“Havana Syndrome” – A Panel featuring Nicky Woolf, Marc Polymeropoulos, and Mark Zaid
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's Historian and Curator. If you seek intelligence on intelligence, you've just hit the mother lode. Coming up next on SpyCast:
Marc Polymeropoulos: I woke up in the middle of the night. I didn't hear a sound. I did not hear a sound, per se, but I woke up with an incredible case of vertigo. The room was spinning. I was -- I felt physically sick. I had tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears, and it was -- it was pretty terrifying. And, and I say this after someone who'd spent almost three years in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and been shot at more times than I had -- care to talk about. I ran a paramilitary base along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We were in combat every day. This was the most terrifying experience of my life.
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Andrew Hammond: This week, we bring you a collaboration between SpyCast and The Sound, a limited series podcast on Havana Syndrome or anomalous health incidents as they have been officially called. What is it? Are foreign actors behind it? If they are, why would you do this to a fellow professional? Tune in to hear yours truly moderate a panel with Investigative Journalist and The Sound Host, Nicky Woolf; former CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and sufferer of Havana Syndrome, Marc Polymeropoulos; and Attorney and advocate, Mark Zaid. All the episodes of The Sound are out now. This episode features the audio recording of a program held here at the International Spy Museum. If you enjoy the show, please tell your friends and loved ones and consider leaving us a five-star review. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. So it is a pleasure to be with you here tonight to explore this issue. And I feel like, a Scotsman, an Englishman, and two New Yorkers, I feel like there's a joke in there somewhere. So I'll leave it to you to workshop in the reception afterwards. We're going to discuss this issue in a second. But I just wanted to put a little bit of historical context around this, given that's what the Spy Museum paid me for. So just to put it in context, so for some people, this seems really farfetched, right? Microwave beams. Let me just give you a few things that have been verified. So the period 1945, the thing, the great seal of the United States was given to Averell Harriman, the American Ambassador in Moscow. And there was a passive cavity resonator in there, which basically means that it would only be activated when electromagnetic beams were directed towards it. This was there for seven years till 1952. It got discovered during the tenure of George Kennan, who actually, on this particular day, wrote the Long Telegram. So someone who was foundational for American Cold War Foreign Policy. And actually, one of the ambassadors during this time was also a former director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith. 1953 to 1977, a thing called the Moscow Signal. So let me just -- I'll illustrate this by speaking about some Senate hearings that were held in 1979. So just listen to the title of this, Microwave Irradiation of the US Embassy in Moscow. This is the name of a Congressional report. Let me quote from the opening passage. "People reading this report may know that the US Embassy in Moscow was subjected over a period of approximately 25 years to microwave radiation," close quotes. Henry Kissinger on a call with Anatoly Dobrynin, the long-term Soviet Ambassador in Washington, DC. This is a not-too-long-ago declassified file, Kissinger to Anatoly Dobrynin. "That beam that you're beaming into our embassy in Moscow, maybe you could turn it off. We really are sitting on it here, but too many people know about it. We will catch hell unless we can say something is happening," close quotes. This brings us up to person I want to start with, Marc. So Marc Polymeropoulos, I'm going to let him tell his own story. He's in Moscow in 2017 when he experiences what he went through. So I'd like to start with Marc, so if you don't mind, just telling the audience your story, how this all happened for you.
Marc Polymeropoulos: Sure. Thank you. So, I think, you know, to start, this is probably the last place I really want to be talking about myself and my -- and my health struggle as I have gone kind of public with what happened to me almost as a plea for help because it eventually did get me to Walter Reed's Traumatic Brain Injury Center. But this is not something that's normal for someone like myself who spent 26 years at CIA in the clandestine services. You know, we live in the shadows. That's where we're supposed to operate. But the story is, and I've said this many times, I'm happy to, of course, say it again for the audience. In December of 2017, I was the Deputy Chief of Operations for the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center. So I was in -- I was the deputy in charge of clandestine operations across 50 countries, across the European continent, and all the way to the farthest time zones of Russia. Now I had been a long-time Near East Division Case Officer also worked in the Counterterrorism Center. And I was brought in this job specifically after the 2016 elections and Russian interference. Not making a political statement. But ultimately, they wanted to bring a whole bunch of us from the Near East in the counterterrorism world to kind of take it back towards the Russians. And so what I had to do was go to Moscow for what we call area familiarization, which in essence, is visiting the embassy, seeing the ambassador there. It was John Huntsman, who was a senior statesman, a superb ambassador. But I had to go get eyes on the ground there for a lot of reasons. I had to see what I was, you know, what I was in charge of, but also for, you know, credibility as well. I had to -- I had to go kind of take a trip there. So it was a 10-day trip. I believe it was on December 5th, I woke