Concussion Without a Concussion, Truth Without Truth

In 2016 the New York Times published “United States of Paranoia”, an in-depth look into the world of gangstalking. The piece profiled Targeted Individuals — people who believe they’re being stalked by gangs of unknown assailants — and chronicled their struggles to gain recognition. The subjects ranged from a recording engineer who believed “operatives” were pursuing him around Manhattan to a mass-shooter who claimed the government had been “attacking his brain for the past three months with ‘extremely low frequency’ electromagnetic waves.

Four years later, the Times published a spiritual successor: “U.S. Diplomats and Spies Battle Trump Administration Over Suspected Attacks”. The article quoted government officials engaged in a struggle of their own: to get the Trump administration to believe they were victims of something known as Havana Syndrome. Mark Lenzi, an employee at the State Department, claimed he and his family had experienced intermittent headaches and issues sleeping; his neighbor, a Commerce Department official named Catherine Werner, echoed his claims of cognitive issues and added nausea and vomiting. Both stated their ailments were the result of microwave weapons (also known as directed-energy weapons, or ranged weapons that direct electromagnetic energy at a target).

It doesn’t stop there.

If you search the term gangstalking online in places like Reddit and Facebook you’ll find a wealth of resources for people to identify if they’re Targeted Individuals. Are you experiencing electronic harassment? Targeted Individual. Do you believe someone in poisoning you? Targeted Individual.

Oddly, the experiences of Targeted Individuals echo that of government officials like Catherine Werner. After returning from an assignment in Guangzhou, China, Werner reported to NBC News that both she and her mother had been the victims of a targeted harassment campaign while she was overseas. Werner claimed sounds of varying pitches caused both “pulsing pressure” throughout their bodies, and, stranger still, that someone had broken into her home to poison her two dogs.

It would seem gangstalking and Havana Syndrome, phenomena which manifest identical symptoms and interchangeable experiences, are somehow related — yet they’re not. Although they have flourished side by side online, they couldn’t be more different. If you look for articles about gangstalking, you’ll find journalists and academics warning of the dangers of conspiracy theories; but if you read reporting on Havana Syndrome, you’ll find many of these same people demanding the United States’ government act to prevent more attacks.

Who is telling the truth: Havana Syndrome victims, Targeted Individuals, or the media? Why do we believe the claims of some Americans, but not all? If Catherine Werner is a victim of Havana Syndrome, as she claims, isn’t she also a Targeted Individual? Maybe there’s more to this.

Havana Syndrome first zapped into the media hivemind in August 2017 when the Associated Press reported on alleged attacks targeting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba in the fall of 2016. The story, which ran in publications like the Washington Post — which later deleted and republished the story under a different byline despite suspiciously similar wording — offered little beyond speculation. It began:

“Two State Department officials said Wednesday that [Cuban diplomats] were asked to leave the U.S. on May 23 after Americans in Cuba ‘reported incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms,’ causing them to leave the island. The officials would not say what the symptoms were or provide details about the incidents. One official said the first incident occurred late last year and continued, prompting the Americans to depart the island and the department to act against the Cuban diplomats in the U.S. The officials said the Cubans left the U.S. but would not say when. Neither official was authorized to speak publicly to the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.”

The cloud of mystery surrounding the attacks began to lift when, in October, the Associated Press published what it alleged to be a recording of the source of the diplomats’ ailments: a sonic weapon. It claimed the attacks were a “high-pitched whine” that sounded “sort of like a mass of crickets” and mimicked a “nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.” Further reporting by other news outlets identified “at least 21 victims.” It seemed even doctors and medical researchers were backing up these accounts; in March of 2018, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that 21 of the then 24 test subjects had “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” A few months later, in December, a separate study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Miami and Pittsburgh provided new details, arguing that some of the victims had sustained inner-ear damage. Mystery solved? Not so fast.

Even though the second study confirmed the possibility of a sonic weapon, new reports began pointing to a different cause. In November, The New Yorker ran “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome,” a story which stated that investigators had “ruled out the possibility that the sounds themselves caused the injuries” and were considering microwave weapons. The following month, a lawyer for some of the victims confirmed this when he stated his belief that the attacks had come from a “microwave-based weapon.” It was again unclear what (or who) was responsible. In at least one instance news outlets couldn’t agree on a story for the same victim. CBS’s 60 Minutes devoted an episode to victims like Mark Lenzi in September 2019, where he talked about energy weapons in the “microwave range.” Three months later, CNN reported on an independent study conducted on Lenzi where it referred to the incidents as “sonic attacks.” (The organization that published the study, The Concussion Legacy Foundation, has since removed it from its site.)

