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Unpacking the 'Havana Syndrome' with Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with award-winning journalists Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous about what they've uncovered about the mysterious Havana Syndrome.

Starting in 2016, U.S. diplomats and spies began reporting a wide range of mysterious and debilitating medical symptoms, first in Cuba and then around the world. Doctors who initially treated patients couldn’t come up with a diagnosis and some just called it “The Thing.” Patients said they felt like they were hit by an invisible, directed pressure while stationed on government property, or sometimes standing in their own homes or hotel rooms. The intense health effects, which some have referred to as potentially psychogenic, included high pitched ringing in ears, vertigo, memory loss and brain zaps. The set of medical conditions became known as Havana Syndrome. Why has investigating this been so difficult? Who or what force could be behind all of this? Although the C.I.A. has maintained that it’s unlikely that the cases were caused by foreign adversaries, many questions and doubts remain about the agency’s findings. Award-winning journalists Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous explore some of these questions in a new Vice World News 8-part podcast aptly titled “Havana Syndrome.” Anderson and Entous join WITHpod to discuss the events leading up to the first reported Havana Syndrome cases, the global blame game that followed, what technology could be the culprit and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Jon Lee Anderson: The timing for me was everything. I mean, there seemed to be no coincidence in the timing. I mean, I'm bad at math, but 2 plus 2 has always been 4. So Trump wins, Fidel dies, and three weeks later, CIA agents at the embassy start getting zapped.

Adam Entous: Bottom line is some mysteries are really, really hard, just like Havana syndrome has proved to be very hard.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me your host, Chris Hayes.

You know, in the course of my work, there's sort of different buckets of stories. So there's stuff that I have covered for a long time and know really well, you know, the back and forth on politics or domestic policy, or the attempt to repeal Obamacare, right? I covered the ACA being passed and I know a lot about it. I've talked to a lot of people and reported on it. And then when they tried to repeal it, I know a lot about that. That’s been an area that I have some kind of built expertise.

And then there's like an enormous, much larger category of things that I don't know that much about. But, you know, they surface in the news and we do our best to find people who do know about the balloons, for instance, the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the country. And you know, COVID is a great example, right? When it began, like, I don't have a background in epidemiology or public health, but it was clear to me that it was going to be the most important story and immersed myself in talking to people and texting with people and reading people, and trying to get up speed, and try to get a handle on it. So that's a process that I have to do a lot of.

And then there's sometimes these things where I just can't figure out what is the deal with it, and what I mean by that is phenomena or stories where you have credible, trustworthy, rigorous people saying completely contradictory things about a phenomenon. And the truth of, like, what is the actual explanation for this phenomena seems just impossibly conflicted and opaque. And a great example of that story to me was what has come to be known as Havana syndrome.

So I've been hosting this show for 10 years. And over the course, the last several years, we started to hear reports in various outlets and these were credible reports from real people, sometimes named folks coming forward, that U.S. both diplomats, and in some cases, spies, you know, members of the intelligence services, first in Havana, and then other places around the world, were experiencing this sort of cluster of symptoms that were both debilitating and somewhat mysterious, right?

So this feeling of having kind of like a brain zap, or maybe some noise that sounded like a high-pitched crickets or something in the background, but then had a kind of, you know, ongoing effect. It didn't just happen in one moment, people then getting a whole variety of debilitating symptoms.

And this is something that will sometimes happen, you know, if you've ever immersed yourself in the literature of Lyme disease, for instance. There's an entire universe of folks with really debilitating symptoms and a real kind of very vigorous. And there's sometimes really nasty debate within the folks who have these symptoms and the medical community about what's, quote, unquote, real and what's not, what's psychosomatic and what's not, what the cause of it is.

Isn't that there are people in the case of Lyme disease and long-term Lyme sufferers who have a kind of psychosomatic, psychological problem that they have projected onto a physical illness? Or do they have a real medical problem that the current science is just not able to find and are being told, like, you know, people with certain maladies in the 19th century, like, oh, it's just all in your head, right?

So this kind of back and forth started to present itself around the cluster of folks and symptoms, and people who are saying they were suffering from this thing that became to be known as Havana syndrome. And then it got kind of caught in a sort of cultural and news updraft, and all of a sudden, there were hearings on Capitol Hill. There was concern about it. There was the theorization that a new weapon had been produced by some U.S. adversary, whether Cuba or Russia or China or was being shared, that was able to, from long distances essentially, like, focus some kind of directed energy of pulse to people's heads, or having like neurological impacts.

And there was a bill that was passed to address this. There was money that was dispersed. And throughout this whole thing, I literally never knew what the heck I was looking at. Like, what is the story? Is this a social contagion and a form of mass hysteria, where a bunch of people are sort of around each other and are taking relatively common symptoms and projecting their causality towards some exterior force, the way that some people might, in a previous era, talk about demonic possession, right?

Their symptoms are manifesting. There's no explanation. The ideological and belief system they're immersed in, tells them it's demonic possession, and so they call it demonic possession. Is this an example of like that? Or is that a horribly condescending thing to say to people that are suffering from what is maybe like an actual acute neurological attack by some foreign adversary in the course of their public service, where they've signed up to go represent the U.S. government and are being targeted and physically abused and harmed by some mysterious weapon, which seems awful, and something should be done about it.

And honestly, between those two, you could convince me from Monday to Tuesday of either of those. One day, I would be, like, this is just a complete example of social contagion, mass hysteria. And then I would read another account and I’d be, like, no, there's something there. Something is happening. Someone is doing something to these people.

