Havana Syndrome Is Fake. But Mainstream Media Couldn’t Get Enough of It for Years.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that Havana syndrome isn’t real. No surprise. But that determination comes long after mainstream media credulously and repeatedly reported on and repeated intelligence officers’ absurd claims.

A car drives past the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba on March 2, 2022. (Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images)

There was a minor bit of good news in the midst of a chaotic world this week. We can finally stop pretending “Havana syndrome” is real, because US intelligence has just more or less admitted it isn’t.

After a yearslong review of the “anomalous health incidents” suffered by spies and diplomats in Cuba from 2016 on, the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) revealed this week that no, the mysterious ailments almost certainly weren’t the work of some nefarious foreign power blasting microwave beams, supervillain-like, at the Americans working in embassies and other US government offices around the world. While the agencies acknowledge “that US personnel sincerely and honestly reported their experiences, including those that were painful or traumatic,” they concluded that the microwave-weapon theory that prevailed in the Washington establishment was “not borne out by subsequent medical and technical analysis,” and that they “identified medical, environmental, and social factors that plausibly can explain” the symptoms.

In other words, what “Havana syndrome” sufferers experienced was very real, but only in the sense that a placebo is also real medicine. And there’s a good chance that the arcane energy weapon they imagined as the cause of their suffering really was just the literal sound of crickets.

To get more specific about the intelligence assessment, five of the agencies involved concluded that it was “very unlikely” a foreign adversary was responsible, with two of them having “moderate-to-high confidence” and three holding “moderate confidence” in that conclusion. Two agencies deem it “unlikely,” albeit with “low confidence.” The actual investigation, as outlined by the DNI, was fairly thorough, involving hundreds of interviews with sufferers, forensic analysis of electronics, a review of dozens of recordings meant to have captured the offending phenomena, and hundreds more site surveys, to name just a sampling.

‘Havana syndrome’ wasn’t just a harmless bit of national security paranoia. It played a role in a concerted campaign to lay the groundwork for regime change in Cuba.

Many might find all this ridiculous. But there are real stakes involved.

“Havana syndrome” wasn’t just a harmless bit of national security paranoia, the likes of which seem to be more and more common these days. It played a role in a concerted campaign begun by the Donald Trump administration to lay the groundwork for regime change in Cuba, whose government’s overthrow has long been an obsession among the US right in particular.

It’s not a coincidence that Trump began his policy of “maximum pressure” on Cuba in 2017 a mere two months before the claims of “Havana syndrome” started appearing in the US press, which for years afterward flatly and uncritically presented the fantastical claims as fact (“US Diplomats in Cuba Were Injured by a ‘Sonic Weapon,’” read one Time magazine headline).

Notably, the supposed foreign culprit behind the alleged attacks was constantly cycling through the rogues’ gallery of Washington’s villains of the week, from Cuba, initially, to Russia, then China. The most surprising thing is that Iran didn’t at any point end up in the rotation.

You’ll hear nary a peep about the establishment press’s role in drumming up hysteria around this subject, though. As I wrote two years ago, when we first learned that the state department had quietly concluded the “attacks” were most likely a combination of crickets and psychological issues, here the misinformation came from mainstream outlets, where it reached and was trusted by far more people than a Substack post, YouTube video, or Facebook ad — all with the aim of stoking conflict with a foreign government.

Will the press learn anything from this episode? Because this is only one instance of the media lending authority to unsubstantiated and ultimately debunked claims made by those in power that are meant to ratchet up hostilities with another country, even potentially lay the groundwork for war.

The “Russiagate” fiasco — which charged that Trump was literally being blackmailed or otherwise controlled by Vladimir Putin, resulting in an aggressive overcorrection by the former president — was the most high-profile and ignominious of these, but there have been many other such absurd claims:

that the Kremlin was paying the Taliban bounties to kill US soldiers
that Iran was planning to kill the US ambassador to South Africa
that Iran had recently sentenced fifteen thousand protesters to death
that Russia was planning to use chemical weapons in Ukraine
that Russia blew up the Nord Stream pipelines
that Russia had fired a missile into Poland, killing two people
that China had deliberately flown a spy balloon over the continental United States, and that three more airborne objects shot down by US fighter jets were also Chinese spy balloons (a week later, US officials admitted the first flight was probably accidental, and that the later objects weren’t spy balloons or Chinese in origin)

This list isn’t remotely exhaustive.

The use of US intelligence in this way has enjoyed a rehabilitation ever since US and British officials’ monthslong predictions of a Russian invasion eventually came to pass in late February 2022. Maybe we really could take officials at their word when they assured the public that something was the case, the thinking went, even if they never did present the evidence for the public to make their minds up for themselves.

But this reasoning was missing several key points. First, that “senior current former US intelligence officials” had later told journalist James Risen that the public had an incomplete picture of that very intelligence, and that the CIA had concluded Putin hadn’t decided to invade at the same time officials were saying war was imminent; that the decision only came in February, suggesting that the Biden administration’s rebuffing of negotiations had been a deciding factor in that decision; and that US officials admitted a few months later that they were routinely feeding the press “low-confidence intelligence” and simply “things that are possible rather than likely.”

This is worth keeping in mind as the Biden administration prepares to sanction China over what it claims is intelligence that the Chinese government plans to deliver arms to Russia. Maybe this intelligence is real and solid; maybe, like all of these other examples, it isn’t. But given that sanctions on China, like those on Russia, would deal a serious economic blow to working people not just in the United States but all over the world (Trump’s tariffs on China alone cost a quarter of a million US jobs), not to mention how it needlessly ratchets up tensions with another country and brings us closer to war, the press has a duty to treat these and future assertions with the same skepticism and caution that they quite rightly apply to governments like Russia’s or China’s. The stakes are too high not to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *