It starts with the noise. Harsh mechanical sounds like loud screeching. Then, an uncomfortable pressure, a loss of balance like being hit with a beam of energy.
All of that can be followed by months — even years — of headaches, nausea, hearing and memory loss.
Since 2016, more than 200 US government officials have described feeling some or all of these symptoms and others. It's widely known as "Havana syndrome," since the first cases were detected in the Cuban capital.
The number of reported cases of possible attack is sharply growing and lawmakers from both parties, as well as those believed to be affected, are demanding answers. But scientists and government officials aren’t yet certain about who might have been behind any attacks, if the symptoms could have been caused inadvertently by surveillance equipment — or if the incidents were actually attacks.
Cuba and other countries where these types of attacks have been reported deny any involvement.
Related: More details but no answers in brain trauma cases of US diplomats
Retired CIA senior intelligence officer Marc Polymeropoulos has been quite outspoken about Havana syndrome, having experienced many of the symptoms himself. Polymeropoulos, author of "Clarity and Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA," joins The World's host Marco Werman to tell us about his experience with Havana syndrome and what he thinks the US should do about it.
Marco Werman: Marc, what happened to you in Moscow in 2017?
Marc Polymeropoulos: I made a trip, a routine trip to Moscow in early December 2017. I was a senior official in CIA's clandestine services. And so I made a trip to Moscow, first of all, to see the Embassy and to see our ambassador. And also I wanted to get what we call "area familiarization," which is just the idea of seeing Russia for the first time. I had responsibility over Russia as well as other parts of Europe and Eurasia. So a routine trip, but something that certainly changed my life.
Related: US Embassy closure in Iraq would hand Tehran a 'strategic victory'
After that incident in Moscow, were you detecting anything in real time? And how soon did you feel symptoms? Do you still feel them today?
So, yeah. So it started a really awful and rather remarkable journey. So, it was on the night of Dec. 5, I woke up to a start. I had vertigo. I had a terrible headache, tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears — something really, really traumatic had happened to me. I had been in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and other places. I served over three years after 9/11 in war zones. I've been shot at. I put myself in harm's way. But this was the scariest moment of my life. And so I knew something terrible had happened. I made it through about 10 days with the symptoms on and off. I came back to the United States and then the symptoms got particularly awful. And about March, April of 2018, to the point where I couldn't work anymore. And after really seeing numerous doctors and undergoing just this incredible journey of trying to find out what happened, I, you know, I couldn't drive for a while, I lost my long-distance vision. And so, ultimately, I had to retire from the CIA in July of 2019.Now, I did make it, after quite a public battle to obtain health care, I did make it to Walter Reed's National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which is the US military's premiere facility to treat traumatic brain injury. And so I went there between January, February of this year of 2021. And I do feel remarkably better now to a point where I really can function — and I'm still battling the headaches. I've had a headache for almost four years, but things are much better. Walter Reed gave me tools on how to deal with the TBI that I had and also hope. And so I'm very grateful to the doctors and all the men and women there.
Related: Why moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is so controversial
Were you able to get the treatment you wanted to receive?
I did, but I had to go public with this. It caused a bit of a stink, I must say, with the CIA. But I was basically begging and pleading for health care because I just was not getting that. Ultimately, the agency did not believe that anything had happened to me. But after kind of this public outcry, I did end up — they acquiesced —and I did go to Walter Reed. And it was amazing because Walter Reed diagnosed me officially with a traumatic brain injury [TBI]. There is a new term that the US government is using. It's called an "anomalous health incident" — AHI. And ... they're trying to put something together that doesn't just talk about what happened in Havana, since it's happening now, reportedly, all over the world.
Right. Well, since your case in 2017, there have been reported cases in China, Germany, Austria. There was a reported case in Washington, DC, on the White House lawn just last week. Vice President [Kamala] Harris' trip to Vietnam was delayed as a result of another case there. How do you explain all this? I mean, what is your theory about what's causing this anomalous health incident we call Havana syndrome?
...I'm not privy to US government information any longer. And if I was, I probably couldn't talk about it, but to me, it's quite obvious there's an adversary doing this. I think the leading candidate are the Russians because they've had such weapons in our arsenal in the past. But ultimately, this is a weapon designed to terrorize. It's an act of war, in my view. It's a terrible word to use. ... I'm going to say now it's rather brilliant because it's very hard ... to find attribution on who's doing this. It's designed to incapacitate, so it certainly didn't kill me or others, but it takes us off the playing field. I think that we're going to find out what has occurred. CIA Director Bill Burns has put together, as you've seen from the press, a task force made up of some individuals who actually were involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. I think the CIA and intelligence community is going to get to the bottom of it. It might take some time, but this is something that has to be done. It's an act of war. It's putting our people overseas in peril and we have to have it stop.
Well, I was going to ask you, if we end up with incontrovertible proof that there is a government using a weapon that caused this, where does that leave the US in terms of responding?
Well, it's an act of war. It's based on operating [in] what we call now in the national security sphere "the gray zone." So these are activities, it's below ... obviously, a shooting war, but something pretty serious, pretty severe. And we're going to have to respond in a very smart manner, because this is something that is much more than influence operations. It's something that's much more than harassment. This is actually injuring our personnel. And so whatever administration finds out who's behind this is going to have some hard decisions to make. It can't just be sanctions. In my view, it's got to be seen as these are actual attacks — which they are — on US officials, and for the safety of the men and women serving overseas, our response has to be pretty dramatic.
Has CIA Director William Burns reached out to you directly or anyone from the Biden administration?
I know Bill Burns very well. I have talked to him many times. He has taken a personal interest in my case in terms of my health care and has assured me and he's assured others that we're going to get to the bottom of this. I think he's the right person for this job. I admire him greatly. I think is an excellent leader. And I think, most importantly, he cares for his people. So he understands that we have to get to the bottom of this. So as long as he's there, in that role, I feel pretty good that we're going to make progress.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.