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Opinion | The Mystery of ‘Havana Syndrome’

Psychosomatic reactions can be very real and just as debilitating as an illness with a traditional medical explanation. There is nothing shameful about it. Though my eye stopped twitching after that initial episode, I never became accustomed in my years in the Soviet Union to being tailed or assuming that everything I said was being recorded somewhere. I’d know it was time to take a break when I would start doing foolish things like trying to lose the tan Zhiguli (the old Soviet sedan) with the MW3692 plate number through reckless maneuvers. And I remember the tension lifting as my flight took off from Sheremetyevo Airport.

The 200 or so U.S. officials who have reported neurological symptoms do deserve every effort by the government to get to the bottom of their problem. The trouble is that Havana syndrome has become so deeply enmeshed in the contentious politics of our time that agreement on an objective cause may prove all but impossible.

Despite the absence of any conclusive evidence about what causes it, or any reason it would appear in locations as diverse as India, Colombia, Vietnam, Austria, China, Serbia and Russia, or even a concrete number of officials afflicted, powerful lobbies have concluded that the symptoms are the work of a hostile power, and that this points to Russia. (For the record, Russia and Cuba both deny any role.)

A top State Department official brought back from retirement to coordinate a response to the illness was released after only six months, presumably in part because she would not rule out a mass psychogenic illness. The C.I.A. station chief in Vienna, a hotbed of espionage, was removed in September, purportedly because he did not take the incidents seriously enough.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer who says he was hit by Havana syndrome in Moscow in 2017, wrote on Twitter that failing to rule out “mass hysteria” as a cause was “insulting to victims and automatically disqualifying” for someone to lead the investigation.

In September, Congress unanimously passed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, which will provide financial support to sufferers of the neurological symptoms. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is a son of Cuban exiles and was one of the authors of the bill, dismissed some of those skeptical of the theory that the symptoms were caused by directed-energy attacks as “influence agents” who were paid or encouraged by “foreign government or whatever, that don’t want this to be discussed out there and want to cast doubt about it.”

The skeptics, however, include many serious scientists, such as Cheryl Royfer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who wrote in Foreign Policy that no proponent of the directed-energy theory has outlined how such a weapon would work and that any nation has developed one. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” she wrote, “and no evidence has been offered to support the existence of this mystery weapon.”

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