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Havana (Syndrome) Affair
The CIA has now acknowledged that almost every declared case of "Havana Syndrome" has a natural, not science fiction, origin. Why did anybody ever think otherwise?
Hello readers! It’s Derek here, from the Foreign Exchanges newsletter. We couldn’t let the collapse of the media’s favorite theoretical ray gun story go by without commemorating it somehow. So, and in an effort to offer you a little variety in your newsletter consumption, we’re very pleased to welcome journalist Natalie Shure this week for a guest essay on the journalists and nat sec operators who brought you — and will probably keep trying to bring you, inconvenient facts notwithstanding — the Havana Syndrome scare. Natalie’s been one of the leading voices pushing back against a narrative that has accepted as fact the claim that Americans and other Westerners around the world are being subjected to directed energy weapon attacks, even though the existence of a “directed energy weapon” that could produce the observed effects has never been demonstrated. We’re very pleased she’s agreed to share her thoughts with us today. Enjoy!
by Natalie Shure
The single worst feature article to be written about Havana Syndrome led with a passage that helps explain how a hokey conspiracy theory that U.S. spies and diplomats were being chased around the globe with Russian ray guns became accepted truth across government agencies and the mainstream media. In late October 2021, journalist Julia Ioffe opened a piece in Puck News by recounting her first meeting with Marc Polymeropoulos, the former CIA bigwig-turned-Havana Syndrome patient advocate on whom Ioffe had centered a splashy GQ Magazine article the year before. She’d been meeting with him for another story when he mentioned he’d been one of the victims of a string of directed energy weapon attacks around the world — a phenomenon she’d heard of and already suspected Russia was behind. When she eventually took his story to print in October 2020, it helped revive the saga of Havana Syndrome, which had been in relative retreat since its 2017-2018 heyday.
The GQ story made Polymeropoulos the most high-profile self-identified ray gun victim, and he’d go on to play a key role in the Havana Syndrome extended universe. As Ioffe stressed in her Puck followup, his professional stature made his testimony difficult for the Blob to ignore: “Marc, who was seen as more credible and psychologically steady than some of the previous complainants, went public…although there is still some frustration that the State Department’s medical office is bureaucratically slow-rolling [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken’s efforts, there’s a new attitude in Washington now toward victims of Havana Syndrome.” To one anonymous Hill staffer, the turn made sense — as she asked Ioffe, “Why would we question the sanity of people who are highly trained to handle some of the government’s most sensitive information and negotiations?”
Now that even the CIA is prepared to say that most, though not yet all, Havana Syndrome cases were caused by something other than a mystery ray gun, let’s unpack this tale. For starters, we’ve got a credulous national security reporter who has never stumbled upon a shred of odious bluster about Russia that she didn’t like. We’ve got a top-tier CIA goon who became obsessed with the idea that his storied career was cut short not by what looks to be a mundane functional illness, but by imaginary energy attacks. And we’ve got a whole crop of people convinced that those alleged energy attacks must be real, because the people to whom they’re happening are smart and serious types surely who know better than we do.
Ioffe wasn’t the only journalist to botch the Havana Syndrome story, though she may have been the first to write a Havana Syndrome feature article on it that largely dispensed with the word “alleged,” and discussed both the “attacks” and the fact that Russia was surely orchestrating them as foregone conclusions. She is, however, emblematic of how the story was handled by national security reporters, the dingbats who peddled this crap for half a decade with a straight face. When the first reports of an illness cluster in Havana began trickling out in 2017, it was the kind of story that flatters one’s priors — if one’s priors are that America must be vigilant against constant threats, or that the problem with Trump was that he loves Russia so much that he’s letting them attack unwitting Americans with space lasers. Amid all that vigilance, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a single instance in which one of these intrepid national security reporters asked or quoted a primary care doctor or neurologist not already directly involved in the case about whether symptoms like headaches, fatigue and dizziness imply a specific, nefarious cause. Of course they don’t!
