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Havana syndrome: Foreign adversaries' microwave weapons capabilities explained by physicist

Physicist James Benford says foreign adversaries with microwave weapon capabilities could be the root of the Havana syndrome plaguing hundreds of U.S. diplomats.

The first cases of what became known as Havana syndrome were reported in 2016. U.S. diplomats and foreign officials in places like Russia, China and Cuba began to suffer from a mysterious illness. Symptoms included headaches, vertigo and brain fog.

"There was a significant amount of head pressure, a lot of pain, eventually stabbing pain to the point that I started blacking out," said "Adam," who is the first known person to suffer from Havana syndrome.

Adam, a former government employee whose last name Fox News is withholding for safety, is considered to be patient zero and was first attacked in December 2016 while living in Havana. He said he experienced regular attacks and that his friends and colleagues were suffering the same ailments.

"Usually what would wake me up is, I'd be in a pool of my own blood on my pillow from gushing nosebleeds," Adam said. "That wouldn't stop until the head pressure piece would stop."


Since Adam’s case was reported, hundreds of U.S. diplomats have suffered from the strange attacks. The U.S. government has not yet determined what caused the illnesses. Scientists and doctors who have studied radio frequency energy say it’s likely a microwave weapon could be the cause of the symptoms.

"The majority of the people I know, who I've talked to about this, who do know the field, all agree that this is about a syndrome," physicist James Benford said. "It certainly fits with a microwave beam as the attacking element."

Benford has a Ph.D. in physics and is an expert in how high-power microwaves work.

"I have looked at the scientific literature about the effects of microwaves, and I'm very familiar with the national capabilities of our country and foreign countries," Benford said.

U.S. intelligence agencies released a report on Havana syndrome in March. The main conclusion was that it was "very unlikely" a foreign adversary was responsible. The report explained that the symptoms victims were experiencing "were probably the result of factors that did not involve a foreign adversary, such as preexisting conditions, conventional illnesses and environmental factors."

Adam called the report "a travesty."


"Anyone that had half an inkling of common sense would look at all of the things that have come out publicly, all of the things that are available, open source, and realize that they're getting lied to pretty flat out," Adam said. "Across the board, I give it an ‘F.’ It's unfortunate. And I think that it won't be too long until it's proven that what happened was more of a cover-up than it was actual research."

Benford agreed, saying that government explanations are trying to obscure the real origins and deny that foreign governments have the ability to produce microwave weapons.

"That is simply not the case," Benford said. "High power microwaves came into existence about 50 years ago, have been thoroughly developed, first by the U.S. and the Soviet Union."

He said the U.S., Russia and China all have developed the technology. He said it has expanded to a point where the devices are smaller and transportable in vehicles as small as a van.

"The Russians in particular have specialized in compact systems. They have published in the open literature reports of the effects of microwaves on laboratory animals such as mice," Benford said. "And they have shown that these effects are very parallel to those that we see in the Havana syndrome."

Benford said that Russian scientists repeatedly hit mice with short pulses of microwave frequency, and the effects were measurable and permanent in some cases.


"I think there's a really good chance that the Russian capability could be used by them, but it could be used by anybody else who reads this open literature as well," Benford said.

The State Department asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review Havana syndrome cases. In 2020, that report assessed "pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism" to explain those illnesses. The March intelligence report conflicted with that determination by stating that "there is no credible evidence that a foreign adversary has a weapon or collection device" that could cause the Havana syndrome cases.

"To say that these weapon systems don't exist is wool over our eyes," Adam said. "All you have to do is look at some of the declassified reports to realize that these weapon systems genuinely exist. There are patents for U.S. systems – not to mention the ones that may or may not have been developed inside the U.S. government. When the Pentagon has such a massive microwave budget, it seems a little asinine to say that a microwave weapon can't exist at this time."

Two agencies judged that radiofrequency energy was a plausible cause of Havana syndrome. All agencies said additional research on the technology would be valuable "because there continues to be a scientific debate on whether this could result in a weapon that could produce the symptoms."

"I think their motives could be that they want to cover it up because an attack on an American embassy personnel is an attack on the United States. It's essentially an act of war," Benford said.

Adam said he believes the agencies were worried about overseas staffing amid the reports.


"There's an element of embarrassment in that why can't you figure it out?" Adam said. "If it was that comprehensive, you think you would want to go back to the patient zero and ask questions. But that was never on the table, apparently."

Adam said the U.S. government was engaged in the beginning. He and his colleagues also sought medical care from their own doctors.

"We’d flown back to the United States to try and get answers for ourselves because Washington wasn't sure what to do or how to handle it. Frankly, I don't blame them in these early days," Adam said.

Many who reported symptoms of Havana syndrome suffered long-lasting effects. Their private doctors determined the cases were consistent with traumatic brain injuries. But Adam says the government investigation into the illnesses eventually began to shift.

"There were two streams of thought that were happening within the IOC. One was: What is this? Let's get to the bottom of this. And then the other stream was: Shut it down, make it go away, pretend like nothing happened," Adam said. "Even my initial doctors in Miami got calls from the agency to change my medical records to remove traumatic brain injury from those records because Washington didn't like it."

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Havana Act into law. The legislation authorized additional financial support for victims of Havana syndrome. Adam says he has friends who have reported cases of Havana syndrome who are receiving the payments. But those people have not been interviewed by investigators.

"They’re willing to acknowledge that they got a brain injury by a similar device to whatever I was injured with. But yet those individuals haven't been interviewed, and especially not by anyone of the task force," Adam said.


Without an official determination of what caused the attacks, many are questioning if there’s a cure for the victims.

"Cognitive disruptions can be permanent," Benford said. "We can't be sure that it actually could be essentially cured."

Adam says some of his colleagues are suffering from seizures and rare cancers. He’s also worried about how the attacks could affect those who have been attacked in years to come.

"Are we predisposed to MS or early onset Parkinson's? We just don't know what the future holds," Adam said. "I’ve seen 100 different doctors around the country. And at the end of the day, the answer is: You're as good as you're going to get."

Benford still has hope that the U.S. government has been working to solve the Havana syndrome mystery behind the scenes.

"I hope the country's doing something about this. I hope under classification we're trying to find out how these effects work, both physically and biologically," Benford said.

A declassified report released in Salon at the end of March conflicts with the intelligence assessment released earlier that same month. The document was prepared for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence by a panel of experts and suggests an unknown device or weapon using ‘pulsed electromagnetic energy’ remains a plausible explanation. The report was declassified after the James Madison Project sued to obtain further information on Havana syndrome cases. The heavily redacted information reveals that some of the cases "cannot be easily explained by known environmental or medical conditions and could be due to external stimuli."


Politico reported that the Defense Department is researching radio frequency waves to determine if they caused the illnesses. Fox News reached out to the White House, State Department and Defense Department about any ongoing investigations and did not receive a response.

Adam said there have been private efforts to investigate Havana syndrome. He also acknowledged that new cases have tapered off, with the last known attacks reported at the end of 2022.

"We’ve seen this lull. But also, it doesn't help when you have the agency putting out reports calling you crazy. So, no one in their right mind would come forward even if they did have a valid case anymore," Adam said.

"Their efforts to shut this down internally probably worked as well, because I know if I was on the receiving end of this abroad, I wouldn't come forward either."

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