And as I speak to you now, you know, in February 2023, I still don't know, which is why I was really excited to see that two fantastic journalists, who are incredible reporters, both award-winning journalists that I've been reading forever, Jon Lee Anderson, staffer at The New Yorker, Adam Entous, who's investigative reporter in New York Times, were doing a podcast on precisely this topic, like a literal what is the deal with Havana syndrome? What is it?

They have published that podcast, which is out now. I would really recommend it. It's from VICE. It's aptly titled Havana syndrome. And I am really, really excited to talk to Jon and Adam now. Great to have you on the program.

Adam Entous: Yeah. It's great to be here.

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah, great to be here, Chris. Thanks for having us on.

Chris Hayes: Let me start with you about your way in, Adam. I think you were the sort of initial person who first started sniffing around this. How did you get into this story?

Adam Entous: Well, you know, I cover intelligence, right? So I cover mainly the CIA. And so there were rumors that a bunch of CIA officers down there had gotten sick, and so that was the thing that sort of piqued my interest. Of course, what happens to the state when it comes out, they're all described at the State Department like they’re diplomats. But people were telling me, you know, the most serious cases, the initial cases were CIA officers.

So as somebody who covers the CIA, you know, this was obviously in my area. It's something I wanted to see what I could find out about. So, you know, I started looking into it. But, frankly, you know, I know the CIA pretty well. But I really don't know very much about Havana or about Cuba. And so, you know, I know almost nothing about it. So when I talked to the editor, at the time, I was working at The New Yorker, David Remnick, he recommended that I talk to Jon Lee Anderson because he knew Cuba.

And so the idea was that we were going to kind of put our heads together for the magazine on a piece in 2019 to see what we can dig up on this and figure out exactly the question that you're asking, you know, is it real or is it not?

Chris Hayes: I'm going to ask you a follow-up and then go to you, Jon, to set a little bit of the context of Cuba at the time and the sort of rapprochement that happened under the Obama years later. But just to follow up, Adam, this is the key thing, I think, to understand. When you talk about folks at CIA who were under diplomatic cover, just explain a little bit about how that works and about the sort of bifurcated nature of an American embassy --

Adam Entous: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- particularly in sort of relatively hostile terrain.

Adam Entous: Right. So you know, there are embassies all around the world. At every embassy, there are certain slots that look like they’re State Department people. But, in fact, they're CIA people, operating under diplomatic cover. It depends on the country, right? If you're in the U.K., for example, there's less concern about disguising from our partner, who the CIA officers are. But in a place like Havana, in a place like China, or even in places like Israel, for example, where there is a counterintelligence issues there, we really are supposed to be very diligent about disguising who our CIA officers are.

In Havana, interestingly, I didn't know this when I started this, the station chief, the top CIA representative is actually declared. The Cubans know who that individual is. But the individuals under the station chief are operating under diplomatic cover. And their billets, their slots are supposed to be adjusted on a regular basis to try to throw off the adversary so that the country doesn't know who's the CIA officer. But in the case of Havana, it had sort of been this kind of backwater within the CIA for a long time, and they didn't bother to change who is under the billets. So you had CIA officer taking over for CIA officer in the same State Department job.

Chris Hayes: Like a chain of custody where you could track. It's like, oh, well, that guy left and this person came in. That's just the new CIA person.

Adam Entous: Yeah. So there was sort of laxed operational security because it had been sort of a backwater. It wasn't like one of those places like in China or in Russia where, you know, we're really high priority, out there trying to collect information. In Cuba, it's sort of a backwater for the CIA, wasn't a high priority since the end of the Cold War, pretty much. And so, we were sort of sitting back, kicking our feet up. That was sort of the environment that these CIA guys were operating in.

Chris Hayes: And just to be clear, this is not just the U.S. who does this. Like, basically everyone does this, right? So China has people under diplomatic cover here, that are actually operating intelligence services. I just want to be clear, that's like a standard part of spycraft.

So, Jon, let me get back to you. So you lived in Cuba. You've reported on Cuba for many years. You wrote an award-winning biography on Che Guevara, who, of course, was Argentine, but a key figure in the Cuban Revolution. What's the context right before this syndrome starts to arise, when people start having this, of U.S. operations in Cuba, in the Obama years, when Obama finally basically lifts the, you know, multi-decade embargo and moves towards something that looks like normalization?

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah. So in December 2014, Obama's second term, he came on television to announce that after a year and a half of secret negotiations, the U.S. government and the Cuban government were restoring diplomatic relations, severed half a century before. They were exchanging political prisoners, spies they both had in jail, and they were going to reopen their embassies.

Simultaneously, Raul Castro, who had succeeded as his ailing brother in power a few years before, told the Cubans the same thing. It was a dramatic end to the Cold War. And over the next few months, throughout 2015, it was an extraordinary period to be in Cuba because suddenly you had Americans or you had bilateral meetings between all kinds of American government personnel and their Cuban counterparts across a multiplicity of issues from drugs and law enforcement to migration and ocean, you know, ecology, whatever.

And Americans started arriving because the airlines opened up. Cuba was just inundated with American tourists. So this was 2015. In March of 2016, Barack Obama comes down to Cuba and, you know, this historic moment when he gives the speech in Havana, in its National Theatre, in the presence of Raul Castro, saying he wants to bury the last sword of the Cold War. And he leaves. He’s there about 36 hours.

