U.S. Diplomats and Spies Likely Targeted by Radio Frequency Energy, Long-Withheld Report Determines

A scientific study that was long kept under wraps by the State Department finally provides some—though not all—of the answers to mysterious health problems of American officials.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015.
An old American car passes by the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Dec. 17, 2015. Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

Mysterious brain injuries sustained by U.S. diplomats and CIA officers serving overseas in Cuba, China, and Russia were likely caused by directed, pulsed radio frequency energy, according to a study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“[A]fter considering the information available to it and a set of possible mechanisms, the committee felt that many of the distinctive and acute signs, symptoms, and observations reported by DOS [Department of State] employees are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy,” the report said, noting that further studies were required. 

The confidential government study, released to Congress after four months of being kept under wraps and obtained by Foreign Policy, presents the most comprehensive account to date of what could be causing mysterious health problems of American diplomats and intelligence officials. The U.S. government has not publicly disclosed the cause of the possible attacks—or even if it knows from where the radio frequency energy could have originated. 

U.S. officials have long suspected the Russian government of being behind the attacks, which have strained Washington’s relations with Havana and Beijing, but they do not have conclusive intelligence implicating the Kremlin. The Russian and Cuban governments have denied any knowledge of or involvement in the purported attacks.

The 66-page report does not attempt to answer who may have been behind the attacks, if that is indeed the cause of the diplomats’ health issues, or the mechanisms used to train radio frequencies on U.S. diplomats. But the report authors note that their findings present a vexing problem for the U.S. government and its ability—or lack thereof—to protect government personnel against potential future attacks. 

“The mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others,” David Relman, a Stanford University professor and microbiologist who led the committee that conducted the study, wrote in the preface to the report, which was first reported by NBC News

Beginning in 2016, State Department and CIA officials in Cuba and China began reporting mysterious ailments including sharp headaches, dizziness, vertigo, and memory loss. While senior Trump administration officials vowed to identify the cause and perpetrators, the issue has stumped top investigators and scientists from across the U.S. government. The set of symptoms, dubbed “Havana syndrome,” impacted at least several dozen U.S. officials. 

In the years since the health problems first began, State Department and CIA officials afflicted by them have voiced anger and frustration about the U.S. response, saying they aren’t receiving adequate medical support or information on the investigations from the government. Relman previously told Foreign Policy he was frustrated by the government’s refusal to release the report.

“While I’m encouraged by the progress we’re seeing, much more must be done to uncover the source of these incidents and ensure that no other public servant suffers in this way,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement on Saturday. Shaheen included a provision in the new defense authorization bill to provide long-term emergency care benefits to the government employees affected by “Havana syndrome.”

The study, commissioned by the State Department, convened leading neurologists, experts in electrical engineering, toxicologists, and epidemiologists to examine four possible explanations for the symptoms experienced by U.S. officials. Possible causes included exposure to directed radio frequency energy, exposure to insecticides, infectious diseases, and psychological factors. 

Ultimately, the study concluded that the symptoms experienced by U.S. officials across a number of locations was consistent with the use of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy. The report doesn’t rule out the possibility that some variation in the symptoms experienced by officials may have had other causes “including psychological and social factors.”

A State Department spokesperson said the department was “pleased” that the report was released and it “is still working to determine what happened to our staff and their families.”

“The investigation is ongoing, and each possible cause remains speculative,” the spokesperson said. “Among a number of conclusions, the report notes that the ‘constellation of signs and symptoms’ is consistent with the effects of pulsed radiofrequency energy. We would note that ‘consistent with’ is a term of art in medicine and science that allows plausibility but does not assign cause.”

The spokesperson did not directly respond to questions on why the department kept the study under wraps up to this point, nor questions on whether its investigations into the health problems have made any progress in recent months

In October, the New York Times and GQ reported that American officials suspected the health incidents were part of a coordinated attack from a U.S. adversary. While the CIA has not commented on whether the Kremlin is behind the attacks, an agency investigation using cellphone location data found that individuals linked with Russian security services were in the vicinity of U.S. officials before they began experiencing symptoms, GQ reported.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, has previously denied that Russia played any role in the incidents and has described any insinuation as such as “absolutely absurd and bizarre.”

Update, Dec. 6, 2020: This article was updated to include previous comments made by the spokeswoman of the Russian foreign ministry.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer