October 24, 2021

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US officials in Berlin struck by ‘Havana syndrome’ symptoms

US foreign policy updates

Two US officials working in Germany have sought medical treatment after complaining of symptoms similar to those related to the so-called Havana syndrome, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The syndrome is named after the Cuban capital, where employees of the CIA and US state department first complained of unusual sound and pressure sensations in their heads in 2016 and 2017. The symptoms have since been observed among government workers in China, Russia and, more recently, Austria.

The US has not said publicly who it believes is behind the incidents, which appear to involve “directed” attacks using radiofrequency energy such as microwave radiation. But privately, officials suspect Russia is responsible.

The matter could be addressed during German chancellor Angela Merkel’s talks in Moscow with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday, which are expected to touch on the turmoil in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover and the situation in eastern Ukraine.

Two people briefed by US intelligence officials told the Financial Times in June that Moscow might be “pulsing” radiofrequency energy to steal data from computers and phones, which ended up harming people in the vicinity. The Russian authorities have denied any involvement.

The syndrome, officially referred to as “anomalous” or “unexplained health incidents”, involves a set of symptoms that include nausea, severe headaches, ear pain and insomnia.

Ned Price, spokesman for the US state department, declined to comment on a report in the Wall Street Journal that Havana syndrome had now surfaced in Berlin.

But he said the health incidents were a priority for US secretary of state Antony Blinken. The state department set up a Health Incident Response Task Force in 2018 to provide care for affected employees and their families, protect against such incidents and try to establish the cause. In March, Blinken appointed Pamela Spratlen, a career diplomat with nearly 30 years of experience in the US foreign service, as senior adviser to the task force.

One of the worst affected places is Vienna, home to Opec and the International Atomic Energy Agency, where about two dozen US intelligence officers, diplomats and other government officials have reported symptoms related to Havana syndrome, the New Yorker reported last month.

The WSJ report described the case of one patient who was recently transferred from a posting in a European capital to be treated at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the US state of Maryland.

The person said doctors there had diagnosed a brain injury of the type seen in people exposed to shockwaves from explosions. The symptoms had been preceded by piercing ear pain, high-pitched electronic noise and pressure in the ears. These occurred while the person was at home at night or early in the morning in March.

The WSJ quoted the person as saying it was “striking” that the people affected by the syndrome “had worked on Russia-related issues”.

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