I was on the island. The minute he left, everything changed. There was a cold air swept through Havana. Everybody, all of the Cuban officials that had been dealing with the visit, that had been involved in the bilaterals with the Americans, had increasingly friendly repartee, just shut up. Certain officials actually disappeared. And there was a new kind of unfriendly air on the island. Journalists that were there were asked to leave.

So in other words, this is the backdrop of what's happening. Fidel Castro, who’s the historic leader of the revolution, has been ailing and increasingly cantankerous about this. He'd written a couple of columns in the official daily complaining about it. But everybody seemed to be waiting for his word on this. Even though he was out of power, he was a historic leader. And sure enough, two days after Obama left, he wrote a scathing column, basically saying, who did Obama think who he was to come here and tell us what to do.

And after that, this coincided with the kind of new hostile air. It was interesting. In the White House in Washington nobody who had been involved in this really wanted to talk about it, because this was an incredible breakthrough. They wanted to think this was just something temporary, that hardliners had gotten afraid, things would reopen. They kind of didn't. There was continued to be conversations, but everything was a little bit frozen through the rest of 2016. And then a couple of things happened.

In October, Fidel makes an appearance at the meeting of the Communist Party. He's on death's door. It's the last time anybody sees him alive. And he basically says it's his last appearance and a lot of people weep in public at his appearance.

A month later, of course, Donald Trump, in a surprise victory wins the American election. It was expected to be Hillary Clinton, who was known to the Cubans. And there was this idea that the Obama breakthrough, despite the ructions, would carry on with a similarly-minded American president. And then, of course, two weeks later, Fidel Castro died. Four weeks later, the first of these episodes began in Havana. That is to say CIA agents began suffering these what appeared to be attacks.

So that's the backdrop. The backdrop is against an historic breakthrough in which, for the first time in 50 years, the United States opens up with Cuba. This did not please some of the hardliners who were worried about the effect of so many Americans and Miami money coming in. There were nightclubs opening up. And what I was picking up on the island was that, you know, essentially, even before the Havana syndrome, that there was real ill will and a desire to put the brakes on this opening, because the Cubans secret services felt like they were losing control.

Chris Hayes: I'm going to ask you another follow-up, and then I'll come back to you, Adam, on some of the first people that had this experience and sort of manifesting the symptoms. But just to stay here for a second, one of the things that’s interesting, that I sort of learned from the podcast and I guess I've known in another context, if you could give us a little, Jon, of the sort of cat and mouse of counterintelligence in the Cuban environment, but it's also, in general, in other places, which is --

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- so you're there as an intelligence officer, you're under diplomatic cover. But that's a kind of convenient fiction that doesn't really fool anyone on the other side --

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- and they kind of know who you are. And so the whole point is, there's this back and forth of like them letting you know that they know what you're doing. That is kind of part of the normal counterintelligence, but seemed pretty ratcheted up in the Cuban example.

Jon Lee Anderson: I mean, I can give you a personal example. When I moved to Cuba, with the approval of the Cuban Foreign Ministry and I presumed all other agencies of the Cuban government back in the’90s to begin my research into the life of Che Guevara, I had an apartment overlooking the sea on the edge of Havana, and precisely in the residential area where pretty much all the foreign embassies have their chancelleries and their residences there. So they're all known to the Cuban intelligence services.

You know, I thought everything was fine, until one day I went out on my balcony and I looked down and I could see what was clearly a Secret Service's car. They have a certain look. It was a Lada with two guys with sort of Doberman faces and little pencil mustaches. And they were both looking up at me pointedly. And I looked at them, and I thought, wow, what are they doing there? And I left the balcony, came back, and they were still there. While I was watching them, they moved closer and really pointedly looked at me, with hostile expression.

So I was really upset at this and went marching in a couple of days later, to the woman, the official aide within the Foreign Ministry and said, “What the hell? Why are these guys, you know, surveilling me? “And they said, “Look, Jon Lee, we like you. We know who you are. But the people who must do this kind of work in all countries are doing their work. And you know, they want to know about you.” That was just the beginning of a pattern of, you know, fairly low level surveillance, but, nonetheless, I was increasingly aware of.

And so I learned, in the course of time, that pretty much any foreign resident in Cuba, including myself, and there weren't that many at the time and there wasn't this deluge of tourists, you know, had Secret Service people assigned to them, sometimes friends assigned to them, who had to answer questions once a month in meetings with the Interior Ministry.

If they couldn't put bugs in your house, they would have a van that would come around in front of your house, parked nearby, and essentially use a kind of boom mic situation, usually with a bug behind a portrait or a painting in the house, if they could, and if not, with a boom mic. So when the Havana syndrome thing occurred, naturally, my mind went to these situations I was aware of on the island, and the way it was done, you know.

Chris Hayes: Well, I think this is really useful context for how this starts to emerge for two reasons to go back to the two poles of belief one might have about this, right? It kind of lends credence towards either, right? So at one level, it's like, if they do have some super sophisticated weapon that could do this, it's not implausible that agents of the security apparatus are going to people's houses and directing it towards them, right? So that's one possibility.

The other possibility, you could see how you would be in an environment where you're feeling kind of paranoid and thinking about everything in the context of these people that are mean-mugging you and messing with you, and maybe like leaving your windows open when you go out or leaving things behind in your toilet bowl, something that happens. So in both cases, you can see how you would be prepped to kind of think the worst under the conditions of, you know, being in this place, having this sort of hostility directed towards you, and knowing that these people are there watching you. That's like part of the fabric.