Things only got weirder from there. In October 2020, GQ magazine profiled Marc Polymeropoulos, a senior CIA official, in an article titled “The Mystery of the Immaculate Concussion.” (It appears to be a prerequisite that stories on Havana Syndrome incorporate “mystery” somewhere in the head or subhead.) Polymeropoulos claimed that he experienced symptoms associated with Havana Syndrome while on assignment in Moscow in 2017, then again after returning to his home in Virginia. According to the author, Polymeropoulos believed the attacks were microwave-based and as evidence “pointed to reports of the KGB bathing the American embassy in Moscow in microwaves for decades during the Cold War.” Could it be the Russians attacking government officials? Although the government offered no conclusions on the source of the attacks, it did confirm the science behind the stories of Polymeropoulos and other Havana Syndrome victims when, in December, the National Academies of Sciences released a report summarizing its investigation. A key section pointed to directed-energy weapons: “Overall, directed pulsed RF energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered…”

Is Havana Syndrome caused by sonic attacks or radiofrequency energy? If you’re having trouble making sense of things, you’re not alone. Numerous committees, investigations, and reports have offered conflicting information, but this isn’t the government’s fault, says the government! The Pentagon and State Department have claimed any gaps in logic in the case are the result of mishandling by partisan actors or bureaucratic incompetence. Again, however, they can’t seem to decide who’s to blame. At the beginning of 2021, the State Department declassified a 2018 reportin which it found that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had failed to name a senior official to oversee an investigation into the events, resulting in what the agency termed errors. But in September officials at both the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department followed that with a round of firings and resignations connected to the case.

What does this say about Havana Syndrome, if anything at all? Only one thing is certain. Government officials are still claiming that they’re being stalked by unknown attackers, who follow them, break into their homes and apartments, and zap them with energy weapons. These unseen, unidentified forces pursue our leaders to the ends of the earth, to places like Vietnam, Vienna, and Serbia. They even pursue them in the White House. Do they deserve the benefit of the doubt? Maybe there really is something (or someone) out there.

• • •

History isn’t linear. Current events cast shadows back in time, and what once may have seemed insignificant yesterday can become like a ticking time bomb in the blink of a mind’s eye. Our modern fears are not new. They’re mass manifestations of the fever dreams of prophets, madmen, and liars a generation prior. What we call conspiracy theories today might, in fact, be warnings.

In 1962, Allan H. Frey published “Human auditory systems response to modulated electromagnetic energy” in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Frey’s research, dubbed both microwave hearing and the Frey Effect, appeared to suggest that radiofrequency transmissions could register sound in a target at distances of up to “several hundred feet.” While novel, the theory didn’t catch on beyond a small community of scientists. Alternate explanations for the auditory phenomena developed. But ideas have a way of becoming unstuck in time.

Among Targeted Individuals there is a specialized vocabulary that categorizes and names unseen evils. Gangstalking is the catch-all term created to identify the phenomenon of harassment itself and Targeted Individual the phrase used to name the community. The most pernicious of the words and phrases found in this glossary of grievances is electronic harassment. It describes the use of technologies, often experimental or military-grade, to covertly surveil and torture test subjects. These experiences can manifest in widely different forms, though most often occur as the use of directed-energy weapons for the purpose of harassment. Targeted Individuals will report attacks of pulsed-energy radiation or radiofrequency energy, and to justify these beliefs, they point to the Frey Effect.

It’s hard to know when terms like electronic harassment entered into the Targeted Individual lexicon or how they became aware of Frey’s research. Some of the earliest references to “electronic harassment” appear online in academic journals and legal writing on the subject of cyberstalking. A 1999 paper in the Journal of American Academic Psychiatric Law, titled “Stalking in Cyberspace,” used electronic harassment in its abstract, while universities incorporated the phrase into student handbooks in the mid-2000s to describe any kind of harassment using electronic devices like computers and cell phones. The very specific meaning found in the Targeted Individual community, attached to Frey’s research, appears to have grown out of this terminology during the same period and merged with growing fears of directed-energy weapons, as shown in a 2001 bill introduced by Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich banning the use of “space-based weapons” like psychotronic weapons (a phantasmagorical name for directed-energy weapons).