up in the middle of the night. I didn't hear a sound. And, you know, everyone's story is different. I did not hear a sound per se, but I woke up with an incredible case of vertigo. The room was spinning. I was -- I felt physically sick. I had tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears, and it was -- it was pretty terrifying. And I say this after someone who'd spent almost three years in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and been shot at more times than I had -- care to talk about. I ran a paramilitary base along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We were in combat every day. This was the most terrifying experience of my life because I had lost total control. Something had happened. And it was the vertigo, the extreme vertigo, which is nothing like I'd ever experienced before. The next morning I woke up. I had contacted the embassy. We went to a local pharmacy to get some anti-nausea medication. I then went -- we then went to St. Petersburg along with our, you know, all of our trailing surveillance, which is totally normal. There's some Moscow veterans here, so they'll know all about that. Nothing unusual. I felt a little bit better, and then I returned to Moscow the night after. And it hit me again as I was sitting having dinner in the Pushkin Cafe, a famous restaurant in Moscow, when extreme vertigo hit me again. And then I kind of, you know, kind of try to survive the rest of the trip. Crawled my way back onto the -- to the airplane and came home. And it started a pretty awful medical journey and really fights with the CIA's Office of Medical Services where, when I came home, I asked to be seen and treated. And the answer from them was, nothing's wrong with you. If this caused me to eventually retire after, you know, a medical journey, which again, took me to my own private doctor, spend thousands of dollars of my own money. And the Office of Medical Services, despite my repeated pleas, refused to give me treatment. I, of course, at that time had thought about what had happened to my colleagues in Cuba. I had begged to go to the University of Pennsylvania, which a lot of people know is where some of our officers from Cuba were being treated. And they said no. I finally retired in July of 2019. And at that time, some of my other colleagues were affected, and they were going to Walter Reed's Traumatic Brain Injury Center. It's called NICoE. And even then, through my contacts at the agency, I was begging for medical care. It had gotten so bad I couldn't drive. I lost my long-distance vision. I had terrible brain fog. And when I finally made -- when I finally made the decision to go public, it was via a journalist, Julia Ioffe. But I credit so much to her because she wrote an article about me in GQ Magazine. The day it was published, three former CIA directors called me, who I knew from my time. I retired from the Senior Intelligence Service, so I was relatively senior. And they said, what the hell is going on? Why haven't they treated you? This is a tremendous leadership fail on the part of the agency, which is correct. Because ultimately, as you know, with my 26 years at the agency and as a Near East officer, I think I was involved in every covert action program in the Middle East. Always with the notion that whatever, you know, what they -- what the US Government was asking me to do, and there were some unusual things, that I always thought they would have my back. And they didn't. And even when I was, again, when I was retired, I was begging to get medical care. And the answer repeatedly was no. And so I finally went public, and three agency directors, former directors, called me. They immediately called the seventh floor. And miraculously, the next day, I was admitted or given authorization to go to the Walter Reed program. And, you know, I could go on and on about this. But I will say that the 18 specialists there, the doctors and nurses saved me. Pretty tough time. I was not in good shape when I got there. And I came out of there with some hope and some tools. And I'm still on the kind of long road to recovery. And I'm feeling much better. That was five years ago if you can imagine that now. Sorry, I get a -- I get emotional even talking about it. But what those doctors did for me, I will never be able to repay them.
Andrew Hammond: Your career was taken away from you, your physical health, your mental health. I mean, really debilitating, right?
Marc Polymeropoulos: I was, you know, again, the position I had -- And when I left, I remember, the deputy director of operations at the time asked me, are you okay enough? We want to bring you upstairs to be one of the Associate Deputy -- the ADDOs. This is the pinnacle of someone's career at the CIA. I couldn't even go to work for three hours. I had such bad headaches, and it was brain fog, and it just -- I was -- I was a mess. And so I went from someone who was a, you know, a high performer. But also someone who -- And even in my journey now, as I've talked about this publicly, I deeply believe in the mission of the CIA. And so, you know, it's an indispensable institution for the United States. And I'm very proud of the things we did and the -- and the and, you know, work with my colleagues who I think are heroes. But not only that, there's a moral injury to this. There's a betrayal I felt when the CIA didn't give me the medical attention that I needed. You know, if you're not feeling well, and an employee comes to you, send them to the doctor. And they weren't able to do that. And to me, that's just a leadership fail for the ages. And something that -- You know, to current CIA director Bill Burn's credit, when he, you know, came into office, he called me. And I've spent many hours with him. And he fundamentally didn't understand some of the decisions that were made, you know, at the -- with the previous administration. This is not a political thing. This is just kind of basic leadership.
Andrew Hammond: Going on to Nicky before we get to the other Mark. And Nicky has worked at the Garden, the new statesman.