Jon Lee Anderson: Chris, just to say, yes, of course, that's true, but a couple of things. The timing for me was everything. I mean, there seemed to be no coincidence in the timing. I mean --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- I'm bad at math, but 2 plus 2 has always been 4. So Trump wins, Fidel dies.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: And three weeks later, CIA agents at the embassy start getting zapped.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: And I was aware of this cold air blowing through, that essentially frozen the opening over the previous six months. And there had been, in addition to Fidel's column, you know, excoriating column, a series of other pretty hostile declarations made by Cuban officials, senior Cuban officials, about the Americans on the heels of the Obama visit. And what people were saying was they just simply felt overwhelmed by Obama. He was so cool and the Cuban people loved him so much. This was unexpected for them. And they had never allowed something like this before. And it came at a time when they felt very sensitive.

So backing up again, I would just say I didn't think that something like what we learned about the Havana syndrome was beyond the realm of possibility for let's say, the Cuban secret services --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- possibly with a foreign partner to have done, as a way of reasserting control in their own country where they felt they might have lost.

Chris Hayes: Out of control. Yeah.

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So let's talk about the first group of people, Adam, what symptoms they experience, what the sort of commonalities are, and then talk us through how this becomes aggregated enough to emerge as a kind of phenomenon that is then under some medical diagnostic examination in the States.

Adam Entous: Right. Well, you have to keep in mind, the station, the CIA station is very small. A new station chief arrives in the summer of 2016. And almost immediately after the station chief gets there, the harassment increases. And so there's really only like three CIA officers who are undercover at this point on the island. The station chief is known to the Cubans.

So what happens is, initially, one of the CIA officers has this experience where he feels this pressure in his house. He has this excruciating pain in his head, and he actually doesn't tell anybody about it. He, you know, goes to see the medic at the embassy, and the medic thinks maybe he has some sort of stomach bug. And in December, he's actually sent back to the States to try to get medical treatment for this, to see what it was, because they didn't have the facilities in Cuba.

While he's literally away getting medical treatment, another CIA officer who we call Tony in the podcast, he's the case officer. His job is to, you know, roam around and collect information and write reports and send it back to Langley. And he doesn't know that his colleague has had this experience. He hasn't been told. They haven't talked about it.

Tony, basically, you know, has, like his colleague, experienced this increased harassment, right? He comes home one day and he finds one of his white shirts is crumpled up in the corner of his room, and he can smell urine. He thinks he's being messed with, right? And so he doesn't want to show weakness. And he's lying on the bed, and he feels this pressure, hears this weird sound, and he's going to just sort of power through it because he believes they're watching him. And if he shows weakness, you know, it will prove to them that it's working. And so he wanted to kind of, you know, power through it, if you will.

So he sits there, and he's lying there on his bed, pretending like he's not going through this agonizing pain. And eventually, it becomes so unbearable that he takes a pillow and covers one of his ears to try to muffle the sound and to try to address the pain. But he finds that that doesn't address it. Eventually, he goes into the living room of his house. That's when it stops.

And you know, again, he's the case officer. They're not supposed to know he's the case officer. So he is not supposed to, you know, pick up the phone and call Langley, you know, to say, hey, what just happened, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: There's a protocol he's supposed to follow for this kind of thing. So, the next day, he sleeps on the couch. Next day, he goes into the embassy. He goes to see the doctor, again, the medic who had, you know, spoken to the previous CIA officer. He describes what happened. And the medic said, you know, actually, something similar happened to me, and then decide then they're going to go and talk to the security officer, State Department security officer. And that conversation takes place in the SCIF, one of the secure facilities at the embassy.

And the security officer says, actually something like that actually happened to me in my place. They then go and decide they're going to talk to the Ambassador DeLaurentis, and they tell him. DeLaurentis is shocked. He's can't believe he's hearing this. He had no idea that there was this increased harassment that people were experiencing. And he tells them, you know, write a report. So he writes a report for the State Department and he writes a report for the CIA. And he basically sends in these reports, and you know, kind of crickets come back.

Frankly, they get it at Langley, and they get in the State Department. They don't know what to make of it. It sounds crazy, right? I mean, weird sounds, pressure in their head, it didn't make any sense. What happens is he decides to go back to his house the next day.

Chris Hayes: Wait. Hold on a second. We actually have sound from your podcast of Tony, that's the pseudonym that's used, describing some of the symptoms he experienced. Let's take a listen.

(Begin Havana Syndrome Podcast Clip, VICE World News)

Tony: The pressure started in the head, and then the discomfort in the ear. You know, I just picture those old wood vises and you know, shop class in high school. It just felt like someone is just turning that and my head was in it. Then the severe, severe ear pain started. So I liken it to, like, if you take a Q-tip and you bounce it off your ear, you know, you get that jarring, like, ah. Well, imagine taking like a sharpened pencil, and then poking that off the eardrum.

(End Havana Syndrome Podcast Clip, VICE World News)

Chris Hayes: I mean, that sounds excruciating. So this is what he's experiencing. Other people are experiencing it. They write a report back to Langley. People don't know what to do with it.

Adam Entous: He goes back the second day. He makes an audio recording. As this is happening, he's actually texting his brother. And I've seen the texts, so real-time text messages that he's sending to his brother, in which he basically says, they're blasting me with something. He actually says in the text, he thinks it's an LRAD, which is a reference to a device that's used for crowd control.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: Ships sometimes use it to try to keep pirates, you know, away from their ships. So he doesn't know what it is, right? He just knows he's in a lot of pain. And he records it. This is around Christmastime, New Year. He actually goes to a New Year's party at the embassy, and he brings the recording and he plays it for some of his colleagues to see if that's what also they heard. Then the first guy, the first CIA guy comes back from getting medical treatment, and he's a smoker, the first guy, and he goes out to smoke outside the embassy. And Tony goes with him and he sees him smoking. And he notices that he's got a twitch in his hand. And Tony asks him, you know, what's going on?