As for Polymeropolous, I believe that he — like all self-professed victims of Havana Syndrome — is actually suffering. But I do not believe (nor should you) that he was ray gunned in his sleep in a Moscow hotel room, and I resent him for making the claim that he was into a personal crusade. Since Ioffe and GQ publicized his case, Polymeropoulos has led a cohort of victim advocates in pushing federal agencies toward the weapons thesis, even reportedly calling for investigators who refused to rule out psychogenic explanations to be replaced. More concerningly, Polymeropoulos has outlined policy ideas for retaliating against Russia for these so-called attacks. He’s repeatedly and vehemently denied that stress, anxiety, and depression could be at play. “I can assure you that myself and other agency officers medically retired with permanent disabilities were not victims of a panic attack. I served in multiple war zones — I can assure you that panic is not in my DNA,” he tweeted, after a Washington Post column suggested as much. This is condescending, stigmatizing, and also a probable lie: during a recent virtual speaking tour to promote his new memoir, Polymeropoulos frequently discussed his experiences with PTSD — a mental health diagnosis.
For Polymeropoulos, I suspect that the difference between PTSD and anxiety is that one is for tough hero types, and the other is for whiny bitches who couldn’t hack it in elite jobs. Perhaps getting “attacked” while serving his country comports with how he’d like to see himself in a way that functional illness triggered by stress doesn’t. That dismissiveness has been present in some form throughout coverage of Havana Syndrome, in the same way the Capitol Hill staffer stressed to Ioffe: these high-achieving people couldn’t have just gone crazy! It isn’t just all in their head! These are competent people, they’re not just anxious! Ergo, the invisible microwave weapons are real!
They are not real. But the debilitating symptoms are. And they’re not somehow more valid if driven by Russian military technology than if they’re driven by something that’s been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time — illness without a clear anatomic cause, pain that simply can’t be fixed with a snap. That’s not the same as “faking it,” or “going crazy,” and passing the foreign service exam or working in the US intelligence community don’t exempt you from it.
If the CIA’s recent heel-turn is any indication, government agencies may finally be admitting that after five years of investigation — accelerated by misguided whistleblowers utterly convinced of a plot too silly for teen sci-fi — they’ve found nothing at all. They never ever will.
Natalie Shure is a researcher and writer in Boston. Her work focuses on health, history and politics. You can find her on Twitter: @nataliesurely.
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Welcome to Hell World
Please enjoy this story about a Wisconsin judge who ruled on Friday that a group of healthcare workers are not allowed to leave their job at one hospital for better working conditions and pay at a second hospital because it would be unfair to the first one.
On Thursday lawyers for ThedaCare — a non-profit health system with seven hospitals in the state — asked a judge to block seven of its employees in the radiology and cardiovascular department from beginning new jobs at Ascension Northeast Wisconsin until replacement workers could be found. Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinnis granted that request effectively telling the workers — at will workers without a contract to be clear — that they are not free to go.
Elsewhere people seemed to think this piece from last week was “one of the good ones” so if you like the ones where I do stream of consciousness pretentious crying about drinking too much and mortality then you should subscribe and read the whole thing here.
“I may be repeating myself here with this I’m scared to die shit but what other story is there? Not just now at this point in time for me and you during the pandemic but ever for anyone I mean.”
It also gets into Edgar Allan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse — We do these actions, Poe writes, “because we feel that we should not” — and Dostoevsky and cops being substitute teachers and cops dying from Covid and Station Eleven and Hamlet and Florida and Hemingway and I forget what else.
Last week was Covid heavy at The Flashpoint.
I talked to nurses experiencing burnout:
Dan, who is an Intensive Care Unit nurse in Houston, told me that he finished school in the summer of 2020 and was thrust into work immediately at the height of the pandemic. The nature of Covid and how the illness affects the most vulnerable has put incredible pressure on hospitals, especially in the ICU.
“In the first wave we went from having about 20 beds to opening up a whole floor like 40, 50 beds,” Dan said. “We didn't have the staff for this, so what they were doing, they were trying to cope with hiring travel nurses.”
A report on a wages bait and switch scam used by employers I did with More Perfect Union is up, check it out:
This week I talk with people with disabilities about their pandemic experiences and, on the podcast, delve into Brazilian and US politics.
Thanks for reading—see you all next week.
[in extremely normal, human voice that could definitely pass a captcha test] Last week I made $3,600 gambling on sports from my home. Click here to learn how!
