Watch the CNN Special Report: “Immaculate Concussion: The Truth About Havana Syndrome” at 8 pm ET Sunday on CNN.
CIA physician Dr. Paul Andrews was one of the first people sent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate a spate of mysterious health incidents that were impacting embassy and agency personnel in 2017 when he was struck by the same set of debilitating symptoms, he told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his first public interview for a CNN Special Report: “Immaculate Concussion: The Truth About Havana Syndrome.”
Andrews, who is using a pseudonym in order to speak publicly, had already been studying the first victims of what has come to be known colloquially as “Havana syndrome,” or officially as “anomalous health incidents.” Physicians in Florida had recorded a series of symptoms that hinted that victims were suffering from a brain injury that was impacting their balance, among other things. Andrews traveled to Cuba to investigate about two months after he became aware of the first cases.
He wasn’t too worried for his own safety, at first. On his first night, he went to sleep around 11:30 p.m. in his hotel room. But shortly before 5 a.m., he was awakened by severe pain in his right ear, nausea and a terrible headache. Then he began to hear a clicking noise that past victims had reported hearing at the onset of their symptoms — a sound that Andrews had previously only heard on audio clips.
His first thought was that he was dreaming.
“This can’t be happening. And I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute, and things were getting worse and worse and worse,” he recalled. “I’m really in disbelief. And I start to think, is this a dream? I had no idea.”
Because officials at the time suspected some kind of sonic attack, Andrews went into the bathroom and sat with headphones on for 45 minutes. The symptoms didn’t abate, and by 6 a.m., he had decided to pack up and leave the room.
But he found that he could hardly pack. He checked the bathroom “at least four or five times” to make sure he had his toothbrush, then did the same getting his coat out of the closet. On his way to meet colleagues at the hotel cafeteria, he couldn’t figure out if he was supposed to push or pull doors. And he realized his balance was “way off.”
Certain that he and his colleagues were being surveilled, he tried to tell his colleagues quietly that he thought he may have been injured — but he wasn’t sure they understood. For the rest of the day, Andrews said he was in a fog: nauseated, disoriented, and struggling with basic tasks like counting money and displaying his ID card to security staff.
When he returned to the United States, he called the same doctor in Florida that he had been working with to investigate the original victims, and told him he needed help.
A mystery illness
Anomalous health incidents — AHIs for short — are still a source of mystery and debate within the intelligence community. One panel investigating the incidents, which have now impacted dozens of US officials across the globe, has said that some of the episodes could “plausibly” have been caused by “pulsed electromagnetic energy” emitted by an external source. But the panel stopped short of making a definitive determination.
An interim report issued early this year by a separate CIA task force examining who might be behind the episodes found that it was unlikely Russia or any other foreign adversary is conducting a widespread global campaign designed to harm US officials. But the agency also did not rule out that a nation state – including Russia – might be responsible for roughly two dozen cases that investigators have been unable to explain by any other known cause.
In short, sources say, after years of investigation, the intelligence community is no closer to determining who or what is causing these injuries — or even if all of the roughly two dozen unsolved cases are all caused by the same actor or mechanism.
Some victims — now including Andrews — have raised concerns about how the agency handled the initial tranche of cases. Former CIA officials have alleged that their injuries were not taken seriously at first by CIA leadership, in part because many of the symptoms were subtle and could be associated with any number of known health conditions.
“The narrative just was going the wrong way. And no matter what I did or said to people, that just continued,” Andrews said. “In fact, to this day, a lot of things that were done seemed not appropriate to my standards.”
Some officers who were impacted didn’t want to report for fear of damaging their careers, Andrews said.
“Another person at one point told me as an aside that he or she thought that they may have been hit and that they’re hearing and or pain in their ear was present,” he said. “And I said, are you gonna report this? And they said, absolutely not.”
Victims have broadly praised CIA Director Bill Burns’ handling of the issue, and the Biden administration has been careful to avoid any hint that it is not taking victims seriously.
“I think we’ve made significant progress in ensuring people get the care that they need and deserve,” Burns said in public remarks at the Aspen Security Forum in July. “We tripled the number of full time personnel in our medical office that deals with this issue. We worked out very important relationships, not just with Walter Reed, but, you know, private medical systems to make sure people got the care.”
Congress in 2021 passed legislation mandating compensation for victims, and some of those payments have been disbursed, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The CIA declined to comment for this story.
Five years later
More than five years later, Andrews still suffers debilitating symptoms. He still has balance and vision problems that have made it almost impossible for him to function normally. He has trouble reading, going hiking or jogging as it makes him nauseated, and forget being in a crowd at a museum: turning his head left and right to look at the art and avoid bumping into other patrons makes him dizzy and sick.
“It gets to the point where you just don’t want to go out of the house because you say what’s the point? I want to go do this, but I know it’s going to make me sick,” he said. “I don’t want to be nauseated. I don’t want to be tripping and falling.
“It’s very frustrating that all those things you want to do, you can’t,” he said.
Andrews has been examined by a battery of physicians, who have found damage to his vestibular structures — the parts of the body that govern balance and orientation. But like many AHI victims, Andrews lacks one single, clear diagnosis. Some victims have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, which he questions because even though he says AHIs are clearly brain injuries, they appear to him to be a different kind of brain injury than doctors have seen before.
For Andrews, like the intelligence community, there is little more certainty about who or what is behind this strange phenomenon than when he traveled to Cuba in spring of 2017.
“I certainly learned about the condition more than I wanted to learn,” he told Gupta.