Nicky Woolf: So I guess if I -- should I go back to the beginning and give kind of a brief overview of what --
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm.
Nicky Woolf: So at the end of 2016, the first of what would be 24 of the first cohort and of -- it started out as CIA offices and later diplomats. And the US Embassy in Havana started reporting these weird medical symptoms. And those included quite a lot of what Marc has just talked about experiencing. So we're talking vertigo, insomnia, nausea, brain fog, also ocular damage. Later it came out brain damage was found on some scans. Now that's exactly the definition of damages. It's complicated. But quickly, this was run up the chain within the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon. It was clear something was happening. Patients flown out into first Miami and then University of Pennsylvania, they were given scans. And when it went public, there were a whole bunch of hypotheses that people ran through really quickly. Now, the first one, as I talk about in the monologue, was the idea that it might be some kind of sonic weapon sound device. That was what then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first said when the questions were asked. Actually, of the hypotheses, that one was relatively easy to rule out partly because the level of sound, ironically because a lot of the people had reported hearing a strange sound that accompanied the onset of symptoms. A sonic energy weapon that could cause these symptoms would actually be either past the top end or below the bottom end of what you could hear. So ironically, we ruled out sound as the weapon because people could hear something. But then the other two major theories were that either, A, there was some kind of psychogenic transfer going on, a sort of mass delusion. The power of suggestion is very powerful. It can cause a certain amount of types of symptoms. And then the other theory that quickly emerged was a directed energy device, some kind of likely, microwave energy. And those became the two major theories that we were kind of litigating. And the problem with the psychogenic hypothesis is that, one, a lot of the early cases didn't follow a kind of a network pattern. There were, among the first ones, there was not a huge amount of ability to transfer the idea from one to the other. And also, there were some of the symptoms that are simply not within the realms of what psychogenic illness can cause. So like, you know, it can cause nausea, but it can't cause detached retinas. It can't cause lesions to come up on brain scans, that sort of thing. And then the next question we had was, if it is some kind of directed energy device, what's the status of that kind of technology out there? And it became, as we researched it, it became clear to us that actually, the technological capabilities weren't just -- it wasn't just plausible, but these were devices that were being -- that existed in the real world and that American defense companies were even manufacturing. There's patents out there and things like that. So we hear about plausibility arguments. And then it became a question of motive. So again, the Cubans were accused, first off, because this was happening in Cuba, and this was in the early days of the Trump administration. There were a lot of people like John Bolton whose agenda it really suited to blame Cuba. They'd wanted to roll back on Obama's opening up for a really long time. They put Cuba back on the state sponsor terror list. But really, no one seriously we've spoken to believes that the Cubans were really doing this. And obviously, given the kind of geopolitical situation, there's one major suspect that quickly emerged, which is Russia, which is how we came to Marc. And we were talking about what other, you know, examples of this were coming up. Also, the more research we did, the more we found examples, as you say, going back to the '50s of different types of deployment by Russia of directed energy, partially for intelligence gathering. And then as it kind of progressed, it became less and less plausible that they didn't know this was also causing health effects.
Andrew Hammond: And just very briefly for our audience, one of the things that I found fascinating was the narrative arc in the podcast. You start off more skeptical.
Nicky Woolf: Hmm.
Andrew Hammond: But then there's a transition as you encounter more victims, as you see more evidence. Can you just talk about that transition that takes place that you encountered?
Nicky Woolf: I -- so I was brought in -- To sort of lay cards on the table, I was -- my previous show was on QAnon. I was brought in almost explicitly as a conspiracy theory reporter, right? Like my -- I think when this was commissioned, the idea was as a debunking exercise. And first of all, from talking to the victims that we spoke to, first of all, it was very clear that something pretty dramatic had happened to these people. Like, and in a way that, as I was saying before, the psychogenic effect is extremely powerful. But the more of these stories we heard, the less and less it felt like this could be -- sort of the more twists we were having to do in order to explain it that way. And then the other thing was finding out about the force capabilities that already exist, which I had no idea about. I had no idea these things were, you know, existed. It was less of a single turn, it just sort of seems like that, in the show. But it was sort of a growing, creeping element of doubt that came up the more people we spoke to and the more we heard.
Andrew Hammond: And over to Mark Zaid, who's worked in national security law for a very long time, and I think is one of the most fascinating perspectives in all of this because of the people that you represent and the amount of time that you've been doing this. So tell us how you first came across this, Mark, because it's before the Havana Syndrome, isn't it?