The sportsbooks apps have arrived in New York, with introductory customer-acquisition offers so generous (for a while there, Caesar's was offering $3,000 of free money to gamble with if you deposited $3,000 of your own, a suicidally lavish offer that's since been curtailed) it's enticing even the most cautious non-degenerates into the seedy world of point spreads, money lines, and arbitrary prop bets on Hawaiian golf tournaments because you're up at 5:30 a.m. and that's the only thing going on. I signed up for all five and made about 90 percent of the bonus money back in real cash. And I got some content out of it! (Yes, the post includes instructions for taking advantage of the offers.)
I find these apps fascinating for a bunch of reasons: they activate all kinds of part in my brain, from the "degenerate gambler" lobe to the "credit card points pervert" lesion. But I'm also interested because so much tech criticism of the last decade has drawn on studies of the gambling industry to make its case. The anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll's book Addiction by Design, a now-ten-year-old book about the people who play video slots and the companies that design and manufacture the machines (not to mention the economies around and responses to the industry, including gambling-addiction treatment), remains one of the best books written about technology so far this century. It's a rigorous and engrossing exploration of what makes video slots "addictive," what is different about that addiction from addiction to table games, and how a lucrative industry has honed and developed that addiction, often with the full knowledge of the screen gamers themselves. Here's an excerpt from the introduction, which is available online as a PDF:
When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win.” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing—to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.”
I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spin ning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
Schüll's book, and the "machine zone" framework it establishes, has become a mainstay of criticism of social media, and of smartphones in general. What better way to describe the "pleasures" of Twitter, or Facebook, or Candy Crush, or even something like Robinhood than "the machine zone… in which time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process"? And what happens when actual money gambling makes it to your phone? You can read more here.
Hi all, short update from us this week, but lots of blogs to cover.
Sam Grasso piece on how Texas media can start its own process of reparative journalism to better cover black and brown communities was something I haven’t seen before, and the journalists she interviewed for it have points of view that I haven’t seen at all in the conversations around how we repair and build more functioning local news networks.
Meanwhile, I wrote about polling data that shows Americans still have barbaric attitudes toward Afghanistan.
And Rafi wrote about how the system of free COVID tests almost worked – just enough to give us a glimpse of what a functioning system would look like.
Paul covered yet another primary challenge to a progressive Democrat, this time from an absolute joke of a corporate-centrist Democrat trying to take down Rashida Tlaib.
And finally, Katherine wrote about the surreal nature of the Biden administration continuing to blame its failings on Republicans, when it’s far bigger problem is the incompetence and disloyalty within its own ranks.
That’s it from us this week!
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
In theory, the concept of due process is a foundational one in U.S. legal systems. Every person gets a shot to plead their case, whatever that might be, whether they’re facing a lawsuit, prison time, or deportation, and can do so in a way that’s fair and standardized. In practice, the notion ends up being more of an ideal than a reality, and civil immigration proceedings are no exception. Among the many ways that immigration courts—which aren’t part of the independent judiciary, but instead are housed in the Department of Justice—end up impinging on due process is through dedicated dockets, sometimes called “accelerated” or just “rocket dockets.” Various administrations have instituted them, ostensibly to deal with immigration court backlogs, and Biden is continuing the tradition with accelerated dockets for asylum-seeking families arriving at the border, which debuted last June.
In announcing them, the administration claimed they were intended to cut down on procedural delays and give families clarity more quickly while respecting their legal rights. Immediately, activists and attorneys raised the prospect that the proceedings, which are supposed to be completed within 300 days, would be too fast for migrants to find attorneys, confer amply with them, gather evidence, and prepare a case. Seven months later, an analysis by the TRAC project at Syracuse University has validated these concerns. As we wrote in last week’s BORDER/LINES, data obtained by TRAC shows most asylum seekers in the dedicated docket have not had legal representation, and cases that were finalized were overwhelmingly resulting in removal.
At the same time, emails obtained by American Oversight showed court officials celebrating the success of another dedicated docket—for immigrants in the San Francisco immigration court who had returned mail, meaning they did not get their notices to appear in court—in getting people deported quickly. The Board of Immigration Appeals last week struck another blow by appearing to defy a prior Supreme Court ruling and deciding that charging documents without crucial information like the hearing date and location were still valid and could be used as the basis for a court to order an in absentia deportation.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
I’m writing this mere minutes after receiving my household’s 4 free COVID at-home tests. It is, to the best of my memory, the first direct aid I’ve gotten from the government since a stimulus check in the spring of 2021. The tests are more limited and less fungible than the checks, to be sure, but in theory they should also be the kind of straightforward, directly applicable tool to showcase a nation easing the burden of operating in year three of a pandemic. Making tests free, alongside the free vaccinations and boosters, is a good way to get to the other side of this ongoing disaster.
