The Mystery of Havana Syndrome
Design by Ryan Ho and Julien Pradier

The Mystery of Havana Syndrome

Bradley Hope

Our newest project is a global hunt for answers about Havana Syndrome, a mysterious affliction affecting spies and diplomats on every continent except Antarctica. People have genuine physical symptoms and most victims recall hearing a mysterious grating sound at some point before they were affected. This one has the US government polarized: is it some kind of focused energy weapon or is it a mass psychogenic illness?

To get you intrigued about the story, we're including a guest post about Havana Syndrome from Brazen's expert on all things spy-related: Zachary Dorfman, who runs a fascinating newsletter called The Brush Pass.

Check out The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome anywhere you listen to podcasts. Listeners who are members of our Brazen+ membership on Apple Podcasts get episodes early and additional content only available to subscribers, including a 30 minute exploration of the musical score on there now.

Reviews are already pouring in.

"Plug in your headphones, close your eyes, and your imagination does the rest," Rachel Cunliffe, The New Statesman

By Zachary Dorfman

In 2016, U.S. diplomatic personnel, including undercover CIA officers, in Havana, Cuba, began reporting a series of extraordinary, and worrying, physical ailments. Affected individuals reported suffering extreme nausea, dizziness, headaches, and memory loss, among other symptoms. Many of the affected officials said they had heard an ear-shattering, high-pitched sound just prior to feeling ill. For some, these experiences have led to chronic crippling health problems.

You’ll recall that, at first, the U.S. government tried to keep the investigation into these “anomalous health incidents”--colloquially known, now, as Havana Syndrome–under wraps. But the secret probe into these events soon leaked into the press. Were they some sort of attack by the Cubans, or perhaps another historical U.S. adversary, like Russia? Was there an environmental explanation for them? Or perhaps a psychogenic one?

Eventually, examples of potential Havana Syndrome incidents mushroomed, with events reported in China, India, Europe–and even the U.S. itself.

There has been so much heat around Havana Syndrome, and so little light. The Sound, a new podcast from Project Brazen hosted by Nicky Woolf, aims to help re-balance things.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

There’s a certain kind of Washington, D.C., story–often, though not exclusively, found, on the national security beat–where these factors all coalesce at once, leading to a sort of political frenzy. This happened with Havana Syndrome. It was like a switch was turned on: first, no one in official Washington wanted to breathe a word about these potential attacks; then, just as rapidly, it seemed, there was an explosion of discussion about it. Congress started pontificating about it openly, passing bills to aid victims. It became a factor in U.S. foreign policy. Prominent intel vets became stalwart public advocates for aiding the affected, and punishing the alleged perpetrators.

The subject became incredibly contentious, both within the U.S. intelligence community and larger U.S. national security apparatus, and in the press. If these events were physical attacks, carried out by a foreign power, they represented a serious escalation, and demanded a firm response. But how would such an attack be executed? Via some sort of sonic or microwave weapon? And how would those even work, in practice?

The U.S. intelligence community is often treated as monolithic, but I can tell you from personal experience, nothing is further from the truth. And in extensive conversations I had with different veterans from that world, there was significant divergence over the causes of these events, though many speculated that some of the cases were the work of Russia. How Moscow’s operatives might actually have carried out these attacks, however, was subject to a lot of debate.

I contributed a bit of reporting for the series, regarding a potential attack on U.S. soil on an undercover CIA officer, and some of the tensions between CIA and FBI over the allocation of resources for tracking potential perpetrators for these incidents. (You’ll hear about this later in the podcast.)

The story of Havana Syndrome, in The Sound, is about the search for its causes–but also about how this story itself became reflected, and twisted, through the prism of government secrecy, bureaucratic pettiness and malaise, and the very human tendency to seek a coherent, singular explanation for events that may not possess one.

Just where Nicky and his team will take us–and where they’ll land on the ultimate causes, or explanation for, Havana Syndrome, is a mystery to me, too. If there even is one, or it’s at all knowable, outside the heavily fortified walls of an intelligence agency somewhere on this globe. I’d listen to The Sound to find out.


Brazen+ subscribers on Apple Podcasts get early access to episodes, access to higher resolution audio and bonus content. With The Sound, this week you get an amazing 30 minute musical exploration of the show's score by the Attaca Quartet.


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This is the seventy-ninth edition of WHALE HUNTING, a newsletter delving into the secret worlds of money and power that we became obsessed with during our multi-year investigation into the globe-sprawling 1MDB scandal. That project changed our entire worldview. We wrote a book about it. We were long-time reporters for the Wall Street Journal before setting off on our own last year to create Project Brazen, a journalism studio and production company. We're creating books, podcasts and documentaries, and we'll share behind-the-scenes insights into the characters and stories we find along the way.

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Check out Project Brazen's other newsletters: GATEWAY, about the European drug explosion, and THE BRUSH PASS, delving into the shadows of the espionage world