Mark Zaid: Right. So I'd give Nicky a bunch of crap and everyone else when we always hear in the media say it started in Havana. No, it didn't. Havana something happened in Havana that brought this to light at a number of people. Two things, the vast number of people impacted and who was being impacted, predominantly State Department. Now, I remember first seeing the stories, and immediately as I saw a story, I was like, ah, this is -- these aren't State Department people. These are CIA people who are being impacted. And this is some sort of intel thing. And you know, spy versus spy. And at first, it -- all the media reports were acoustic weapons. I was already working on a microwave-perceived case that dates back to 1995 for an NSA client, Michael Beck. And this is all public. Washington posted a great profile piece. The Guardian has done a good piece. And I've already been on it for several years. I've already been dealing with the NSA, who had given me information that they had knowledge of microwave weapons being used by a foreign adversary that could be used to maim or kill a victim without leaving any evidence. And that was all intelligence reports. It was this memo that they gave me. You could find it online from 2014, October, is very carefully crafted by my colleagues inside the legal office in NSA because they were giving it to me for use in potential proceedings to try and get medical attention for Michael. And then, as Havana hit, and we started to hear more and more of what was going on, and now I have two dozen clients or so from across the spectrum. You name the three-letter agency and other agencies who had personnel serving overseas, some whom you wouldn't have suspected to be impacted. I mean, let's be very clear about this. We know the color of the victims, the stories they can tell in their experiences, and what they've gone through. But this case, these cases, when you look at them historically, and the Moscow signal, I'll say, is the ancestor of it. And you have to look at it that it's not necessarily a straight line. It's an evolution of technology, an evolution of adversarial capabilities from a spy versus spy. It is something that has developed where we don't necessarily know the intent. Was it designed for surveillance to capture technology? Was it designed to impact the person? Or was the person's impact collateral damage that the adversary just didn't care about? Clearly, that has changed in the last few years because it has become so public, versus where it was in the shadows, that now anyone, whomever, and it could be more than one perpetrator, they're doing it is clearly having an adverse health impact on people. So regardless of what the intent is, there's a duality. And the notion of, right, this microphone I'm using is clearly for the purpose of beaming out my voice so you can -- you can hear me. But if I bop Marc on the head with it, it's pretty heavy, and it could be a weapon too. So that's where we're kind of looking at the technology, from the government standpoint, the legislative standpoint. How long has the Executive Branch known this was happening? To what extent were they telling anyone it was happening, a la what Kissinger was referencing? And what were the long-term health effects of it happening? And the responses that came out, the answers were, oh, it's been going on for 15, 20 years. We knew it in the Executive Branch. We weren't telling our people that it was happening who were based there in Moscow. And we have no idea of the long-term health impact because not enough time has gone by in 1977 or '9, whenever the -- the hearing was, because it had only been a few years that some of these people had been impacted. And why is it that that's not being studied? Why is it there's no report on that?
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Andrew Hammond: We want to help you truly understand the sometimes complicated but endlessly fascinating world of intelligence and espionage. We also want you to be able to go deeper into content that really grabs your attention. To these ends, every episode is accompanied by extended show notes, a podcasting term for the notes that, yes, accompany each show. And there, you will find beginner resources, short articles, and YouTube videos to help you get your head around the material and links to related SpyCasts so that you can broaden your understanding. We also feature secondary sources like books and documentaries and primary sources if you're curious or really know your stuff in the form of documents and oral histories. Every week, we also feature a wild card resource, which is fun, cheeky, and a little bit saucy. We also have full transcripts available there too for the language learner, neurodiverse, and hard-of-hearing communities. You can see all of these goodies at thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast.
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Andrew Hammond: And just to wrap that up, just thinking about this in terms of, say, trying to get to the bottom of something. We don't know the intentionality. We don't -- we don't know what the MO is as a directed attack against US Intelligence personnel, or is that a byproduct of doing something else at the embassy? We don't know what's going on there. It's things that are above and beyond what we can hear and what we can see. And then it involves intelligence agencies. And then the final part, which is, you know, I think significant is, this is ultimately about managing nuclear great power rivalry at some level as well, right? There's very significant geopolitics behind all of this. So just to move back to Marc, I was wondering, could you tell our audience, give them some context for the rough and tumble game of espionage because this is pretty common, right, harassment and, you know, your suitcases go missing. And, you know, people have broken into your apartment and so forth. It can, especially in Moscow during the Code War, it can be pretty rough and tumble. Give them some context for what's happened to you and some of the things that have happened to other people in the past.
