Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Havana Syndrome May Have Had Its Moment

Everyone has suffered, and benefited, from the power of suggestion.

If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, all the more so for idle minds. Assuredly, much of the two year ongoing Covid hysteria has been demand-side driven. The media, the politicians, and the assorted Faucis are giving people what they want: infotainment. Just as British diaries confess that many Londoners never felt more alive than during The Blitz, Covid has given people a sense of purpose in lives otherwise lacking.

New diseases are exciting and if we don’t have one, well, we’ll make one up!

Such has proved the case with so-called “Havana Syndrome,” the first reports of which came from American and Canadian embassy staffers in Cuba’s capital city in 2016 and was recently the subject of a lengthy 60-Minutes segment. My friend and fellow hysteria-hunter Robert Bartholomew has doggedly countered purveyors of this mystery with a book co-authored by a UCLA neurologist who focuses on dizziness and hearing loss, and no fewer than a dozen articles on the subject in Psychology Today.

And as all hysteria skeptics do, the University of Auckland medical sociologist has caught hell for it. (I lost two jobs over my AIDS book with the explosive, irresponsible claim that no, we are not all at equal risk, and was unemployable and hungry for two years. Among my revelations was that a certain Dr. Anthony Fauci published a medical journal paper saying AIDS was probably contagious through casual contact. Contrast and compare outcomes, boys and girls.)

But sometimes sanity wins out and it may here, boosted by a recently-released interim CIA investigation.

Fact is, the alleged syndrome quickly showed elements of mass psychogenic illness, that which would be considered hysteria in one person but claims legitimacy when it spreads to others. The symptoms were simply too vague and inconsistent, as with the phantom syndromes of which the most recent is “long Covid.” As I’ve written, anything and everything has been called a long Covid symptom if the sufferers choose that moniker, regardless that many have no evidence of any exposure to the virus. That is, they never had acute or “short” Covid.

Initial reports of Havana Syndrome had ringing in the ears among the most common symptoms. There is no more a medical test for tinnitus than there is for headaches. If you think you hear ringing, you do, just as if you think your head hurts, you have a headache. Initially, there was some plausibility that perhaps the cause was high-intensity energy devices used for eavesdropping or simply for inducing misery.

But soon the constellation of symptoms began widening, as did the locations. U.S. intelligence personnel were reporting mysterious illness in locations as diverse as several European countries, China, Colombia, Russia, Vietnam, India, and even Washington, D.C. Organic diseases just don’t work that way. What do are those of suggestion. You hear about it and you get it.

Presumably everyone has suffered, and benefited, from suggestion. In benefit form, these are called placebos. Placebos, whether as pills or injections or even vocal suggestion, are a wonderful tool, even capable of improving heart disease. When I was a child, a doctor prescribed to me huge pills to eliminate my warts. They worked. Problem is, even to this day there’s no such thing as a wart pill.

The flip side are “nocebos.” Essentially all placebo-controlled drug studies show a certain percentage of those taking the “dummy pills” reporting side effects, sometimes to the extent they quit the trial. The effect is quite real; it merely originated in the mind. As with tinnitus, to think you have it is to have it. If you vomit after taking dummy pills because you were alerted that was a possible side effect, that’s real vomit.

But often sufferers get horribly indignant at what they falsely perceive as being told “it’s all in your head.” No, no! It’s not all in your head. It just originated with suggestion. Then advocacy groups often form to fight for funding and medical recognition. Congressmen, eager to show their boundless compassion, get involved and spend some taxpayer money. Add the excitement factor to which I alluded.

Thus predictably with “Havana Syndrome,” the media gave us what we demanded.

In 2020, GQ magazine declared the “compelling evidence” of Russian involvement, from mobile phone tracking. “Using this sort of data, CIA investigators were able to deduce the whereabouts of Russian agents, and place them in close physical proximity to the CIA officers at the time they had been attacked when they were in Poland, Georgia, Australia, and Taiwan,” it said. “In each case, individuals believed to be FSB (Russian security) agents were within range of the CIA officers who had been hit in 2019.”

It said in two of the incidents, location data apparently showed FSB agents in the same hotel at the same time their targets experienced the onset of symptoms. Sounds rather like an early Hitchcock movie.

Hence, even CIA chief William Burns has publicly called them “attacks,” and pointed the finger at Moscow. But while Moscow, to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo, has some serious ’splaining to do over Ukraine, making foreign diplomats sick isn’t one of its sins.

As the list of locations, symptoms, and victims (ultimately including not just children but dogs) grew, it became increasingly evident that there was no organic cause. People were either becoming sick through suggestion or people were simply assigning various illnesses to one cause. So insomnia, headaches, depression, and impaired thinking were all added to the list. But God bless you if you’ve made it to middle age without suffering any or probably all of these to an extent. Depression alone can give rise to all of the other symptoms listed here.

Nevertheless Bartholomew, one of the world’s top experts on mass psychogenic illness, knew what he was seeing, because over his professional career he has seen similar patterns. “Outbreaks commonly begin in small, cohesive units and spread to people of higher status,” he told me. “Those affected were part of a common work environment and were under extreme stress in a foreign country where they knew they were under constant surveillance and came to believe they were the target of a mysterious new weapon.”

He kept plugging away despite the predictable accusations of insensitivity to victims. How trying to actually nail down illness causation becomes “insensitivity” to the victims is curious, but it has to be handled in a compassionate way and that’s exactly what Bartholomew did. That notwithstanding, last October, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said those who supported a psychogenic explanation were engaging in “quackery.”

But finally, the tide is turning. In recent months, many mainstream news outlets have expounded the mass psychogenic illness theory and indeed several have cited Bartholomew’s research.

Research was showing all along there was no there there. A leaked 2018 State Department report found no evidence of foul play, and indeed that at least eight of the original 21 reported incidents were “most likely” caused by the sound of crickets. (Unfortunately, crickets as causation has gotten too much play, being sensational in and of itself. Most sufferers of Havana Syndrome presumably have not been hearing insects.)

The findings of a second report, produced by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, were leaked to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Adam Entous at the New Yorker, who wrote it up last year. It concluded that the victims were experiencing “mass psychogenic illness.”

Nonetheless, in the inevitable display of “compassion,” last year President Biden signed legislation providing compensation to sufferers of the alleged mystery syndrome.

Now the New York Times and others are relaying an interim report that, as the Times headline put it, “Foreign Power Not Seen by CIA as Cause of ‘Havana Syndrome.’”

“A majority of the 1,000 cases reported to the government can be explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress, rather than a sustained global campaign by a foreign power,” CIA officials said, describing the interim findings of a comprehensive study, according to the NYT. “The idea that Russia, China or Cuba was responsible for attacking hundreds of diplomats around the world was never backed up by any evidence that the Biden administration could unearth.” Many other media outlets are also giving the report credence.

“The State Department spent 5 years searching for unicorns instead of sticking to mainstream explanations,” Bartholomew told me.

Predictably, there have been cries of betrayal. In a statement, said the Times, “a group of victims said the CIA interim findings ‘cannot and must not be the final word on the matter.’” The release of the findings, the victims said, “was a breach of faith.”

No, it’s keeping the faith. We’re giving the best information to those who are truly suffering, regardless that it may not be what they suspected or were earlier told. It’s just unfortunate that this had to go on so long, especially given the vital and often courageous role many of those afflicted have played in protecting our nation and its allies. Yes, at one time witches and demons were the “go to” explanation for mysterious illnesses; but it would be nice to think we’ve progressed past that point.

Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) has been an attorney, author, and science journalist specializing in hysterias for over 35 years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, the Atlantic, and many other fora.