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CIA Skeptical of ‘Havana Syndrome’

Report casts doubt on mysterious ‘microwave attacks.’ 

Key points

  • New report links anxiety, mass suggestion and normal medical conditions to 'Havana Syndrome.'
  • Five years on and there is still no evidence that a foreign power has been attacking U.S. officials with a microwave weapon
  • Victims of mass psychogenic illness are experiencing real symptoms. It is not just "all in their heads."
Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Source: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

Over the past 4 years, I have written no less than 12 columns for Psychology Today pointing out various flaws in the claims that ‘Havana Syndrome’ was caused by a secret weapon from a foreign government. I have argued that reports of ‘Havana Syndrome’ were the result of bad science and sensational journalism and can be explained using mainstream psychology and common sense.

The findings of a CIA report leaked to The New York Times found that most of the 1,000 cases that have been investigated by the government have environmental explanations and include undiagnosed medical conditions and stress, not the result of an international campaign by Russia or some other foreign power. Neurologist Robert Baloh and I reached a similar conclusion 18 months ago (Baloh & Bartholomew 2020).

In September 2021, a classified report by a group of elite scientists was highly critical of the microwave weapon hypothesis for what happened in Cuba, while around the same time, the leaked results of an FBI investigation concluded that mass psychogenic illness was a major driver of the outbreak (Acoustic Signals, 2018; Lederman and Breslauer, 2021).

While the CIA said it is continuing to investigate about two dozen cases that are unexplained, that should not be taken to suggest that there is some sinister plot against American diplomats and intelligence officers. A relevant parallel is UFO reports. A recent US Government report on UFOs found that many cases were unexplained, but that did not necessarily mean that they were of extraterrestrial origin. For instance, many cases lack sufficient information on which to base an assessment. The same is true of ‘Havana Syndrome.’

Patients outraged

It comes as no surprise that immediately following the publication of the New York Times report, victims of ‘Havana Syndrome’ expressed their outrage at the findings. The problem is, most people including many medical doctors, are not familiar with the literature on mass psychogenic illness. Myths still abound, like the belief that victims are weak-minded, psychologically unstable, or are suffering from a mental disorder. The condition is a stress reaction that is linked to a belief, and since we all have beliefs, everyone is a potential victim. Sufferers are not hypochondriacs, as has been suggested by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. In October 2021, Rubio referred to those who support a psychogenic explanation as engaging in “quackery” and invited them “to explain that to the now-dozens of people who have suffered documented brain injuries that in many cases have made them incapable of ever working again” (Desiderio and Seligman, 2022). This is explainable. There never were confirmed brain injuries in the Cuba cohort, only minor brain anomalies that are not uncommon in small sample sizes. Similar brain anomalies are known to be caused by exposure to prolonged stress, something that the American diplomats in Cuba were under after being told they may be the target of a secret weapon.

Shades of the Salem Witch Hysteria

Three different government reports found three similar conclusions. It is time to block out the politics and listen to the science. What happened in Cuba, and the mass suggestion that followed globally, is a chapter out of the Salem witch hysteria of 1692, which lasted from February 1692 to May 1693. The saga in Salem may have been shorter because residents did not have to deal with social media and repeated news stories.

This is not the end of ‘Havana Syndrome,' but the CIA report marks the beginning of the end. The next phase will likely feature a public outcry over the victims having been ignored and labeled ‘hysterical.’ Remember, victims of mass psychogenic illness are experiencing real symptoms. It is not just "all in their heads." And let’s not forget that many of them were not suffering from psychogenic illness at all, but an array of common and not so common medical conditions. Last, it is important to remember the symptoms: headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, disorientation, forgetfulness, confusion, tinnitus, insomnia, head pressure, and ear pain. These complaints are so common that in any given week it would be unusual if someone did not have at least one of them.


Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effects on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, November 2018. Declassified U.S. Government study.

Baloh, Robert W., and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2020). Havana Syndrome. Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus Books.

Barnes, Julian E. (2022). “Most ‘Havana Syndrome’ Cases Unlikely Caused by Foreign Power, C.I.A. Says.’” The New York Times, January 20.

Desiderio, Andrew, and Seligman, Lara (2021). “U.S. investigators increasingly confident directed-energy attacks behind Havana Syndrome.” Politico, October 8.

Lederman, Josh, and Breslauer, Brenda (2021). "In Tense Blinken Meeting, ‘Havana Syndrome’ Diplomats Complain of Skepticism.” NBC News, September 22.

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