In the latest Wars of Future Past, I took a look at the failures of pandemic readiness and messaging, especially as compared to the work done by Civil Defense in the 1950s. A nuclear war is all the suffering concentrated, with the after to be worked through as the dust settles and the radiation burns emerge. It’s grim, awful, and a clearly delineated after. In preparation for that feared eventuality, Civil Defense offered the public everything from tear-away mortuary tags for triage to instructional videos and children’s songs.
Bert the Turtle singing “Duck and Cover” isn’t an exact model of perfect crisis communication. But it’s at least a world better than dismissing the notion of sending people tests in October, mocking it publicly in December, and then reversing course to send them out in January.
Last week, I took Joe Biden's advice and googled Covid testing, in poor cities around America. I found that in many places tests were hard to come by, particularly rapid tests, and particularly if you don't have a car or work normal hours. I also wrote about my remarkably improved health on a very expensive migraine drug, which costs my insurance over $18,000 a year. If I had a huge deductible, or no insurance subsidy that allows me to afford a higher-tier insurance plan, I would be getting many more migraines, and be much less able to work. No wonder people are so touchy about keeping their health insurance; a good situation is rare and precarious, and there’s no guarantee you can keep it, even if you do everything right.
I've been publishing at a fairly furious pace these past few weeks thanks to an ongoing guest column at The Nation, which has given me the space to dive deeper into the lives of a few pieces of labor history that got cut down—or cut out—of my book manuscript. It always hurts to see an editor brutally kill off your darlings, so it's been deeply satisfying to have this opportunity to go long on Marie Equi, Addie L. Wyatt, and Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, the latter of whom are the subject of this past week's column. If you're interested in following along, I've been sending out links and context for each entry on my Patreon as soon as each one publishes.
As for Silme and Gene, you can read about them, their impact on the Filipino labor community, and the cruel dictator that killed them here, and can also check in on the 300-some Teamsters in and around Seattle who have been out on a general strike for over six weeks now. The #GeneralStrike reply guys all over Twitter have been curiously silent in the face of this general strike—it's almost as if some people are more excited about the idea of a grand revolutionary gesture than they are in supporting and engaging in the hard work of labor organizing and sustaining a strike! We’ve still got a long way to go on that front, but hell, at least folks are excited.
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter
I wrote about the children’s television show Bluey, about my son’s belief that his Pre-K teachers live together, and about Bari Weiss’s odd desire to go back to normal despite there being no restrictions at all on Bari Weiss’s behavior. I somehow wrote it just before she expressed that desire on television.
In all the talk of the end of the direct occupation of Afghanistan, precious little attention was paid to the real victims of the pullout: The arms dealers, who spent last fall bemoaning their misfortune (“The Afghanistan piece won't come back,” wept Gregory J. Hayes on Raytheon’s third-quarter earnings call). Never let it be said that the Biden administration lets the pleas of the weapons industry fall on deaf ears: Exciting new killing fields await, and Democracy for the Arab World Now's John Hursh gives Biden a D- on Arming Authoritarians in The Middle East. Spencer writes:
Going through with $170 million in weapons sales to Egypt—extra sales, atop the $1 billion annual weapons deal Egypt gets—despite Egypt showing none of the human rights improvement Congress required for that weapons package. We've already covered the weapons sales and deals with Saudi Arabia. And there’s the $23 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates, primarily for the F-35. (Hursh thinks the UAE's recent suspension of the deal is a bargaining tactic.)
There’s also a new piece from Spencer on the economic devastation about to tear through a frigid Afghanistan thanks to the Biden administration’s seizure of billions of assets in its central bank, which promises to be two orders of magnitude more lethal than the hot war. He recommends this piece from Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul for our mutual alma mater, The Guardian.
And today, for subscribers, we have the Uncanny X-Men. Don’t say we never gave you anything. Speaking of giving, we’re still running our threefer deal with Derek and Luke: Subscribe to Forever Wars, get six months of Foreign Exchanges and Welcome to Hell World free!
Cover photo by masao nakagami via Flickr