Politics

Be Skeptical of That 60 Minutes Report on Havana Syndrome

Havana syndrome, an alleged malady that purportedly affects U.S. intelligence and military officials, is back in the news thanks to an investigative report by 60 Minutes. The report was accompanied by a big, splashy headline: “Russian nexus revealed during 60 Minutes Havana Syndrome investigation into potential attacks on U.S. officials.” That’s right: CBS has decided that the mysterious ailments—headaches, earaches, etc.—afflicting some American service personnel are perhaps explained by a secretive Russian program to create energy weapons.

The 60 Minutes report begins by interviewing “Carrie,” an FBI agent who claims that she was struck by just such an energy weapon while at home in Florida. Host Scott Pelley, providing narrative voiceover, explains that in order to protect her identity, CBS is redacting her full name and disguising her appearance.

This is Carrie.

(Screensjot via 60 Minutes)

As pointed out by numerous commentators (as well as BuzzFeed), Carrie’s “disguise” is hilariously inadequate and will not protect her identity in any meaningful way. What was 60 Minutes thinking?

But this is hardly the only thing wrong with the report, which combines breathless alarmism about foreign malfeasance with a healthy dose of outright science fiction—energy beams!—in order to advance the mainstream media’s favorite James Bond–esque narrative: Everything is Russia’s fault.

“The one thread common among most if not all of my clients,” Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents alleged Havana syndrome victims, told 60 Minutes, “is that they were all doing something relating to Russia.”

 

What Happens in Havana

Let’s back up. Havana syndrome was first reported by a CIA officer stationed in Havana, Cuba, who went to the U.S. embassy there to complain about headaches and hearing loss. Dozens more people reported similar symptoms, tied to a mysterious noise.

This noise was not produced by some kind of sonic weapon, however. It turned out to be crickets. Literal crickets.

And yet, this did not put Havana syndrome panic to rest, even though subsequent analysis by medical experts and U.S. intelligence suggests that the condition is not real. In 2022, the CIA concluded that the symptoms described by various officials were not caused by “a sustained global campaign by a hostile power.” The FBI’s analysis was that Havana syndrome is a “mass sociogenic illness,” which sounds pretty scary, but actually means that the symptoms are essentially caused by social contagion, under conditions of extreme stress, paranoia, and among members of an insular community. Writer Natalie Shure likened it to the “demonic fits” experienced by girls during the Salem witch trials.

“It means that the perceived diagnosis spreads socially, almost like an infectious pathogen would, with symptoms either triggered, exacerbated or wrongly ascribed to a phony cause,” she wrote in a November 2021 piece for Slow Boring. “People experience various maladies all the time and the cause is not always clear.”

According to Shure, the idea that a directed energy ray could produce the described symptoms without burning the victim’s skin or frying their internal organs should be met with intense skepticism.

“There’s no reason to believe the Russian government is responsible for ‘Havana Syndrome’ because there is absolutely no reason to believe that it’s a distinct, novel disease inflicted by an outside force of any kind,” she wrote.

 

Aches and Pains

Intelligence officials are capable of making mistakes, of course. (See: the Iraq War.) The scientific consensus often misses important facts. (See: COVID-19.) But the vast majority of experts who have looked into Havana syndrome concluded, fairly uniformly, that a hostile foreign power is not afflicting people with these symptoms—and we ought to treat this as a fairly robust baseline assumption. That does not mean the alleged victims are faking their symptoms, but just that the symptoms are incredibly common, and can be explained by any number of other things.

Given all this, I was surprised that the 60 Minutes report did not generate more immediate skepticism. National Review penned an editorial in response to the findings that chided President Joe Biden for not responding to this new, sinister Russian threat with enough force. The Wall Street Journal called the report “impressive.” USA Today speculated that perhaps the mystery of Havana syndrome’s origins had been effectively “solved.” (On the other hand, some voices on both the right and left were less impressed, including Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance and progressive writer Jeet Heer.)

One might have hoped that other media outlets—if not CBS News itself—would have probed the potential motivations of the people coming forward now. One of the key witnesses in the 60 Minutes report, former Pentagon investigator Greg Edgreen, has now started up a company that is seeking federal grant money to fund treatment programs for Havana syndrome (a fact the report concedes at the very end of the segment).

Then there’s the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act of 2021. (HAVANA ACT, get it?) This law instructs the federal government to compensate victims of Havana syndrome. As economists always point out, if you want more of something, subsidize it.

 

Worth Watching

Speaking of terrifying science fiction weapons…is anybody else watching Netflix’s 3 Body Problem? Reason‘s Peter Suderman has written a terrific review of the new series, which is adapted from the books by Liu Cixin. In 3 Body Problem, humanity makes contact with a distant alien species that proceeds to surveil earth on a massive scale, forcing our scientists to prepare for an eventual hostile encounter. Cixin’s books are explicitly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, and contain a depiction of a brutal struggle session; the Netflix adaptation begins with this scene.

“As with the opening sequence, the parallels with China’s totalitarian surveillance regime are clear: Chinese citizens are always being watched, always being spied upon, creating a climate of fear and distrust and paranoia, and repressing the sort of free back and forth that is necessary to both scientific progress and cultural cohesion,” writes Suderman. “Indeed, the aliens explicitly intend to slow or block scientific discovery. And a fractured and distrustful humanity that cannot negotiate its differences and disputes makes for an easier enemy to conquer.”

That said, the scene that I can’t stop thinking about is one that takes place midway through the season, in the episode called “Judgment Day.” If you’ve seen it, you know which one I’m talking about it. The good guys—are they the good guys?—unleash a terrifying new technology that eliminates a perceived threat; I won’t spoil it more than that, but suffice it to say that “Judgment Day” makes for one of the most gripping horror sequences I’ve ever watched, and reminiscent of the spectacular wildfire attack on the Great Sept of Baelor in Game of Thrones season six (not least of all because Jonathan Pryce is involved in both).

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