Marc Polymeropoulos: So, Andrew, you know, traditionally in the, you know, espionage business, you know, there is a gentleman's agreement, not always abided by. And certainly, the Russians have played very, very dirty, particularly if you serve in Moscow. But overall, you know, even with our -- with some of our biggest adversaries, you know, when you serve overseas, and you have, you know, a CIA case officer, and you know that there's Russian intelligence officers, Iranian intelligence officers, Chinese intelligence officers, you're developing them. You're trying to recruit them. Or you see how they are having an impact, what they're doing on the streets. But ultimately, there is an agreement that you don't hurt each other. Now that, again, that's very kind of broad. And it doesn't go to some of the tough places, like in Moscow or other times where our officers have been targeted. But again, it's the general notion of that is not violated. And so, in this case, what is happening does seem to go to the extreme, particularly in the numbers that we're talking to. And this is not numbers, what we're, you know, and even if we're saying you can't even, you know, quantify the number of attacks that have occurred. But this is out of the norm. And so then, you know, one of the things that, I guess, we then look to, you know, so if I'm, you know, when I'm in places where there's a threat of counterterrorism, or we're going after terrorist groups, sure they're going to try to hurt CIA officers. But is a Russian SVR officer, is a Chinese MSS officer necessary -- or Iranian MYS officer necessarily going to do something like this? You know, perhaps not. Now, so then you go to the notion of why? What's changed? And to me, the way I think about this is, and I've been very open in when I say that I think Russia is a leading suspect. And I'm fine debating that all day. But if you take a look at how Russia and Russian intelligence is behaving over the last several years in international stage, well, they are doing things a little bit out of the norm, like trying to, you know, trying to kill their old officers in the UK, assassination operations in Germany. They're getting caught doing so. They're being very brazen in this. It's almost a, you know, a reflection of what I think is their, you know, their practicing of hybrid warfare, which is everything kind of underneath the surface, you know, non-kinetic shooting war. But they're doing things that are a bit out of the norm. And that does give us some pause, especially as Mark said, when CIA officers go overseas, not in conflict zones, but in traditional assignments, they take their families. And I know, and you know, and Mark alluded to it, I have friends and colleagues who have been affected by this, as have the six-month-old infants who have a permanent traumatic brain injury. And that, to me, is far beyond the norm of what is, you know, part of the intelligence game. I will say if I have had, you know, just individual anecdotes of friends who, you know, hey, do you want to go serve in X, Y, Z location? Well, I'm not sure I want to take my family there. It is a barrier to overseas service, which is something that we were very proud of for many years. And people always ask me, why has the agency not really pushed this and investigated it to the best of the ability of a world-class intelligence service? And, you know, people have different views of this. Well, what if we come to the conclusion that it's not safe to serve overseas? That's something that our operations directorate can't have happen. So I think there's a lot of reasons why you wouldn't want to kind of push this to the -- to some conclusions, which might be pretty disturbing for future service if we can't find out and stop what's happening.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm.
Marc Polymeropoulos: And that's a -- that's a hard thing to say that's damaging to our ability to kind of project, you know, what we need to overseas.
Andrew Hammond: I just wondered, Nicky, you know, you've been through this personal journey where I was just wondering, what highs and lows did you experience? What was the -- I see you almost like Ulysses out there getting blown from island to island and, you know, eating lota seeds and so forth.
Nicky Woolf: I mean, so one of the -- one of the most staggering things that I found in this was once it, you know, setting aside the question of what exactly happened for a moment, was quite how chaotic. Because coming from not the US and just sort of, you know, you see US kind of intelligence operations as sort of, you know, as the friend who turns up in James Bond or something. And learning that half these agencies barely even speak to each other was gobsmacking. I mean, the history of the FBI and the CIA kind of -- Is loathing the right word? Wouldn't that be just like, but like not all playing great together in the sandbox? Like this idea that all these agencies kind of have their own agendas and their own, not necessarily in a malignant way, in general, but just not speaking to each other, which just delayed any hope of getting reasonable investigation on this done. Each agency did their own investigation. They came to wildly different conclusions. And so there was a point at which all hope of a definitive answer was kind of lost because too much time had passed. The data was getting too noisy. And we spoke to -- there was a National Academy of Science investigation commissioned by the State Department to one of, you know, more than a dozen investigations or so. And, yeah, they were like, yeah, it took them two years to pick up the phone and call us, by which time it was already too late. And that was -- that was the moment I just sort of -- where we both sort of sat back and were like, damn, there's a real kind of screw-up happened here. And then there was the second US Government screw-up, which is the support for the victims just wasn't there from any of the branches of government really. They just, the fight that people going through, what you went through had to do in order to get the bare minimum of medical care was really stark to me, I thought.
Andrew Hammond: And one question that I wanted to ask all of you, what do you see is going on here? Is this just good old-fashioned bureaucratic incompetence? Like what -- why have we not got to the bottom of this? Is this people like Kissinger sitting on top of information? Or is this just incompetence? Is it lack of communication? Is it something else? Yeah. Why would they not try to get to the bottom of it? What's going on? Like, why did it shake out like this? Why did it not shake out in a better outcome?
