Several years before the reports of the mysterious Havana Syndrome started surfacing among intelligence officers, diplomats, and others, the United States was investigating whether microwaves had been beamed at an embassy and were causing illness, the National Security Agency confirmed in a letter back in 2014.
The letter was sent after NSA colleagues Michael Beck and Chuck Gubete traveled to a "hostile country," whose name has not been disclosed, in 1996 on a brief assignment and ended up falling ill, reports NPR.
The men said they knew they were being watched when they were allowed to enter the country after being detained at the airport for an hour.
Beck said they were a few days into their assignment when he started becoming ill.
"It was extreme fatigue and weakness," he recalled. "I was a bowl of jelly and couldn't get moving," said Beck.
Ten years later, at the age of 46, Beck was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease, as was Gubete, who died several years later. Gubete's family had a history of the disease, but Beck's did not.
Beck filed a worker's compensation claim with the NSA after he came to believe his illness had been caused during the trip, and in 2014, the NSA sent him the letter confirming the microwave attack.
"The National Security Agency confirms there is intelligence information from 2012 associating the hostile country to which Mr. Beck traveled in the late 1990s with a high powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate or kill an enemy over time and without leaving evidence," the NSA said in its letter. "This weapon is designed to target the living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system."
Beck is now 61 years old and trying to prove his claim, and his attorney, Mark Zaid pointed out to NPR that the NSA's letter came in 2014, two years before the first Havana Syndrome cases were reported after diplomats and intelligence officers were sickened while in Havana, Cuba.
Now, there are more than 200 cases of people in several different countries describing symptoms including high-pitched sounds, steady "pulses of energy" in the head, pain, nausea, dizziness, and memory loss.
The U.S. government has documented Russia's intelligence services as being particularly aggressive.
"They would use whatever means possible to collect [intelligence] against us," said retired CIA officer John Sipher, who served in Moscow during the 1990s and led the spy agency's Russia operations at CIA headquarters in the 2000s.
"I've stayed in touch with a lot of folks, and it is a general view that the Russians have probably taken actions that have impacted the health of American diplomats and intelligence officers," he told NPR, although he admitted his information is anecdotal and not scientific.
Meanwhile, other memos from the State Department, the CIA, and presidential advisers referred to the use of microwave signals to target embassies.
"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," Jack Matlock, the Moscow embassy's no. 2 official at the time, wrote in a 1978 memo.
Such memos, though, seemed more concerned with the Soviets using the signals to seek intelligence, NPR notes.
Dr. James Giordano, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University who is investigating the initial cases from Havana for the State Department, said the illnesses weren't caused by accidents.
Last December, the National Academies of Sciences compiled a report that also backs up the microwave theory.
"The mechanism that we found most plausible was a form of microwave radiation that occurs in a pulsed or intermittent form," David Relman, a Stanford professor and study leader, told NPR. "We believe, although we can't show with direct evidence, that this [microwave] phenomenon could account for at least some of the clinical features."
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