave weapon to mass hysteria.

But after the number of Havana Syndrome reports grew - two recent cases started in Washington, DC, with one in the environs of the White House - President Joe Biden tasked two panels with discovering its origin.

Meanwhile, those experiencing the condition say they continue to struggle with symptoms, and many think they've been ignored. Earlier this year, 21 US officials with the syndrome wrote a letter to the State Department saying they'd been denied proper medical care and that their evidence had been pushed aside.

"You suffer the physical wounds, there's also the moral injury of not being believed by an organization that I still do love to this day," Polymeropoulos said.

'I'm telling you, something's happened to me'

red square moscow kremlin
The Kremlin towers, Spasskaya tower, and Saint Basil's cathedral in Moscow. Getty

After Polymeropoulos returned home to his wife and kids following the Moscow trip, his vertigo improved, but he developed headaches and had a hard time remembering things.

"I couldn't drive. I lost my long distance vision. I had brain fog. And honestly, the headaches that I developed, I still have to this day," he said.

Polymeropoulos had heard about the diplomats from Cuba with similar symptoms, so he said he tried to seek medical care through the CIA.

"Initially, they kind of they told me that I didn't look like the victims, you know, the officers who would have been affected by something in 2016," he said.

A study of some of those initial cases of laid out a typical Havana Syndrome pattern: Most patients reported a range of symptoms including balance issues, visual impairment, tinnitus, trouble sleeping, headaches, and problems with thinking or remembering. The researchers concluded that the patients had experienced brain injuries consistent with head trauma.

havana syndrome cuba embassy
The US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, in October 2017. Gary Hershorn/Getty

Some Canadian diplomats and their families who'd been stationed in Cuba at the same time experienced similar issues.

"My wife, she isn't the same anymore," a career diplomat told Radio-Canada last year. "She picks up the telephone to make a call but forgets why, enters rooms without reason."

Polymeropoulos was convinced he'd been a victim of the same mysterious attack.

"I've been in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, I've been shot at, and I'm telling you something's happened to me," he said.

Crickets? Mass hysteria?

havana cuba aerial shot
An aerial view of the Malécon roadway in Havana. Getty

After the number of Havana Syndrome cases grew to 25 in Cuba, the US evacuated a majority of its embassy staff in September 2017.

But reports were coming in from other parts of the world, too. Mark Lenzi, an engineering officer at the US Consulate in Guangzhou, China reported intensifying headaches and bouts of forgetfulness in late 2017 and early 2018.

"Twice I thought I was going to die from these headaches," he told UNH Today a year later.

Lenzi said his whole family was affected. He and his wife both started to forget the names of tools and important phone numbers. Their children got mysterious nosebleeds. So they, too, were evacuated to the US in June 2018. Experts concluded Lenzi had gotten a mild concussion without having hit his head.

Since the earliest cases surfaced, scientists have put forward a handful of hypotheses as to what's behind the mysterious illnesses.

The first was that syndrome could have been caused by a sonic attack - a mysterious weapon that directs loud, high-pitched sound toward a victim's head to cause pain. But scientists quickly threw cold water on the theory.

"To harm someone from outside a room, a sonic weapon would have to emit a sound above 130 decibels," Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, a Cuban ear-nose-and-throat specialist, told Vanity Fair in 2019. That amount of sound is comparable to a "four jet engines on the street outside a house," he noted, so it would harm far more people than its intended targets.

Then in October 2017, the Associated Press published a recording of the noise believed to be part of the attack. But scientists identified the sound as the mating call of a local cricket.

cricket species havana cuba
A male Jamaican field cricket, Gryllus assimilis. Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, some researchers suggested yet another option: that low levels of pesticides poisonous to humans could explain the symptoms.

But others question whether Havana Syndrome is really a syndrome at all. Some experts think it can be chalked up to mass psychogenic illness - a phenomenon in which a group of people gets sick at the same time even though there is no physical or environmental cause. This is also known as mass hysteria. Past studies have shown that an intense fear of getting sick can result in measurable, visible symptoms.

"Think of mass psychogenic illness as the placebo effect in reverse," Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist, told Vanity Fair. "You can often make yourself feel better by taking a sugar pill. You can also make yourself feel sick if you think you are becoming sick."

According to Sergio Della Sala, a professor of human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, the syndrome might even just be a false grouping of common pathologies.

"Those data do not support the existence of a new syndrome. If there is no syndrome, it is rather in vain to discuss its potential cause," he told Insider.

'Begging for healthcare'

Marc Polymeropoulos
Marc Polymeropoulos in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

Polymeropoulos estimated that he visited 10 to 15 specialists between 2018 and January 2021 as he sought treatment - including a neurologist, sleep doctor, infectious-disease expert, ophthalmologist, and allergist, though Insider could not independently verify that list.

"I'd tell them 'my head got zapped in Moscow,' and they looked at me like I was an alien," Polymeropoulos said. He estimates he paid up to $10,000 out of pocket for the care, though he declined to share bills or receipts.

"We wish we had a visible wound. We would've rather had gotten shot," he said. "Because so many people didn't believe us."

Polymeropoulos decided to retire from the CIA when he was 50.

"That's not a typical retirement age," he said. "They were begging me to stay, and I said, 'No, I'm out.'"