Marc Polymeropoulos: Well, I mean, one of the things that I learned kind of over the years working in national security is when there's a story, and there's some kind of scandal, incompetence usually is the culprit. And in this case, there certainly was some incompetence. But then it starts moving towards willful neglect or almost, you know, almost dismissive of some of our claims. But it's a question three former CIA directors, when they called me, said, why are they not sending you to the doctor? And I said I can't answer that. And even when I fought to get to Walter Reed for those months and months, the senior -- some senior staff at the agency and certainly in the Office of Medical Services, who, by the way, CIA Director Burns, ended up removing for cause, but they would say things to me like, well, Marc wants worker's compensation. You know, Marc wants money out of this. They started making up things like I had a previous traumatic brain injury, a preexisting condition. So it started going past the incompetence piece to something a little more, frankly, to me, that was -- it was disturbing. It was wrong. And it violated that oath that we had as CIA officers to take care of each other. And so it's people actively working against health care. And that, to me, is something that I will, you know, I will never get over.
Andrew Hammond: Well, why do you think they were doing that? Was it to protect their own careers? Or was it to try to protect the agency in some misguided way? Why would people who were your colleagues work against you?
Marc Polymeropoulos: I can't answer that. I know Mark wants to answer.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. Okay. Right. Succinctly.
Marc Polymeropoulos: This is my lawyer. He's very good.
Mark Zaid: I always go back to the saying about, you know, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. And having been in DC now for 30 years working on national security cases, never having been in the federal government, at least that I can tell you.
Marc Polymeropoulos: That's what you would say.
Mark Zaid: Right. That I have determined that 15 to 20 years is the line where everybody starts forgetting what had happened beforehand. And so I worked on Gulf War Syndrome cases back in the 1990s, in suing the government for access to data about it, working with some of the congressional task forces on it. I worked on the anthrax vaccine conspiracy matters for a number of years and shut the program down for being experimental. And we saw the same type of machinations within the agencies of challenging the existence of injuries that were difficult to identify. And that's part of the problem because you'll have naysayers with inside the agencies who think immediately that people are faking it on purpose because they want to get out of assignments, they want to get free healthcare, they want to get free compensation, whatever it might be. And that grows, and there is a concern. And some of it is legitimate concern because some of the symptoms are so generic and can exist for alternative reasons or just are difficult to identify, that I've heard from folks within the agencies that, you know, they don't want to just be providing lush assignments or compensation to everybody who just applies because they get a doctor somewhere in the United States to say, oh, you have a traumatic brain injury. Which so frankly, you know, some doctors will do if for whatever reason. So there are problems with identifying exactly what this is and quantifying in a way so that the government will take care. But it's all of the above of what everybody is saying. I always say incompetence first, CYA second, malicious conspiracy third. And there could be an overlap between the three of them. But we're at a point now, though, where and the agencies are coming away or coming to it begrudgingly. I used to feel sorry for the State Department in the early years post Havana because they were the poster child in taking the brunt of it because they had the majority of the people publicly. And they were in the dark from the CIA. The CIA was not sharing information with them. I even had that with NSA where we had to -- we had to bring CIA people up to NSA for them to meet and learn. The problem is there's no really easy answer to these questions.
Andrew Hammond: Do you have any idea or Nicky, is it just one of those things that historians will find out in 50 years when everybody has moved on?
Nicky Woolf: Yeah, and I think, as you said, I think there's a lot of ass-covering going on that would really undermine that first position if we now come back and start approaching it in a different way. Yeah. It's kind of -- it remains kind of inexplicable to me the way, the fight that people have had to go through.
Mark Zaid: I like to apply Occam's razor to most everything I do, and I work on a lot of conspiracy cases in trying to whittle them down so that they're no longer, frankly, conspiracy cases. But if you just flesh this out and think of it from the government standpoint of what, if this is what we think it is, what would that mean? If we've known about this for decades, and we've had incidents here in Washington, DC, including of some of my clients at the White House, it is an adversary targeting our people, that's an act of war. And that has really cataclysmic concerns if that's what this is. So if our government knows what it is, I could understand actually some reasons. I might not agree with it, but I can understand why they wouldn't reveal it.
Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been really fascinating, and I think there's more that's going to come out for the questions. So one of the first ones that I think is quite interesting: Have other countries or intelligence services reported similar phenomenon? Or is this strictly a US-centric thing?
Nicky Woolf: Canada, straight off the bat. So in the first, the kind of Havana cohort, quite soon after Canadians start to be hit as well, I think it was 15 or 16 total Canadian cases at the same level. And they did their own separate investigation. They had separate brain scans, which came to the same conclusions that the American Institutions doing brain scans have come to. Those are the two major targets. We've heard stories of it, kind of incidental stories happening to Australians. No Brits as far as -- as far as I [inaudible].
