Havana Syndrome

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    • A US intelligence officer travelling with the CIA Director has reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome while the two were in India.

    About

    • This is the first instance of the phenomenon being reported in India, at least on record, and could have diplomatic implications.
    • India’s Stand:
      • India is not in possession of any such counter espionage instrument and it wouldn’t want to sever its rising ties with the US.

    What is Havana Syndrome?

    • About: 
      • It refers to a set of mental health symptoms that are said to be experienced by US intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. 
    • Origin:
      • As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba. 
    • Incident:
      • In late 2016, about a year after the US opened its embassy in Havana, some intelligence officials and members of the staff at the embassy began experiencing sudden bursts of pressure in their brain followed by persistent headaches, feeling of disorientation and insomnia.
    • Symptoms included:
      • nausea, severe headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss. 
    • Causes:
      • It was initially speculated to be a “sonic attack”.
      • However, further study suggests that the victims may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system.
      • It is suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves are sent through a special gadget that Americans have begun calling “microwave weapons”.
    • 2018 Study:
      • Recent study mentioned that specialists studied the brains of the victims and determined that the injuries resembled concussions, like those suffered by soldiers struck by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were no signs of impact.
    • Global cases:
      • Since the Cuban incident, American intelligence and foreign affairs officials posted in various countries have reported symptoms of the syndrome.
      • China: 
        • In early 2018, similar accusations began to be made by US diplomats in China. 
        • The first incident reported by an American diplomat in China was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate. 
        • The employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. 
      • Uzbekistan:
        • Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017.
      • US:
        • In 2019 and 2020, such incidents have been reported from within the US — particularly in Washington DC. 
        • One incident was even reported at The Elipse, a lawn adjacent to the White House.
      • Other:
        • According to US media reports, in the past few years US officials have reported around 130 such attacks across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others.

    Image Courtesy: IE

    Anticipated working of Syndrome

    • Further study by scientists in the US and medical examination of the victims began to suggest that the victims may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system. 
    • It was said to have built a 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 impact memory and cause permanent brain damage.
    • It is suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves are sent through a special gadget that Americans have begun calling “microwave weapons”.

    Concluding Theory: Directed Energy Beams

    • In December 2020, a report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) found “directed energy beams” as a “plausible” cause of the Havana Syndrome.
    • The NAS report, titled ‘An assessment of illness in US government employees and their families at overseas embassies’, by a committee of 19 experts in medicine and other fields examined four possibilities to explain the symptoms — infection, chemicals, psychological factors and microwave energy. 
    • The experts examined the symptoms of about 40 government employees.
    • Concluding Points:
      • The report concluded that directed pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered.
      • By calling it “directed” and “pulsed” energy, the report left no room for confusion that the victims’ exposure was targeted and not due to common sources of microwave energy, such as a mobile phone. 
      • The report also mentioned that the immediate symptoms patients reported — including sensations of pain and buzzing sound — apparently emanated from a particular direction, or occurred in a specific spot in a room.
      • The more chronic problems suffered by Havana personnel included mainly 
        • vestibular processing and 
        • cognitive problems 
        • insomnia 
        • headache. 
      • However, it also said “the committee cannot rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others”.
    • Future episodes could be there: 
      • The report warned about the possibility of future episodes and recommended that the State Department establish a response mechanism for similar incidents. 
      • The larger issue is preparedness for new and unknown threats that might compromise the health and safety of US diplomats serving abroad.

    Microwave Weapons

    • These weapons are supposed to be a type of direct energy weapons, which aim highly focused energy in the form of sonic, laser, or microwaves, at a target.
    • These weapons use beams of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation to heat the water in a human target’s skin, causing pain and discomfort.
    • Countries Having Microwave Weapons
      • A number of countries are thought to have developed these weapons to target both humans and electronic systems. 
      • China had first put on display its “microwave weapon”, called Poly WB-1, at an air show in 2014.
      • The United States has also developed a prototype microwave-style weapon, which it calls the “Active Denial System”. 
    • Past Use
      • The US apparently deployed such a weapon in Afghanistan, but withdrew it without ever using it against human targets.
      • 2017: Reports surfaced saying employees at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, may have been targeted with a covert sonic weapon the previous year. 
      • 2018: Staff at the US consulate in Guangzhou, China complained of a possible similar attack in 2017.
    • Threats:
      • Concerns have been raised on whether they can damage the eyes, or have a carcinogenic impact in the long term.
      • The US Department of Defence FAQ specifically says its Active Denial System does not cause cancer or infertility. 
      • It also says that studies have shown that “natural blink reflex, aversion response and head turn all protect the eyes” from the weapon.
      • It is not clear yet how China intends to use such a weapon, and whether it can kill or cause lasting damage to human targets.
    • Denial: However, a medical team that examined 21 of those affected in Cuba did not mention “microwave weapons” in a study. Neither the State Department nor the FBI have publicly pointed to “microwave weapons” as being the cause of the “syndrome”.

    Source: IE