Watch CNN’s Special Report: “Immaculate Concussion: The Truth About Havana Syndrome” Sunday at 8 p.m. on CNN.
CIA doctor Dr. Paul Andrews was one of the first people sent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate mysterious health incidents affecting embassy and agency workers in 2017 when he was struck by the same set of debilitating symptoms, he told CNN. Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta in his first public interview for a CNN special report: “Concussion Immaculate: The Truth About Habana Syndrome.”
Andrews, who is using a pseudonym to speak publicly, was already studying the first victims of what is known officially as the “Havana Syndrome” or “abnormal health event”. Doctors in Florida recorded several symptoms, including that the victims were suffering from a brain injury that was affecting their balance. Andrews traveled to Cuba to investigate about two months after hearing about the first cases.
He wasn’t too worried about his safety, at first. On his first night, he went to sleep in his hotel room around 11.30pm. But shortly before 5 a.m., he awoke with severe pain in his right ear, nausea, and a terrible headache. Then he began to hear what past victims had heard when their symptoms began – a sound Andrews had only heard in audio clips.
His first thought was that he was dreaming.
“This cannot happen. And I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute, and things were getting worse,” he recalled. “I’m really in disbelief. And I start thinking, is this a dream? I had no idea.”
With officials at the time suspecting a sonic assault, Andrews went into the bathroom and sat with headphones on for 45 minutes. The symptoms did not subside, and by 06:00, he decided to pack his bags and leave the room.
But he realized that he could hardly do it. He checked the bathroom “at least four or five times” to make sure he had a toothbrush, then did the same to get his coat out of the closet. On his way to meet his colleagues in the hotel cafeteria, he couldn’t figure out whether to push or pull the doors. And he realized that his balance was “off”.
Sure that he and his co-workers were watching over him, he tried to calmly tell his co-workers that he thought he might be injured, but he wasn’t sure they understood. Throughout the day, Andrews said she was in a fog: nauseous, disoriented and struggling with basic tasks like counting money and showing her ID to security personnel.
When he returned to the United States, he called the same doctor in Florida who had been working to investigate the original victims, and told him he needed help.
Anomalous health events (AHIs for short) are still a source of mystery and controversy within the intelligence community. A panel investigating the events, which now involve dozens of US officials, said some of the episodes could be made “credible” by “pulsed electromagnetic energy” emitted by an outside source. But the jury stopped short of making a final decision.
An interim report issued earlier this year by a CIA task force looking into who might be behind the episodes found it unlikely that Russia or any other foreign country had waged a widespread global campaign designed to harm US officials. But the agency also did not rule out that a nation-state – including Russia – was responsible for the two dozen cases that investigators could not explain for other known reasons.
In short, sources say, after years of investigation, the intelligence community is no closer to determining who or what is causing these wounds, or whether the two dozen or so 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 early part of the cases. Former CIA officials have alleged that CIA leadership initially did not take their injuries seriously, in part because many of the symptoms were subtle and could be associated with any known medical condition.
“The story was going the wrong way. And no matter what I did or said to people, it continued,” Andrews said. “In fact, to this day, a lot of things that were done were not up to my standards.”
Some officers who were hit didn’t want to press charges for fear of damaging their careers, Andrews said.
“At one point, another person told me on the sidelines that he thought they had been hit and that they were listening and there was pain in his ear,” he said. “And I said, are you going to report this? And they said, absolutely not.”
CIA Director Bill Burns’ handling of the matter has been widely praised by victims, and the Biden administration has been careful to avoid any suggestion that it does not take victims seriously.
“I think we’ve made great strides in ensuring people get the care they need and deserve,” Burns said in public remarks at the Aspen Security Forum in July. “We tripled the number of full-time staff in our medical office working on this issue. We cultivated very important relationships, not only with Walter Reed, but also, you know, the private medical system to make sure people got care.”
Congress passed legislation mandating victim compensation in 2021, and some of those payments have already been made, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The CIA declined to comment for this story.
More than five years later, Andrews still suffers from debilitating symptoms. He still has balance and vision problems which have made it almost impossible for him to function normally. He has trouble reading, hiking, or running because it makes him nauseous, and he forgets that there’s a crowd in a museum: turning his head left and right to look at the art and avoiding bumping into other patrons makes him dizzy and sick.
“It gets to the point where you don’t want to leave the house because you say, what’s the point? I want to go do this, but I know it will make me sick,” he said. “I don’t want to be nauseous. I don’t want to trip and fall.
“It’s very frustrating not being able to do all these things you want to do,” he said.
A team of doctors examined Andrews and found damage to his vestibular structures, the parts of the body that control balance and orientation. But like many AHI victims, Andrews lacks a single, clear diagnosis. Some victims have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, which raises the question that even though AHIs are pure brain injuries, they appear to be another brain injury that doctors have seen before.
For Andrews, as for the intelligence community, there is less certainty about who or what is behind this strange phenomenon than when he traveled to Cuba in the spring of 2017.
“I definitely learned more about the situation than I wanted to,” he told Gupta.