Mark Zaid: [Inaudible] anecdotal Brits, but it's all rumor and innuendo.
Nicky Woolf: Yeah.
Mark Zaid: It's been more -- This has always struck me again, applying Occam's razor that I never understood. Because if it is the Russians as a main protagonist against us, why would they not be doing it to the Germans, the French, the Brits, the five I's, and others around the world? You would've thought --
Nicky Woolf: Not to mention the [inaudible].
Mark Zaid: Right. You would've thought this would come up. And it hasn't other than murmurs of it. I don't know of any press reports of foreign incidents. You know, that is a perplexing question that is a fair and legitimate one that, to me, always raises strange doubts as to just trying to figure out what the hell this is.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, this is just a thought, but if you think about Britain, the assassinations or the assassination attempts, the Russians have clearly said to themselves, this is something we can get away with with them. Sure, they're in NATO, but we're taking out our former intelligence.
Nicky Woolf: They don't need to intimidate them.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. But in the, you know, you haven't seen those types of things in the United States. So are they saying to themselves, let's keep it at the level of non-attributable? Let's do things that are messing with them but not messing with them because they can never prove it? Or is that barking up the wrong tree? Any thoughts?
Mark Zaid: No, I think that that makes a lot of sense. Again, the idea of a non-attributable attack that shows all sorts of chaos. You know, if this is a Russian, in essence, an active measures plan, it's been pretty successful.
Nicky Woolf: And then there's also the question of, as kind of happened to you, which is that it -- and we spoke to a lot of people who, until the Havana thing happened, didn't connect the dots between their own experience and this. They didn't kind of put the pattern together. It's, you know, possible that internal reporting has been done in British contacts. And it just hasn't hit the press, or, you know, there's all kinds of things that could be going on there.
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Andrew Hammond: Chekism refers to an ideology and a state of mind similar to the Cheka, the Soviet secret police agency in the early years of the 20th century. In a precursor to the World War II era, NKVD, the infamous Cold War KGB, and the modern FSB. It is characterized by a focus on information and secrecy, the ends justifying the means, and a marshal, paternalistic, and hierarchy code disposition. The Cheka was set up by Vladimir Lennon to secure the Russian Revolution against counterrevolutionaries and was headed up by the notorious yet highly capable Felix Dzerzhinsky, whom one scholar has called quote "a case study in the sincerity of evil," close quotes. Chekism, to many observers, lives so in the present day in the form of Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, and those he has gathered around him as the ruling class in Russia. Well, the word was once tied to a particular historical period and a political ideology that is now unmoored from the Russian Revolution and communism that lives on as a mindset.
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Andrew Hammond: Next question. Why is there not more reporting on Department of Defense anomalous health incidents?
Mark Zaid: I mean, there have been DOD victims. NSA, of course, I've mentioned I have several, all from different locations. There's been defense intelligence agency victims. And I know there was at least one DOD victim in Havana at the time. I don't know what position they held, but I know the State Department confirmed it when I was in a meeting. And I will say I -- the Defense Department has been, really, right now, is at the forefront of pushing this to help the victims. There are -- and maybe it's lessons they learned from Gulf War Syndrome where they still couldn't figure out exactly what the cause is. But they finally got to the premise of, we recognize you're injured. It happened on our watch. We're going to take care of you. And so the folks who were going to Walter Reed for treatment at first were on a one-year cycle, and it had to be renewed. Where here in DC -- Or those of you who have worked for the federal government, right, somebody's got to pay for something. And I always learned this fascinated from government agency to agency, right? It's not one big government. This agency has a budget, and that agency has a budget. And if this agency does work, they want that agency to pay for it, not this agency out of their budget. So it has been an issue of who pays for the treatment at Walter Reed. And the CIA stopped renewing people because their medical services offices was getting involved in trying to contradict what the Pentagon and the folks at Walter Reed were saying. And then, to its credit, the Pentagon said, to hell with it, anybody who's been at our program, you're going to stay. You keep making your appointments. We don't care. We'll figure out the money later. So DOD right now is the better -- is the kind of poster child for how to deal with things at the moment. And we'll see. But it's a big bureaucracy, and there are a lot of problems. And there's a lot of people fighting against what's happening. And it takes people to step up and do the right thing, which we're seeing by a lot of people on the hill, thankfully, and people within each of the agencies.
Marc Polymeropoulos: So, Andrew, I, you know, I think I, for a lot of the victims, I think we have a lot more faith in the DOD system on this. And I think a lot of it does have to do with what Mark alluded to is that they have had experience over the years in strange kinds of medical issues, which frankly all end up being real in the end.