And so they go back up, and they go into the SCIF, one of the other SCIFs where the CIA guys meet. And that's when these two CIA officers, for the first time, compare notes. And they basically described what both of them had experienced. And that's really the beginning of this. And both of them, after those experiences, their physical condition continues to deteriorate. And that's how it starts.

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah. You know, that’s not in all the cases, but in many of them, depending on how long they sustained this exposure. In the case of Tony, it was longer than anyone. And he, of all the people we've met, I think, seems to have the most damaging symptoms. And he thinks it was because he tried to withstand it, you know, brave it, tough it out, like Adam said, as long as he did.

But in many cases, their symptoms show, you know, progressive deterioration to the point where in some cases, the neurological symptoms are somehow analogous to what we might hear of dementia, where people can't remember why they went somewhere. And suddenly, you know, when people are beginning to get Alzheimer's, they find themselves across town and they don't know how they got there. And things like this have happened to them.

And also, you know, if it were just a case of mass hysteria, what we call a psychogenic collective behavior, this wouldn't explain why many of the victims have scarring in their cerebellum, which is, as we were explained, the innermost part of the brain. And the doctor who examined them at the University of Pennsylvania, many, many of the victims, you know, became very irate, in fact, when it was suggested that this could be the result of some kind of fiction or mass hysteria crickets, pointing out the scarring equivalent to the massive kind of concussions that football players have, which of course, as we now know cause serious brain damage. So it seems like something happened.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: I think it's useful here to distinguish between the different groups here. So there's the Havana group. This works its way up to Langley CIA. Then they begin to have gotten other reports of other American personnel in other places, right?

Adam Entous: Right.

Chris Hayes: And that includes Russia and China. Is there anywhere else?

Adam Entous: Oh, yes. Lots of other places, I mean, the couple of the Stans, you name it. It was all over Africa.

Jon Lee Anderson: The station in Vienna.

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. Chris, you said something at the beginning, where you were explaining that you saw sort of like two possibilities here, one psychogenic and one real, right? That there's a weapon, right? Or some sort of mystery?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Adam Entous: What I just wanted to throw out there is the idea that both of those things --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right.

Adam Entous: -- could be true.

Chris Hayes: Right. That there's some group of folks that were targeted with some specific weapon.

Adam Entous: Yeah. Which they themselves don't know what it was, right?

Chris Hayes: Right. But then there's also a psychogenic social contagion aspect where other people who are abroad are displaying symptoms and are in genuine, awful distress, and understandably think that maybe this was the cause of it, even if in that particular case, they were not exposed to whatever the cause was in the, say, Havana case.

Adam Entous: Yeah. So what happens later on, after these two individuals that we just talked about, share their stories with each other, they get pulled off the island for medical treatment. But they used to sit next to State Department people, right? Their bosses were State Department people. I mean, they were reporting to the station chief, but also they had State Department covers. So those people were like, hey, you know, what happened to Tony, and you know, the other guy who I used to sit next to in the consular section or the economic section, or the section they're in?

And so questions started to be asked around the embassy, like, what happened to those people, right? And actually, one of them ends up coming back to the island, Tony doesn't, and is cornered by their colleagues. What's going on here? They've got kids, right? They're worried about their kids.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: It's totally understandable.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, of course.

Adam Entous: Yeah. You know, imagine if this happened at NBC --

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah, of course.

Adam Entous: -- God forbid, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah, absolutely.

Adam Entous: Everyone would be asking the question, like, what happened, right? And so, even though there's an attempt by the CIA and the State Department to try to keep a lid on sharing this information, even within the, you know, kind of the fishbowl, that is the embassy in Havana, that's unsuccessful. And it's not that they're sharing the information because they want to undermine the investigation. They're sharing it out of genuine concern for their colleagues, right?

Chris Hayes: Okay. So there's so many different places to go with this, but let's sort of try to go two different, right? So again, I'm just applying kind of baseline causal reasoning here, right? I have no expertise, whatsoever. Substantively, I've read about this and listened to your podcast.

But, like, if there's a theory of the case, which is that the Cubans have a specific technology. It is capable of, at some distance, producing this effect which has actual physical and tangible medical results, which then endure past the actual exposure, right? It causes something akin to traumatic brain injury, concussion, et cetera. And they're using this in the wake of this moment, where they don't like the fact all these Americans are crawling around. They don't like the fact this is opening up, and they kind of want to make the Americans go away and feel uncomfortable.

Okay. So let's say I'm with you there. That is the story. It gets harder for me to theorize a universe in which this unique weapon is then, like, passed around to everyone everywhere, to use it at every American in every embassy. But it just seems like the kind of thing that, like, even allied intelligence services are incredibly is suspect and paranoid with each other, like, you talked about the U.S. and Israelis. Like, there's all kinds of crazy counterintelligence. So, like, it starts to get harder and harder. The more people that are experiencing this in more places, the harder it is for me to think there's a single cause, I guess, is what I'm trying to say. Jon?

