Long before Havana Syndrome, the U.S. reported microwaves beamed at an embassy In the 1970s and '80s, U.S. officials routinely referred to the Soviet use of microwave radiation against the American Embassy in Moscow. The Soviets were believed to be seeking intelligence.

Long before Havana Syndrome, the U.S. reported microwaves beamed at an embassy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1047342593/1047891664" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. government wants to know why some U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers are getting sick. It's called Havana syndrome, after the illnesses turned up in Havana starting about five years ago. Many say they've suffered debilitating migraines, dizziness and memory loss. Some history may be relevant here. Years before the first Havana cases were reported, the U.S. government documented microwave radiation being directed at a U.S. Embassy and at officials abroad.

NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre has the backstory.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In 1996, Mike Beck and a colleague at the National Security Agency were sent to a hostile country on a brief assignment. He knew he was being watched. And he woke up one morning feeling terrible.

MIKE BECK: It was extreme fatigue and weakness. I was a bowl of jelly. I couldn't get moving.

MYRE: He was suspicious. But the symptoms went away. A decade later, Beck was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease at age 46. At almost the same time, his colleague from that trip received the very same diagnosis and would die several years later. Beck filed a workman's compensation claim with the NSA, which sent him a letter in 2014. Here's Beck reading from it.

BECK: (Reading) The National Security Agency confirms that there is intelligence information associating the hostile country to which Mr. Beck traveled with a high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time.

MYRE: The letter went on to say...

BECK: (Reading) This weapon is designed to target living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.

MYRE: Beck's claim is still pending. And it may be extremely difficult to prove cause and effect in his case. But as Beck's lawyer Mark Zaid notes, the NSA letter was written in 2014, two years before the first Havana syndrome case was reported.

MARK ZAID: Here we have an unclassified document from a U.S. intelligence agency admitting it knows of this before Havana.

MYRE: The country Beck traveled to remains classified. But the U.S. government has documented one country and its intelligence services going to extraordinary lengths to target the U.S. Embassy and American personnel.

JOHN SIPHER: The Russian services are very aggressive. They would use whatever means possible to collect against us.

MYRE: John Sipher is a retired CIA officer. He served in Moscow in the 1990s and later led the spy agency's Russia operations at CIA headquarters.

SIPHER: I've stayed in touch with a lot of folks. It is a general view that the Russians have probably taken actions that have impacted the health of American diplomats and intelligence officers.

MYRE: Sipher acknowledges his information is anecdotal, not scientific. He points to former colleagues who came down with cancer at relatively young ages. What has been firmly established is Moscow's long history of surveilling the U.S. Embassy.

SIPHER: They were putting listening devices in our Embassy and our homes.

MYRE: Like the intricate hand-carved wooden seal of the United States that Soviet schoolchildren presented as a gift to the U.S. ambassador in 1945 - that seal contained a listening device that eavesdropped on countless conversations of American ambassadors before it was uncovered.

SIPHER: They would get a hold of typewriters.

MYRE: In the 1970s and '80s, the Soviets intercepted IBM electric typewriters in transit from the U.S. to the Embassy. The Soviets installed monitoring devices that picked up every keystroke that was typed for years. And one of the longest-running operations, dating to the 1960s and lasting decades, was beaming microwave radiation at the Embassy. Memos from the CIA, the State Department and presidential advisers routinely refer to this practice. Here's a reading of a 1978 memo by Jack Matlock, then the Embassy's No. 2 official.

(Reading) This would seem an appropriate opportunity to reiterate at a high level our standing demand that microwave signals directed at Embassy be shut off forthwith.

The Soviets were presumably trying to gather intelligence. Health concerns were mentioned mostly in passing in these memos. In contrast, the Havana syndrome cases, first reported in 2016, have been very public. U.S. officials say they fell ill immediately - including migraines, dizziness and nausea. Cases have since been reported in multiple countries, including Russia, Germany, Austria, China and Colombia.

Dr. James Giordano is a professor of neurology at Georgetown University. He was asked by the State Department to look at the initial cases from Havana.

JAMES GIORDANO: It wasn't just accidental. Clearly, these individuals were getting hit with something, which would have put them, quote, in the line of fire.

MYRE: As more cases emerge, he says, he's seeing strong similarities.

GIORDANO: I think what's important to understand is what we're seeing is something - and this is an important term - is a constellation of effects, which is a generalized pattern of effects. If you were going to categorize them, they fall very squarely and, I would say, rather neatly within that definable set of characteristics.

MYRE: At the request of the State Department, the National Academies of Sciences compiled a report last December. David Relman, the Stanford professor who led the study, recently spoke to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID RELMAN: The mechanism that we found most plausible was a form of microwave radiation that occurs in a pulsed or intermittent form.

MYRE: He stresses the report is not definitive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RELMAN: We believe, although we can't show with direct evidence, that this phenomenon could account for at least some of the clinical features.

MYRE: The Biden administration is making a push on multiple fronts. The CIA has ramped up its investigation. The Senate Intelligence Committee is getting regular briefings. President Biden just signed a law providing compensation for those injured. When the cases emerged five years ago, John Sipher and his former CIA colleagues immediately suspected Russia.

SIPHER: The Russians have never hesitated to use technology that could hurt our health. But there was always a reason. It was always part of a process to break into our computers or to turn on listening devices. When this first happened, I thought, this must be some technology that has gone wrong.

MYRE: Now he's questioning that assumption.

SIPHER: It is hurting people, and it is hurting their families and their children. But it's continuing to happen. The Russians - if it is the Russians - would have to be pretty bold to continue to do so when they now realize that they're harming the health of Americans.

MYRE: Of course, if the U.S. government decides it has enough evidence to attribute Havana syndrome to a specific cause and a specific country, that immediately raises an explosive question - how will the U.S. respond?

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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.