Monday, February 26, 2018

The Havana health mystery, clear as mud

It’s no fault of reporters and investigators that as they generate more information on the Havana health mystery, we no greater understanding of what happened to U.S. diplomats, much less how it happened.

This ProPublica piece by Tim Golden goes far beyond any other journalistic account, describing the sequence of events in Havana, the U.S. Embassy’s reaction, and apparent disagreement between the FBI and the CIA. Golden reports on an aspect that until now has not been covered:  the experience of the Canadians in Havana, which affected fewer people and is apparently different than that of the Americans. His article makes clear that U.S. reluctance to collaborate with Cuban investigators is based on suspicion that Cuba may be the perpetrator. He also reports that the FBI consulted an insect expert at Barry University in Florida whose assessment was that the recordings made in Havana sounded “like cicadas,” which is kind of funny considering the snickering that greeted the same statement when Cuban investigators made it.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) gives the results of the authors’ review of the medical records, and basically describes patients with concussion-like symptoms but no concussion. Or, in their words, they “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” Neither the symptoms nor the circumstances were uniform across the 21 affected persons, and among those who reported sounds, they described different kinds of sounds, from high-pitched squeals to the repetitive thud you experience when driving fast with a car window slightly open. The authors discount the hypothesis of “mass psychogenic illness.” A summary in Science magazine is here.

Oddly, the article says that the diplomats were exposed to “an unknown energy source” without offering evidence that this is the case. In the podcast cited below, one of the authors avers that the “energy source” concept was merely their “best guess.”

An accompanying JAMA editorial is a somewhat easier-to-read guide to a case where a “unifying explanation for the symptoms…remains elusive.” The concussion analogy, it says, “may be unnecessary as many of the symptoms described also occur in other medical, neurological, or psychiatric conditions.” The “similarities among the 21 cases,” it argues, “merit consideration of a common medical, environmental, or psychological event as the potential cause.”

The Guardian sums up the science debate in this article and in this very useful 30-minute podcast, where one of the JAMA authors, a skeptical scientist, and a Cuban investigator are interviewed. Dr. Douglas Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the JAMA authors, says that “almost all” of those affected reported hearing sounds, “a range of audible phenomena.” He adds that the authors “do not think that the audible phenomenon caused any kind of injury to the brain,” and the “audible phenomenon was more a side effect of something else.” If the psychogenic hypothesis interests you, you will want to listen to Dr. Robert Bartholomew, starting about 10 minutes in.

Meanwhile, the State Department has formed an “Accountability Review Board” to investigate the matter; these boards are established by regulation to conduct “thorough and independent review of security-related incidents” in diplomatic missions.

Good luck to them. But as the State Department leadership approaches a decision on the future posture of our Havana embassy, now with a skeleton staff and a chief of mission on a short-term assignment, it seems increasingly possible that the investigations may yield nothing that clarifies what happened, how it happened, or who if anyone was behind it.