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah. So you know, again, like you theorizing, or let's follow the idea that it was a directed energy attack aimed at, let's say, drawing down the CIA station in Havana. Most of the people, by the way, including people who were the CIA, who we have talked to, at many levels, nobody, including those who strongly believe it was an attack, that these were attacks, think that the Cubans were solely responsible or even mostly responsible. That, yes, they took place in Cuba, and that it may have been a very small group, let's say, a very small group of Cuban counterintelligence agents operating in tandem with an allied power, probably Russia. China has been discussed, but it's more or less discounted because of patterns of behavior.

Just in parenthesis here, the Russians have a history of directing microwave, basically barraging the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, going back to the 1960s, in different periods. So there's a pattern of behavior here with the Russians, operating with energy in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy, going way, way back. There's also a pattern of Russia behaving with malfeasance, in modern times, you know, poisoning former agents on British soil, et cetera --

Chris Hayes: Sure.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- using asymmetrical warfare, depending on who and which parts of the world, they're hacking American elections, et cetera. So there's that. Say, if you were the agents involved and you deduced that you had effectively managed to close down the CIA station in Havana, Cuba, which they did, you then take it on the road, go elsewhere. Adam knows better than I, but maybe 25 personnel, presumably spies, were evacuated from the American Embassy in Vienna, which has been a longstanding CIA station, and basically, kind of Game of Thrones in the espionage world, going back to the Cold War.

Chris Hayes: Yes. It's sort of on the fault line of the Cold War and so --

Jon Lee Anderson: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: -- for decades, as like the kind of clearing house of spies from East and West coming through Vienna.

Jon Lee Anderson: Exactly. And then elsewhere, an interesting pattern evolves in the course of time, which is moving away from these stations where large numbers of American personnel are zapped. Now, people are targeted in ones and twos. Adam mentioned a few countries, some of the Stans, Russia, China, even the United States, other places.

And what to my eye is most interesting is that eventually they seem to acquire a signature. When I talk about a signature, I'm talking about the pattern of people next to VIPs, American VIPs traveling abroad getting zapped. This happened to a senior aide of the CIA director on a trip to New Delhi. It happened to American members of the embassy in Bogota, Colombia, two days before Antony Blinken arrived. It happened to two members of the embassy in Hanoi, in Vietnam, a day or two before Kamala Harris arrives, and so on, to John Bolton, two of his aides, on a trip to London.

It's interesting because, you know, it would be one thing if they were feeling paranoid. But for these isolated people, never the principal, but the person near them or next to them, begins to experience these symptoms, suggests a kind of signature.

Chris Hayes: So let's talk about two other parts of this. So first of all, let’s talk about the Pennsylvania episode, the big study that happens in Penn. Adam, if maybe you want to talk about that, because that's probably the most thorough study of this, that we have in the medical literature, right?

Adam Entous: Well, I mean, you know, frankly, there's obviously a doctor down in Miami, Hoffer, who also saw some of the patients. But the Penn study involved the greatest number, and they were actually directly, you know, with the patients, putting them through tests. So you have a lot of other experts out there who are passing judgment on what occurred, but the Pennsylvania doctors actually had the chance to spend a lot of time with these individuals, you know, running them through special kinds of MRIs, putting them through a battery of tests.

We both have spent time with the lead doctor there, Dr. Smith, whose specialty is concussion and brain injury. So, you know, what's interesting to me about that story, that part of it, is when they arrived, you know, when Dr. Smith is told that the U.S. government needs his involvement in trying to understand these mystery illnesses, he gathers all the experts on his staff in a conference room, and he tells them what these people are describing. And the consensus in the room is that it's probably psychogenic, right? They all think this doesn't make sense.

Then the patients start coming and they all start seeing the patients, putting through the tests. And then they have another one of these gatherings in the conference room, and the same question is asked, so what do you guys think? And everyone in the room said, no, we were wrong. This is something real.

So obviously, I'm not a doctor myself. You know, I've met with many of the patients. You know, what you get from that study is not perfect. They didn't have baseline data to compare to the results that they were seeing. So they couldn't take a MRI that was done before --

Chris Hayes: Pre-deployment. Yeah.

Adam Entous: Pre-deployment. Right. And blood samples, right? Classic.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: You know, they knew that if you had blood samples, potentially, you could detect a certain type of protein in the blood. If somebody suffers a concussion, you will sometimes be able to get those proteins in the blood. But they drew the blood and there was a hurricane, and so they never got the samples. So it's not an ideal situation, frankly.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I just want to say, like, part of what makes all this cloudy, it's like diagnostic 101, is that you need to have control variable, right? So if you there's no control in terms of, like, the time window, it makes it more difficult. And this is the big sort of probabilistic reasoning question with any cluster of symptoms. It’s just the basic Bayesian probability, right? What is the background rate at which some group of people will display X symptom, right?

Adam Entous: Right.

Chris Hayes: That's the big diagnostic question for signal noise, and it's a very difficult one. In fact, when doctors are tested on Bayesian probability, often they flunk it, right? So it's a really hard thing about diagnosis. It's just a very difficult thing. I mean, people miss cancer all the time, right? So, like, this is tough stuff. They don't have the ideal circumstances. And yet, with their expertise, they sit down, they run the tests, and they basically are, like, there is a there there.

Adam Entous: Yeah. So with all the caveats that you just said, this is not an ideal situation, right? This is the best we have, in terms of a study that basically says there's a there there. These people have what they believe are brain injuries, and they're not trying to assess, you know, what the cause is. That's not something --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- that they were looking at.

Chris Hayes: No. They're trying to say, is there a thing that's happening here, a phenomenon? Right.

Adam Entous: Right. And they say there's a thing, right? And you know, because of all the caveats that we mentioned, because of all the shortcomings, if you will, a lot of outside experts who specialize in things like psychogenic --

Chris Hayes: Yup.

