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Encore: Havana Syndrome remains a mystery as researchers study microwave beam theory

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

The U.S. government wants to know why some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers are getting sick. It's called Havana syndrome, after the illnesses turned up in Havana. Many say they've suffered debilitating migraines, dizziness and memory loss.

Some history may be relevant. Years before the first Havana cases were reported, the U.S. government documented microwave radiation being directed at a U.S. embassy and at officials abroad. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has the backstory.

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GREG MYRE: In 1996, Mike Beck and a colleague at the National Security Agency were sent to a hostile country on a brief assignment. He knew he was being watched. And he woke up one morning feeling terrible.

MIKE BECK: It was extreme fatigue and weakness. I was a bowl of jelly. I couldn't get moving.

MYRE: He was suspicious. But the symptoms went away. A decade later, Beck was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease at age 46. At almost the same time, his colleague from that trip received the very same diagnosis and would die several years later. Beck filed a workman's compensation claim with the NSA, which sent him a letter in 2014. Here's Beck reading from it.

BECK: (Reading) The National Security Agency confirms that there is intelligence information associating the hostile country to which Mr. Beck traveled with a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time.

MYRE: The letter went on to say...

BECK: (Reading) This weapon is designed to target living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.

MYRE: Beck's claim is still pending. And it may be extremely difficult to prove cause and effect in his case. But as Beck's lawyer, Mark Zaid notes, the NSA letter was written in 2014, two years before the first Havana Syndrome case was reported.

MARK ZAID: Here we have an unclassified document from a U.S. intelligence agency admitting it knows of this before Havana.

MYRE: The country Beck traveled to remains classified. But the U.S. government has documented one country and its intelligence services going to extraordinary lengths to target the U.S. Embassy and American personnel.

JOHN SIPHER: The Russian services are very aggressive. They would use whatever means possible to collect against us.

MYRE: John Sipher is a retired CIA officer. He served in Moscow in the 1990s and later led the spy agency's Russia operations at CIA headquarters.

SIPHER: I've stayed in touch with a lot of folks. It is a general view that the Russians have probably taken actions that have impacted the health of American diplomats and intelligence officers.

MYRE: Sipher acknowledges his information is anecdotal, not scientific. He points to former colleagues who came down with cancer at relatively young ages. What has been firmly established is Moscow's long history of surveilling the U.S. Embassy.

SIPHER: They were putting listening devices in our Embassy and our homes.

MYRE: Like the intricate hand-carved wooden seal of the United States that Soviet schoolchildren presented as a gift to the U.S. ambassador in 1945 - that seal contained a listening device that eavesdropped on countless conversations of American ambassadors before it was uncovered.

SIPHER: They would get a hold of typewriters.

MYRE: In the 1970s, the Soviets intercepted IBM typewriters in transit from the U.S. to the Embassy. The Soviets installed monitoring devices that picked up most every keystroke for years. And one of the longest-running Soviet operations was beaming microwave radiation at the Embassy to collect intelligence. Memos from the State Department and the CIA in the 1970s and '80s routinely refer to this practice. Jack Matlock, now aged 92, wrote some of those memos when he was the Embassy's No. 2 official.

JACK MATLOCK: We never had an impression that the object of this was to harm us physically.

MYRE: But then the Soviets dialed up the radiation.

MATLOCK: And it had reached a level that, in some areas, it could have a health effect.

MYRE: The Embassy put metal screens in the windows to help block the radiation. And Matlock said he never heard of any health problems. In contrast, the Havana syndrome cases, first reported in 2016, involve U.S. officials who say they fell ill immediately with migraines, dizziness and nausea. Cases have since been reported in multiple countries, including Russia, Germany and Austria, as well as China and Colombia.

Dr. James Giordano is a professor of neurology at Georgetown University. He was asked by the State Department to look at the initial cases from Havana.

JAMES GIORDANO: It wasn't just accidental. Clearly, these individuals were getting hit with something, which would have put them, quote, "in the line of fire."

MYRE: As more cases emerge, he says, he's seeing strong similarities.

GIORDANO: I think what's important to understand - and this is an important term - is a constellation of effects, which is a generalized pattern of effects. If you were going to categorize them, they fall very squarely and, I would say, rather neatly within that definable set of characteristics.

MYRE: At the request of the State Department, the National Academies of Sciences compiled a report last December. David Relman, the Stanford professor who led the study, recently spoke to NPR.

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DAVID RELMAN: The mechanism that we found most plausible was a form of microwave radiation that occurs in a pulsed or intermittent form.

MYRE: He stresses the report is not definitive.

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RELMAN: We believe, although we can't show with direct evidence, that this phenomenon could account for at least some of the clinical features.

MYRE: The Biden administration is making a push on multiple fronts. The CIA has ramped up its investigation. The Senate Intelligence Committee is getting regular briefings. President Biden just signed a law providing compensation for those injured. When the cases emerged five years ago, John Sipher and his former CIA colleagues immediately suspected Russia.

SIPHER: The Russians have never hesitated to use technology that could hurt our health. But there was always a reason. It was always part of a process to break into our computers or to turn on listening devices. When this first happened, I thought this must be some technology that has gone wrong.

MYRE: Now he's questioning that assumption.

SIPHER: It is hurting people. And it is hurting their families and their children. But it's continuing to happen. The Russians, if it is the Russians, would have to be pretty bold to continue to do so when they now realize that they're harming the health of Americans.

MYRE: Of course, if the U.S. government decides it has enough evidence to attribute Havana syndrome to a specific cause and a specific country, that immediately raises an explosive question - how will the U.S. respond?

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

FOLKENFLIK: Greg's story originally aired on Morning Edition last week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.