Then a year later, Polymeropoulos heard the CIA had started sending active officers to Walter Reed for treatment, so he asked to participate. The CIA didn't send him.

"So I decided in October of 2020 to go public, just begging for healthcare," Polymeropoulos said. He gave interviews to GQ and NPR.

"After that, they kind of were shamed into sending me to Walter Reed," he said, adding, "I was apoplectic before this."

The CIA declined to comment on Polymeropoulos' case, but Tammy Thorp, the agency's Director of Public Affairs, told Insider, "as Director William Burns has said, nothing is more important than taking care of CIA officers - both by ensuring that they get the care and treatment they deserve and making sure that we get to the bottom of what caused these incidents."

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
A view of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2011. US Army/Wikimedia Commons

After a month of care at Walter Reed starting in mid-January - 10 hours a day, five days a week - Polymeropoulos' doctors diagnosed him with a mild traumatic brain injury.

"It was huge," he said. "All of a sudden, now I have this tangible thing."

Since then, Polymeropoulos' treatment has involved mostly alternative therapies like meditation, deep breathing, and art.

"Art therapy has been incredible. It allows you to express yourself but not in words," Polymeropoulos said. "It's also a support group."

As part of that art therapy, Polymeropoulos once made a Superman mask with an ice pick jammed its eye.

Marc Polymeropoulos mask
A mask Marc Polymeropoulous made during an art therapy session at Walter Reed. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

"Before, the kids thought of me as Superman. The ice pick is the headaches," he said.

Polymeropoulos mounted the mask on a plaque with the CIA logo cracked in half.

A debate over microwave weapons

In December, a team of experts from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offered a new theory about the most likely cause of Havana Syndrome: an attack using a microwave weapon. Such a weapon could, in theory, draw energy from a battery or other power source, convert it into electromagnetic energy, then direct it at a target.

No one has ever seen such a weapon - at least not that we know of - but Polymeropoulos said he's glad fewer scientists think it's all in his head.

"We've moved away from, 'This is something that's psychosomatic and people are making up' to 'Something really bad has happened, we got to find out what it is,'" he said.

Last month, Politico reported that US intelligence believes the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, may be behind the incidents.

gru headquarters.JPG
The headquarters of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, formerly known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), in Moscow, October 2018. Reuters

In a 1962 paper, American scientist Alan Frey suggested a microwave weapon could be used to raise the temperature inside a person's ear by a millionth of a degree. That would be enough to cause water molecules in the inner ear to expand, sometimes generating a clicking sound. It would cause a victim to feel dizzy or nauseous, or experience pressure in their heads.

But many experts are skeptical. Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that if diplomats had been attacked by a microwave weapon, doctors would see other physical clues.

"The evidence would be on the outside of their body," she told Insider. "It would be like a thermal burn, if you want to get really grisly."

That's because water in the inner ear and head that absorbed microwave energy would also heat up, causing visible scarring.

What's more, Rofer wrote in a Foreign Policy article last month, a microwave weapon that could penetrate through walls and windows would require a power source so big that it would be impossible to miss.

"It'd be equivalent to 200 laptop batteries," she said. "Obviously that wouldn't fit in a backpack. The thing would have to be in a van or building."

But David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who led the National Academy of Sciences team, told Insider that in his view, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

'People who serve overseas need to feel safe'

people standing on CIA logo in CIA headquarters
CIA staff stand on the agency's seal at its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, 2001. David Burnett/Newsmakers/Getty

Because experts can't rule out that Havana Syndrome is the work of a foreign adversary - Polymeropoulos even called it "an act of war against US officials" in a recent CBS interview - there has been little international scientific cooperation to solve the mystery.

"It is always a problem when politics interferes with science, and this is a case in point. Collaboration efforts between scientists from different countries would bear fruit," De Salla said.

But Polymeropoulos thinks the priority should be helping US officials and agents who are experiencing symptoms, so he was pleased when the Senate passed a bill this month giving financial support to injured diplomats and personnel.

"There's a whole bunch of people who are injured by this, and so it's getting to be kind of a crisis point for the US government because people who serve overseas need to feel safe," he said. "Like if you have a car accident, and someone's hurt, and the police have been wondering who's at fault, you don't wait to figure it before you get to the hospital."

Marc Polymeropoulos
Marc Polymeropoulos. Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos

The CIA, meanwhile, says it has been working with the Department of Defense to reduce the time it takes to get officers into the military healthcare system. In an April House committee hearing, CIA director William Burns said he's met with Havana Syndrome victims and is making their treatment an agency priority.

Polymeropoulos said that in his view, Burns has indeed helped intelligence officers get better care.

His own treatment, Polymeropoulos added, has been helping. He's started to exercise more - lifting weights, playing catch with his son, and going for walks. And he's written a book in his retirement, "Clarity in Crisis," about his experience in the CIA.

"Walter Reed has really helped me cope," he said. "They gave me tools and hope."

But his brain injury is ever-present.

"People say, 'You seem fine.' And I say, 'I just have a f-cking headache all the time," Polymeropoulos said.

In traditional cases of mild traumatic brain injury, a majority of people recover quickly, but about 5% have long-term headaches, anxiety, and hearing problems.

"It's something that I got to live with," Polymeropoulos said, "so that's part of me now."

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