At the time, the media found a belief in directed-energy weapons amusing. A profile of Kucinich in Mother Jones, derisively titled “Little Big Man,” mocked the bill and his association with “cranial advisors.” Wired also took a swipe at him when he tried to reintroduce the bill in 2002. A 2007 Washington Post article, “Mind Games,” began by feigning surprise that Targeted Individuals don’t wear tinfoil hats, stating: “If Harland Girard is crazy, he doesn’t act the part.” And local news started running segments on Targeted Individuals between the stifled laughs of their reporters. It was almost as if the media didn’t believe directed-energy weapons were real!

As time passed, however, something strange happened. Soon, it wasn’t just Targeted Individuals claiming Frey’s research as their own. People identifying as MKULTRA test subjects were saying the Frey Effect could explain mind-control technologies. Then there were the anti-5G activists who insisted it offered an answer to their theories about cancerous cell phone frequencies. Did the media believe them? The narrative shifted from amusement to fear. Now, belief in this kind of technology was a dangerous conspiracy theory and anyone who believed in the Frey Effect a potential mass shooter.

But Havana Syndrome? From “The Mystery of the Immaculate Concussion”:

“In September 2018, a California physician and scientist named Beatrice Golomb published a paper that tried to link the suffering of American diplomats to directed microwaves. She connected what came to be known as the Frey effect — using microwaves to create the false sensation of sound — with the fact that some, but not all, of the diplomats in Havana reported hearing the kinds of noise described by Allan Frey. This would suggest that these symptoms were not the result of sonic attacks, as some had speculated. She also offered an insight that could explain [Marc] Polymeropoulos’s persistent migraines. ‘Brain injury may be a predisposing factor for…[microwave] injury,’ she wrote. That is, people like Polymeropoulos, who was frequently around explosions in his time in Middle Eastern war zones, may be especially vulnerable to brain injury from directed microwave weapons.”

Maybe, just maybe, the Frey Effect is real after all.

• • •

What is the truth? We’re told the truth is the facts underlying a claim, something you can verify through the scientific method or journalistic rigor — but what if that isn’t true? What if the truth is something slippery, less a constant state of being than a chaotic series of arbitrary judgments? What if what separates fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, consciousness from dream, is a few small strokes? The swipe of a pen, clicks on a keyboard. A name beneath a masthead. What if the truth is only ideas — beliefs, suspicions, and most especially fears — not yet made manifest on a mass scale?

Defining a concept of truth is important when discussing conspiracy theories; it establishes who is a conspiracy theorist and what it means when we say conspiracy theory. Journalists are rarely regarded as conspiracy theorists and the stories they tell seldom get labeled conspiracy theories. This happens, yes, but only in opposition to the profession as an institution. Fox News promotes conspiracy theories because it exists outside the traditions of the institution. It flaunts norms on partisanship and will run stories with a clear political agenda. By contrast, The New York Times is the institution. It sets the standard for how journalists divine truth and its style guide shapes how the public understands the truth. Outlets like the New York Times might misrepresent the truth, they might sometimes need to correct how they portray the truth, but they would never lie. Thus, the American media does not promote conspiracy theories.

Yet, Havana Syndrome presents a paradox. If someone is a victim of Havana Syndrome, are they not a Targeted Individual? Functionally, Havana Syndrome and gangstalking are the same thing — the victims identify the same experiences, point to the same weapons, and justify their beliefs using the same science. What separates the lived experience of one group from another? The American media. Havana Syndrome is a truth the media is trying to make manifest on a mass scale. But there’s only one problem. A conspiracy theory is standing in their way.

The first official report issued by the United States government, the December 2020 NAS paper, contradicted earlier private studies reporting evidence of inner-ear damage. The paper argued that only some respondents exhibited signs of Havana Syndrome — Canadian subjects “lacked the acute signs and symptoms” — and this came from self-report data and inconsistent or questionable testing practices. In spite of this, the report still argued for the possibility of radiofrequency energy. The media ran with the NAS study as evidence of the existence of Havana Syndrome. But what did the NAS actually know? Little, it seems. Scientists in the fields of neuroscience and bioengineering called out the conclusions of the report immediately. In one of the more notable examples, Andrei Pakhomov, a doctor studying biophysics and radiation biology at Old Dominion University, argued that physical evidence of microwave weapons would be impossible to certify. Speaking with Buzzfeed News, he stated, “There are many reports of biological effects from radio frequency fields, but there are no reliable ones.”

