In the summer of 2019, I met a newly retired C.I.A. officer named Marc Polymeropoulos for lunch at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C. One of my sources was his friend, and he had brokered an introduction. As we sat in the echoing and empty restaurant, Polymeropoulos told me about what he had been doing in the clandestine service before he left Langley for good: he had overseen the Agency’s efforts to expose and push back against Russian active measures in Europe and Eurasia, areas that are of utmost geopolitical and symbolic significance to the Kremlin.
As we talked, I couldn’t square two things: Marc’s retirement and his age. He had just turned 50, and, by his own account, he had been on the up-and-up at the C.I.A. Why had he left so soon? I asked him. Donald Trump was still president, and, given Marc’s work foiling the Russian security apparatus, I expected to hear something about the White House’s interference, given the president’s affinity for Vladimir Putin. After all, it was a constant during the Trump years: U.S. government apparatchiks resigning in protest over such meddling—or reaching out in private to journalists to warn them about it. But Marc’s answer surprised me: Havana Syndrome. He told me, off the record, that he had been “hit” while visiting Moscow and that the attack had undermined his health so badly that he physically couldn’t work anymore. A promising career in an organization he loved, and had come of age in, was over.
I had been hearing and reading about Havana Syndrome since late 2016, when American diplomats stationed in Cuba as part of President Obama’s detente with the Castro regime started falling ill. Many of them reported hearing a loud, piercing sound and then suffering from vertigo, nausea, tinnitus, headaches, insomnia, cognitive difficulties, vision and hearing problems. A couple dozen U.S. diplomats and spies (as well as some Canadian embassy workers) had been affected, and no one could understand what was happening to these people. Was it chemical exposure? A virus? Mass psychosis? Was it some kind of attack? And if it was, who could have perpetrated it and how?