Adam Entous: -- episodes, and the Cuban government, you know, point to these problems with the study, which the doctors themselves acknowledged are problems, right? But they were the bests that they can --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- work with. And they start poking holes in it, and basically saying, you know, there are all these flaws in it, which are undeniable, right? And so, instead of actually solving the mystery --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- in some ways, I would say it almost deepened --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Adam Entous: -- you know, the division over what actually occurred here.

Chris Hayes: Okay. So then the other question is, and I'll direct this to you, Jon, do we have a plausible technical theory? I mean, that's the other big sort of question here, right? Like, to go back to the demonic possession, if you tell me that what happened here is demonic possession, I'm just going to say, well, look, I don't think demons exist. That's not going to persuade me, right? Like, if you can say that what best fits the facts is a theory of demonic possession, I'm going to say, well, you know, there's all sorts of reasons to think demons don't exist.

In this case it's like, what is the weapon? What's the thing? What is the technology? What's a plausible account of a technology, an extant technology that could produce this? Like, do we have our hands around that?

Jon Lee Anderson: We don't because the relevant agencies, if they're developing it, presumably, if the Russians have it, we have it, they're not talking. I spoke to a U.S. official who was attached to Havana, who sat in one of the early meetings with all of the relevant agencies to discuss what this might be, including the CIA, State Department. And he pointedly noted and relayed to us that the only agency that wasn't represented there was the Pentagon.

Now, we have a kind of wink and a nod from former CIA Director John Brennan, who told us, you know, we, the CIA, use the opening that Obama created in Havana to do our work. In other words, yes, the Trojan horse, possibly, the Cubans were worried that the CIA was upping the game for themselves in Havana and doing stuff that they hadn't been able to do in 50 years because the Cuban had that place lock, stock, and barrel wired.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: Brennan was basically saying, yeah, we did it. But he's not telling us because why would he give it away?

Chris Hayes: Sure. Of course.

Jon Lee Anderson: And also, if the CIA had detected that it was something directed at them, they're not going to go around saying it, are they? Because that gives comfort to the enemy.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: So we're in this loop of --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- every so often, Adam has extraordinary contacts in the intelligence world. But there are certain doors that remain closed. And some of those doors include what could it be? Some kind of directed energy?

So going back to what I mentioned earlier about the Moscow barrage, you know, this barrage of microwave. Back in the day, they deduced that, the Americans, that they were being barraged from a KGB facility with microwaves, that it was aimed at the floor of the embassy where the CIA had equipment. And so it seemed to be aimed at preventing the CIA from using its electronic equipment --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- to snatch stuff out of the air.

Chris Hayes: Sure.

Jon Lee Anderson: Now, the idea being somehow they made this portable, one imagines a kind of ray gun, some guys sitting in a van, something like a boom mic, but it's a ray gun. And initially, perhaps, there’s several theories, that it wasn't aimed at hurting anybody, that it was aimed at --

Chris Hayes: It was jamming. Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: That it was jamming, and it went too far. But, you know, if you follow the theory that it was a group of hardline Cubans who really wanted to kind of reassert control, in tandem with Russians or Chinese, Russians probably, who had managed to come up with a device, they tried it out and it worked. And then they went on the road with it, to see where they could mess with the Americans in other places.

It has to be said, too, that the idea that this is an implausible scenario, you know, just to go back to the idea that it could be make-believe, it became more of a thing also during the Trump years. Because, of course, here you have this cretinous president and his administration who, you know, mouthed off, with great hostility, right wing ideology, very hostile towards Cuba, do everything they can not only to undo everything Obama did, but hastened to close down the embassy. So --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- if you're a liberal or a progressive, you're thinking, ah, this is all BS because Pompeo and Trump are just using it to justify their closing down of the embassy. And you know, there it remained for the better part of four years.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I think to me, just speaking for myself, and again, just like as a consumer of news and a curious person trying to figure it out, is it was some of that, but it's also a little bit of this. I mean, honestly, for me, I think one of the defining experiences of my young journalistic life was the Iraq War, and just this feeling of, like, I don't know. It’s like there's some sort of evidence that I can only see little parts of and are behind some cloak, and so I don't know what's behind there. I can't get it myself. I can't put it in my hands.

And so my feeling towards intelligence claims ever since then have always been a little, like, boy, I don't know what to do with this, you know, and I mean that is just a default. That doesn't say I'm keeping away there.

Jon Lee Anderson: Sure. But in this case, fair enough, too, there isn't an intelligence claim.

Chris Hayes: No. In fact, there's the opposite.

Jon Lee Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Well, there's the opposite, in some ways. I mean, maybe to come back to here, Adam, this is a situation in which my understanding is the official position of the CIA, or at least the U.S. government is that there is not a there there. That, like, to the extent that there is some official position of the U.S. government as an entity at this point, is that we can't find anything.

Adam Entous: Right. Yeah. No. It is actually quite incredible because, you know, there was some sort of mistake in reporting early on, that there was what was known as signals intelligence intercepted communications, in which, presumably, Russian or Cubans are sloppily talking on the phone about their successful operation to zap these CIA officers. There is none. There is none. They got nothing, you know, which in itself is interesting.

And you know, as we see the Russians right now in Ukraine, with their lack of communications discipline --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- you know, a complete lack of communications discipline, is it really credible to believe that there's a unit of the GRU that was so sloppy about their military planning for the invasion of Ukraine, and yet they would successfully, for over the course of many years, be able to keep secret operations against CIA stations around the world, right?