If you read between the lines, research conducted on Havana Syndrome victims offers evidence in opposition to the American media’s narrative. Take the presence of traumatic brain injuries. While researchers at the University of Pennsylvania stated that claims made by victims could be consistent with traumatic brain trauma, they found no evidence of impact and mused that it was as if this group had suffered a “concussion without a concussion.” And while the NAS report leaned towards “pulsed RF energy,” it also offered other possible explanations for the symptoms. What might those be? As the first wave of alleged attacks occurred in 2016, Cuba was in the midst of an outbreak of the Zika virus. Reports of flu-like symptoms grew until the United States pulled Embassy staff out of Cuba the following year. Per the NAS report:

“The committee could not rule out the possibility that some employees were infected by Zika, and that it contributed in some fashion together with other causative factors to the chronic clinical findings, especially during 2017. The committee is not aware of serological testing for Zika or any other infectious agents among DOS Embassy Havana affected personnel.”

Then, in 2019, Canadian French-language news program Enquete reported on a leaked study conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University, the Brain Repair Centre and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. The study looked at enzyme levels of Canadian Havana Syndrome victims, finding them to be remarkably similar to those of people exposed to pesticides; further testing detected the presence of neurotoxins associated with pesticides in test subjects’ blood. The findings align with a fumigation campaign undertaken by the Cuban government in 2016 and 2017 to combat the Zika virus. Again, from the NAS report:

“[D]ifferential exposure to insecticides amongst affected individuals may have contributed to the clinical heterogeneity of the acute symptoms noted in Havana cases, since OP and pyrethroid exposures are associated with a subset of these acute symptoms (see Appendix D). The committee also finds it plausible that subacute or chronic OP and/or pyrethroid exposures contributed to the nonspecific chronic symptoms observed in affected U.S. Embassy personnel.”

This isn’t the only time this may have occurred. In a number of cases reported by American media, officials and medical professionals confused the symptoms of Havana Syndrome with other ailments. In April 2021 Politico revealed that the Pentagon had looked into possible attacks on U.S. service members abroad. One of the cases occurred in Syria, where troops fell ill with “flu-like symptoms.” The article repeated claims made by anonymous “congressional officials” who accused Russia of the attack, but buried deep in the article was an unusual admission. Were the flu-like symptoms Havana Syndrome? Politico states:

“A former national security official told POLITICO that, in one instance, officials suspected that directed energy had injured a Marine in Syria; but a Pentagon investigation later concluded that the Marine’s symptoms were the result of food poisoning.”

The problem with Havana Syndrome is that no one, most of all the United States or its media, can define what it is. Sometimes it’s a loud noise, other times it’s a headache, and others still it’s the flu. But this is only if you believe the symptoms are real. According to two separate government agencies, Havana Syndrome might not exist at all. Both theFBI and State Department suppressed internal reports that found the cause of Havana Syndrome to be a mass psychogenic illness, or an illness that afflicts a group of people when there are no biological or environmental causes. Claims of symptoms coming out of Cuba and China were initially seen by the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services as stress-related. A follow-up report commissioned by the State Department and issued by its JASON advisory panel, a group composed of the country’s top scientists, confirmed this finding and argued for mass psychogenic illness. It even explained the sound heard by Embassy officials. A portion of the report reads:

“We believe the recorded sounds are mechanical or biological in origin, rather than electronic. The most likely source is the Indies short tailed cricket, Anurogryliscelerinictus. The call of this animal matches, in nuanced detail, the spectral properties of the recordings from Cuba once room echoes are taken into account. Other hypotheses are also plausible, such as generation by mechanical devices (e.g., a worn pump motor), of structure-borne vibrations.”

What does this tell us about Havana Syndrome — and what does that say about gangstalking? Outlets like The New York Times have reported on both but they’ve done so in different ways, repeating claims made by Havana Syndrome victims while stigmatizing Targeted Individuals as conspiracy theorists. How do you separate the two? The claims are identical, the beliefs identical, the science identical. The two groups are experiencing the same phenomenon. Is there something more going on here?

When we look to the media for answers, what we’re looking for is the truth, a complicated, sometimes uncomfortable, agreement on what is and is not real. We don’t expect reporters to test the limits of the trust we place in them, but every so often there are moments that reveal to us that this thing we’re looking for — the truth, a truth, any truth at all — might not exist, that it might only be any number of subjective choices made in service of someone else’s goals. If our media can lie to us about Havana Syndrome, does that mean it has also lied about gangstalking; or, if the truth we seek is dependent on a set of conditions external to basic facts, what is the truth? Does the truth exist? There is no truth.

So, maybe Havana Syndrome is real, and maybe gangstalking will be one day, too. Maybe fact has become indistinguishable from fiction, or maybe there was never anything separating the two to begin with. Maybe some ideas are only forbidden knowledge that has yet to pass through the gatekeepers of public opinion. Maybe conspiracy theories exist in a liminal state between our fever dreams and a journalist’s byline.

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