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The truth behind the mysterious Havana Syndrome

A sign stands outside the U.S. embassy following the sudden illness of three embassy staff in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A sign stands outside the U.S. embassy following the sudden illness of three embassy staff in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

American officials in various places around the world have been plagued by mysterious symptoms.

And who is causing it?

Today, On Point: Havana Syndrome brings about sudden, mysterious brain injuries in American officials abroad. Why doesn’t Washington know who’s behind it yet?

Guests

Adam Entous, staff writer at The New Yorker. (@adamentous)

Frank Figliuzzi, FBI assistant director for counterintelligence from 2010 to 2012. He served as a special agent for 25 years. NBC national security contributor. (@FrankFigliuzzi1)

Also Featured

Marc Polymeropoulos, he served 26 years in the CIA before retiring from the Senior Intelligence Service in 2019. (@Mpolymer)

Show Highlights: A former CIA officer on his experience with Havana Syndrome

Nearly four years ago, Marc Polymeropoulos took a work trip to Russia. A Senior Intelligence Service officer more than two decades into his career at the CIA, Marc was in good health and unsuspecting of what was to come. Then he got Havana Syndrome. Below, Marc shares his story: 

I made a trip in December of 2017, a routine trip. But something bad happened on that night in Moscow. I woke up in the middle of the night. To start, I didn’t hear anything, but I had an incredible case of vertigo. So the room’s spinning. I had a terrible headache, and that was called tinnitus. I’m ringing in my ears. It’s wildly disorienting. It’s actually quite terrifying. I’ve spent years in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been shot at many times. I’d put my life in some extreme danger. But this was pretty scary, because it was a loss of control.

So, the next morning I called my contacts at the embassy. I said something bad had happened. And we actually went together, one of the embassy officers took me to a pharmacy. And you know, this was because I had this extreme case of vertigo. We were trying to find some medication that would help. And I remember sitting in a restaurant in Moscow. And again, the extreme vertigo and the splitting headache returned.

And basically, I kind of just powered through the trip. And then I came back to the United States. And as I really wasn’t getting any better. And, in fact, got worse. That’s when I went to see the CIA’s doctors. And I told them I think something bad had happened. And unfortunately, their first reaction — which was the same reaction that lasted for several years, really — was to dismiss any of my concerns, even when I was really, really suffering.

The headaches and dizziness were so bad that ultimately I couldn’t even go to work. After a very kind of successful career, I retired the equivalent of a Four-Star general. I was very senior at the agency, but I was only 50 and had a lot more left in the tank. I finally got treatment at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which is one of the world’s renowned traumatic brain injury programs.

We go through something that’s called art therapy, and it’s really pretty extraordinary. But one of my colleagues painted a picture. It was a picture on a black canvas and just a red splotch, which looks like blood. And he called it the gunshot. And you know, why is that significant to all of us? Well, it’s because all of us wish we had been shot. All of us wish there’s something visible. Because then people would have what? They would have believed us.

For many of the victims, it’s deeply disturbing when they read an article saying that it’s all psychogenic, we’re all making stuff up or we have panic attacks. I mean clearly, that’s not something that happened to me. And you know, I’m going to sound silly when I say this, but panic ain’t in my DNA. I spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can call me a lot of things, but I’m not one to panic. I did not have a panic attack in Moscow in December 2017. I can assure you that.

What’s happening against these officials, like what happened to me, is what I call an act of war. The official U.S. government name is an anomalous health incident. Let’s call it what I think it is. If we don’t push back, if we don’t kind of detect, defend and then deter this, this is going to have a really deleterious effect on our ability to project American power, and force and represent the United States overseas. And so it is an enormously serious and complex issue. Because if we don’t get this right, we can’t do the job. Which is again, it’s acting as America’s first line of defense.

From The Reading List

The New Yorker: “Are U.S. Officials Under Silent Attack?” — “During the final weeks of the Trump Administration, a senior official on the National Security Council sat at his desk in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across from the West Wing, on the White House grounds.”

Belfer Center: “Report – Havana Syndrome: American Officials under Attack” — “In September 2021, the CIA recalled its Vienna station chief reportedly over his response to a series of ‘anomalous health incidents’ experienced by over two dozen personnel.”

The New Yorker: “Vienna Is the New Havana Syndrome Hot Spot” — “Since Joe Biden took office, about two dozen U.S. intelligence officers, diplomats, and other government officials in Vienna have reported experiencing mysterious afflictions similar to the Havana Syndrome.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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