Andrew Hammond: What did that feel like, Marc, when you felt like you weren't being [inaudible] any longer when your suffering was validated or —
Marc Polymeropoulos: Just, you know, it was a -- it was a tremendous moment when I was discharged from Walter Reed, and I had that piece of paper in my hand. And even recently, when they provided more kind of documentation for some of my compensation claims to the agency. But this is -- this is a tangible piece of paper written by a, you know, a team at Walter Reed who have for decades studied traumatic brain injury. We saw after two, you know, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tremendous toll TBI and post-traumatic stress and others took on our US military personnel. The fact that they provided this to me, I had tears in my eyes.
Andrew Hammond: And here's a related question. Have there been any follow-up MRIs that show improvement within the brain tissue and thus can extrapolate backwards to definitively document brain injury or damage?
Nicky Woolf: Not that I've seen it published study on. I assume individual cases will have been re-scanned probably, but those would be covered by HIPPA, I would imagine.
Marc Polymeropoulos: I've had a lot of MRIs over the years. You know, I think that, and I think there's some, you know, folks in the audience who are very well versed on this. But it -- there, you know, it's not always entirely clear what's going to come out on imaging. And I don't think we should put, you know, a lot into that other than if doctors see anomalies, that's important. I think there's, you know, for me and for some of the other patients, it's, you know, improvement is how you feel every day. But ultimately, you know, when you start feeling better, you know you're feeling better.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm.
Marc Polymeropoulos: And to me, that's the improvement that I wanted to see. And it's a lot that was taught at a lot of these facilities in terms of, you know, kind of overall wellness and resiliency.
Andrew Hammond: Next question: Given that we have both the resources and the technology, why have we not installed detection equipment at our embassies overseas to prevent more officers from getting sick?
Nicky Woolf: They started giving detectors quite soon after the first alleged Havana incident, but there, as far as I know, hasn't been -- isn't a perfect detector for what this kind of thing could be.
Mark Zaid: Yeah, it's complicated, obviously. I guess what I would say, and sort of going back to what Nicky was talking about with, it is amazing what information is out there publicly in patent applications and government contracts of how long the industries have been working on this. And I know what I had been told from inside is that, frankly, our adversaries are way ahead of us. And some of it is because these people just made decisions to where they were going to focus on work. What was the applicability of it? Others, because some countries have lower ethical medical standards than we do as far as testing out certain techniques and devices and things like that. So there's been a lot going on that we know behind the scenes, especially the Defense Department, current applicability that they've been studying. So, there are answers to those questions, but probably just too complicated to do here.
Marc Polymeropoulos: Yeah, Andrew, I'll throw just one thing in here. And it's using an old kind of term we use in the counterterrorism world. It's called getting off the X. And so, you know, one of the things that certainly has been passed, you know, through the, you know, current agency staff is if you're feeling something like what we are hearing in terms of sound or any kind of blast wave is to, you know, get away from that location. One of the things our doctors have told us at Walter Reed and other places is the more exposure you have had to whatever happened, the, you know, the more kind of the severity of your injury increases. And so it's the idea of, again, getting off the X, someone's not shooting an AK 47 at you, but someone is doing something to you. And I mean, you think about, you know, what are countermeasures? It's if you feel something, kind of, you know, move out of that location as quickly as possible. And that, to me, is probably the only thing in terms of advice rather than any kind of technical.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm.
Marc Polymeropoulos: I mean, there's been a whole bunch of officers who have had things to try to detect some kind of microwave blast or something that, just to me, that hasn't worked.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm.
Mark Zaid: Yeah. And I will add there is evidence, and by when I say evidence as a lawyer, it doesn't mean it's good evidence. But there is evidence of from technology, cell phones, and computers of at the same time the human is feeling something, the cell phones were going crazy, and the computers were going crazy. This goes to what I was saying earlier of where my anger and frustration grows as to trying to understand what's going on on the inside as far as studying this because I know I have clients who have this evidence. And we've offered it to the government many times. And either they don't take it, or they take it, and then we never -- it just goes into, you know, Indiana Jones' vault at the end of the first movie and just disappears.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's been such a great conversation. I've really enjoyed speaking to you, gentlemen. Could you all put your hands together to thank our panel, please?
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Unidentified Person: I don't need that kind of money. I don't need that, you know, it's very cheap to work in the realm of ideas, and that's my corner of the realm is ideas. So that's what I'm bringing to this, you know. It's just, we're going to let that industrial complex keep churning out the planes and the tanks and all of that because it's important, you know, and it makes the people that like it happy. So we'll let them keep doing that. But while they're doing that, we're also going to work this little insurgency on the other side to convince people that there's other ways to deal with these irregular problems globally.
Andrew Hammond: If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at intlspycast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta Afua Anokwa, Elliot Pelzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's pre-eminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.
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