Report

State Rolls Out Medical Pilot Program to Find Causes of ‘Havana Syndrome’

U.S. still grappling with how to respond five years after first reports of suspected microwave attacks in Havana.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
The Department of State
The Department of State in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department is launching a pilot program to medically screen some diplomats and their family members before they travel overseas in a bid to investigate reports of unexplained health incidents experienced by American government officials abroad, according to officials familiar with the matter and internal State Department communications.

Commonly referred to as Havana syndrome, the phenomenon has perplexed officials and defied explanation for years as U.S. personnel overseas and in Washington have reported a range of symptoms including dizziness, vertigo, and persistent headaches, while some have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. The new program is aimed at creating a baseline of health information for volunteers at the State Department on a first-come, first-serve basis before they go to overseas diplomatic posts.

The U.S. State Department is launching a pilot program to medically screen some diplomats and their family members before they travel overseas in a bid to investigate reports of unexplained health incidents experienced by American government officials abroad, according to officials familiar with the matter and internal State Department communications.

Commonly referred to as Havana syndrome, the phenomenon has perplexed officials and defied explanation for years as U.S. personnel overseas and in Washington have reported a range of symptoms including dizziness, vertigo, and persistent headaches, while some have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. The new program is aimed at creating a baseline of health information for volunteers at the State Department on a first-come, first-serve basis before they go to overseas diplomatic posts.

A top appointee at the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon, sent an internal email message to State Department employees outlining the details of the new pilot program, led by the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services. McKeon’s message gives insight into how the U.S. government is grappling with responding to the mysterious symptoms, which the State Department is calling “unexplained health incidents,” abbreviated by officials as UHIs. Some officials believe the symptoms are the result of a form of covert attacks on U.S. officials by Russia, while others have reportedly said they wish to see more evidence before drawing conclusions.

The latest move from the State Department underscores how, nearly five years after initial reports of these health incidents began, the U.S. government is still grasping for answers. It also appears to show that the State Department anticipates more officials will be impacted by similar symptoms in the future.

The message calls for volunteers from State Department employees and their adult family members to undergo a series of medical tests, including vision and hearing examinations and blood tests, before being sent abroad, to begin studying potential effects of these unexplained health incidents.

“The objective of the pilot Baseline Screening Program is to develop a standardized approach for assessment of reported UHIs,” McKeon wrote in the message to employees, a copy of which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. The cable was first reported by Politico

“Should an individual experience a UHI while at Post, the baseline testing can be repeated as part of the overall evaluation of the incident and post-incident data can be compared to pre-incident data. This information will assist the Department in its investigation of possible causes and may inform care of affected individuals.”

In March, the State Department tapped Pamela Spratlen, an experienced career diplomat and former ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to lead the department’s response to the health problems. 

State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment on internal communications but said that Spratlen was working “in close coordination with Department leadership, to support our employees as we seek to determine the cause of these incidents and assist those who have been affected.”

“One new initiative includes a baseline testing program, an idea supported by the National Academy of Sciences report and that is being implemented by the Department’s Medical Services Division,” Price said.

Since the set of symptoms were first reported by U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana in 2016, over 130 diplomats, military personnel, and other officials are now reported to have been affected to varying degrees. U.S. officials are investigating two reported incidents of National Security Council officials developing symptoms in line with Havana syndrome while walking close to the White House. Both incidents happened in the last months of the Trump administration, and one was severe enough to require immediate medical attention, according to CNN

A report published in December 2020 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reviewed possible causes of the brain injuries and concluded that pulsed radio frequency energy was the most likely cause, sparking fears that U.S. officials were being targeted by a foreign adversary. 

Some have pointed a finger at Moscow, which had a history of using microwave weapons against U.S diplomats during the Cold War. But experts caution that there is little evidence that such a weapon exists, and if it does, it’s highly unlikely to be sufficiently discreet or targeted that it could be deployed without notice in downtown Washington, D.C. 

Whatever the cause, there is little doubt that U.S. officials and military personnel are being plagued by unexplained health woes. Many are publicly voicing frustration at what they see as a slow response from the U.S. government, and they are demanding better support and health care from their agencies.

Last week, diplomats sent a letter to McKeon voicing their concerns, accusing the State Department of rejecting scientific evidence about the injuries and denying personnel and their relatives access to appropriate care and assessment. 

“Senior Department leadership’s continued refusal to meet with and hear directly from its injured personnel is discouraging,” they wrote in the letter, which was obtained by NBC News.

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

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