Possible New Cases Of The Havana Syndrome Are Reported In Vienna
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
The Biden administration says it is, quote, "vigorously investigating" the latest reports of a mysterious illness affecting dozens of American diplomats, family members and operatives overseas. It's been called Havana Syndrome after the place where cases were first reported, followed by others in Moscow, London and the Washington, D.C. area. And now apparently, it's in Vienna, Austria.
Adam Entous of The New Yorker was the first to report on the new health complaints in Vienna. And I asked him, what's been happening there?
ADAM ENTOUS: We don't know all that much about the individual cases. We know that they started to be reported to, you know, the CIA and the State Department higher-ups here in the Washington area around two months into the Biden administration. And it comes in a trickle. There's the first reported case, about two months after the inauguration of Joe Biden. And then it's kind of slowly building from there, up to about two dozen reported instances, which is the largest number reported in any city outside of Havana, which first reported some of these cases back in late 2016 and in 2017.
MARTÍNEZ: All right - so beginning of spring. What kind of symptoms are we talking about?
ENTOUS: You know, the symptoms vary widely depending on the patient. In the past, the patients have said that they had issues with balance, issues with vertigo, in some cases, problems with their eyes and their vision, what they describe as brain fog and cognitive problems. In some cases, they're very severe. And in other cases, they're less severe.
A very good example that I was told - this is not in Vienna but in another Asian capital. A U.S. military officer was driving his vehicle outside the embassy. And he's got his son in the back seat of his car in a car seat. And he pulls into an intersection. And suddenly he feels a pressure, intense pressure in his head and hears a ringing sound in his ears. And at the same time, his son in the back starts screaming at the top of his lungs. He's a military officer. He's - used to be in combat. He guns it and pulls out of the intersection. And immediately the pressure subsides, and his son stops screaming.
That's similar to what was described by several of the patients in Havana. They describe kind of this directional quality to this, where it feels like, in some cases, they're standing in an invisible beam of energy. In other cases, they're in their homes. They're with a partner. Their partner feels nothing and hears nothing. They feel it. And when they duck behind, you know, a cement barrier or a wall or a beam in their home, suddenly they don't feel it anymore. And then when they come out from that location, they feel it again. So that's what's unique about this. Otherwise, the symptoms can be, in some cases, very common type illnesses.
MARTÍNEZ: You describe Vienna as long being a den of spies. How so?
ENTOUS: So Austria has long been an epicenter for espionage activities - and diplomacy. There are large embassies of all the countries. And obviously there are officials that staff those embassies. And spy agencies from pretty much everywhere viewed Vienna as an excellent place to try to meet those officials and try to convince them to provide them with information. It's also a very livable city and a safe city. In the Austrian domestic services - had a tradition of turning a blind eye to intelligence operations on Austrian soil, unlike many other countries in Europe. You couldn't do this in France, for example.
MARTÍNEZ: Sounds like as long as you're not doing anything to hurt Austria, you're kind of just left alone. So it sounds like they wouldn't be helpful to any government that complains of something being done to their operatives.
ENTOUS: Yeah. It's one of those places where you can really operate without being too concerned, what happens if you get caught? You know, I've talked to former CIA officers. They would often stash their, you know, fake passports in Vienna. And they would swing through and pick up their fake passports and go on to their next assignment, right?
It's the kind of place where you would set up a meeting with somebody because - cafe society. You go and you meet with them in the cafes. And then you can just sort of disappear after that. So that's the nature of Vienna. That's always been the case. So the idea that this might happen there and hit the CIA particularly hard at that embassy is a big change from what has been the status quo of operating in Vienna.
MARTÍNEZ: Then what's the latest thinking on who might be behind this?
ENTOUS: So the officials I spoke to have been basically saying the same thing since 2017, which is that they don't have any intelligence that supports their hypothesis, but their hypothesis also hasn't changed, which is, they believe it's the Russians. And they believe increasingly that it's the Russians using some sort of microwave pulse radiation device that's somehow been miniaturized and is very portable and is not easily detected. And despite all the searching that they've done, they really have not advanced the ball in terms of finding the device or catching culprits in the act and things like that.
MARTÍNEZ: Do they have any idea why - as maybe a form of retaliation or just because they want to?
ENTOUS: Well, I mean, there's always been, you know, this, you know, tit-for-tat game that's played and sometimes referred to as Moscow rules, where generally our spies don't hurt their spies, and their spies don't hurt our spies. And yet there's always this kind of tradition of harassment that goes on. So a diplomat or a spy who's living in a country like Havana or, you know, in Moscow, for example, might come home and notice that there have been small changes in their house. There might be - something is moved. They might find cigarette butts, you know, in an ashtray that they know they didn't leave there. And those are left on purpose in order to say to the CIA officer or the diplomat, we know what you're up to and, you know, you better stay in line, you know?
And that's sort of the - that's the way the game has always been played. But the Russians, you know, tend to push the envelope when they feel it's in their interest and they feel they can get away with it. If this is what U.S. officials actually think it is, it may be a manifestation of that, kind of a step further than has been taken in the past - to physically harm CIA officers and diplomats in ways that are very ambiguous and deniable and so therefore very difficult for the U.S. to point the finger at anyone. And if you can't point the finger at anyone, you really can't do anything about it.
MARTÍNEZ: That's Adam Entous, staff writer for The New Yorker. Adam, thanks a lot.
ENTOUS: My pleasure - thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "TIRED AND AWAKE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.