I understand that skepticism. But, you know, the truth is, as somebody who has been an intelligence reporter for a while, it is actually true that there are some things that are really hard to prove.

Chris Hayes: Right. Sure.

Adam Entous: Bottom line is some mysteries are really, really hard, just like Havana syndrome has proved to be very hard.

Chris Hayes: Well, let me say this, though. I know this is my own obsession, so I'm turning this into an epistemology podcast. But in some ways, that's what this is, right? So there's two thoughts here. One is when you talk about that competence. Again, this is sort of mental habit, right? For me, it’s that any theory that relies on, you know, incredibly high and consistent degrees of competence is always like a little bit of interest, some skepticism in my head, right?

But on the other side of that is just that, to the extent that some part of the American government has figured this out, they also probably don't want us to know that. So it's also possible that that's a secret that's being kept. I mean, I just don't know.

Adam Entous: I mean, first of all, if they did figure it out, they'd have to brief, you know, certain individuals, the Gang of Eight as it's known, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: There's a whole process. They can't bury stuff like that, if they actually do have the evidence. So I think --

Chris Hayes: And Congress is sniffing around this a lot and has shown --

Adam Entous: Oh, very, very --

Chris Hayes: -- a tremendous amount of interest, right?

Adam Entous: Tremendous. So what happened is, during the Trump administration towards the very end, they opened the aperture when it came to reporting suspicious illnesses, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: And you had stories in news organizations that I won't name, saying that you have, you know, sick troops in Syria, for example, American troops in Syria. Well, it turned out when they completely did the checks on their blood samples and all the rest, found out it was, you know, food poisoning.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: And also keep in mind that there was this thing called COVID that we talked about earlier, that was raging during much of this period around the world, making all these people sick, right? And the CIA and the Commerce Department and the Energy Department and the State Department sent these emails to everybody in government saying, if you have anything that you can’t explain, I want you to report it.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: And then the number of Havana syndrome suspected cases basically grows exponentially in the months that followed.

Chris Hayes: Of course, yes. That's right. Yeah.

Adam Entous: And what the CIA did was they looked at a sample of those, and they said, you know what, we can explain those things in other ways, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: And so we're going to say the vast majority of that inflated number --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- should not be counted, right? Again, it was based on a sample. They couldn't actually go through all these individual cases. Bottom line is there is a core group of cases, many of them in Havana, right? Some of them in other places, where it has this directional aspect to the story.

You know, one of the investigators who the CIA brought in, told me, you know, his words were that those were just the really compelling --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- cases that there was something very different, directional about this experience. And when you talk to those individuals, and you realize actually how they've basically tank their own careers by telling those stories --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- not by telling them to me, but by telling them to the CIA bosses.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: Right? They don't have an incentive to make those up. The law that you mentioned that was passed by Congress to reimburse some people, it's not a lot of money. I mean, it's like a hundred grand or something. Most of these people can't even work. I mean --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Adam Entous: -- I feel terrible for many of them. That money that they're getting, it wasn't like a golden parachute or something, you know, that they were getting. Anyways, bottom line is the CIA, like you said, they assessed that they don't think that there was a global campaign --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Adam Entous: -- by an adversary on a systematic basis to try to inflict these symptoms on these individuals, right? But in a core group of cases, they just don't know what happened and they can't explain it.

Chris Hayes: Right. Because I listened to the podcast, like, I'm still really not sure I have a definitive answer. I mean, I guess my question to finish it off to you, Jon, is, are you confident that at some point we will know? Like, meaning, is there some file that exists somewhere in the world or some evidence somewhere in the world of what has happened that, at some point, we will have access to, and the mystery will be solved, that it's a knowable thing and we will know it?

Jon Lee Anderson: If it's real? Yes, I think so, eventually. Remember that it took, what, 50 years for us to find out definitively that Hitler really had killed himself in the bunker in Berlin.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Jon Lee Anderson: It wasn't until after the Berlin Wall fell and communism exploded that the KGB archives and other archives in Moscow opened up briefly, and we learned certain things. It was only then that we knew, for sure, that those thousands of Polish officers that had been murdered in the Katyn Forest in Poland, had been killed, in fact --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Jon Lee Anderson: -- by Stalin's troops. So, you know, for all the fact that they seemed to be incredibly sloppy in some ways, the Russians, they are pretty good at keeping some secrets as well.

Chris Hayes: Or it might not be them.

Jon Lee Anderson: Or it might not be them.

Chris Hayes: Right. Well, maybe the Occam’s razor is that, I mean, I’d create a super theory that it's the aliens. And both the things that NORAD are shooting down and --

Jon Lee Anderson: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: -- they have to explain, are awesome, my neat single theory. Well, I got to say this podcast, one of the things I wanted to try to do today was not to spoil the podcast. So there's so much more in the actual podcast, which is called Havana Syndrome. It's from VICE. You can get it wherever you get your podcasts. And it's a great, great pleasure to have Jon Lee Anderson, staff writer at The New Yorker, and Adam Entous, who's investigative reporter at New York Times, and together made that podcast. Gentlemen, thank you so much for sharing some time with us. I appreciate it.

Adam Entous: Great to be here.

Jon Lee Anderson: Thank you, Chris. It's a pleasure.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous. I would love to hear your feedback on this one. And if you can, you should check out the podcast itself, which is fascinating and well done. Those guys are incredible reporters. But, man, I don't know. I don't know what to think.

So tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced, of course, by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia. This episode was engineered by Cedric Wilson, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to