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The danger of pushing the foreign attack theory for 'Havana Syndrome'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn to a news story that, frankly, sounds like a spy novel. A mysterious illness plagues foreign service officers who say they're experiencing symptoms like dizziness and ringing in their ears. Officials fear they've been hit with a clandestine weapon and that Russia may be the culprit - except it's not fiction. It's what some believe happened in 2016 at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. And soon, Havana syndrome became a concern in duty stations around the world. But this past week, the Central Intelligence Agency, which was investigating the syndrome, said there is no evidence linking it to a foreign country, and they said that many cases are related to previously undiagnosed medical conditions or stress.

Natalie Shure is among those who've been questioning the validity of the Havana syndrome for months. She's a columnist with The New Republic who writes about health, history and politics, and she is with us now to tell us more. Natalie Shure, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

NATALIE SHURE: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: OK. Before we jump into the investigation and your thoughts about, you know, the timeline of all this, I just want to say that you are not questioning that people have experienced pain and suffering, that they have been in distress. So that is true, is it not?

SHURE: Absolutely. We know that not only are these people suffering but that in many cases, the symptoms have been quite debilitating. A lot of them have had to stop working or have had to scale back in other ways. So we do know that they're sick. We do believe that they're ill. The question is, what's driving these symptoms?

MARTIN: So that being said, could you just briefly tell us what the government and those experiencing symptoms thought Havana syndrome might be? What was the theory?

SHURE: Sure. For a long time, the working theory has been directed-energy weapons wielded by a foreign actor that's most likely Russia. Directed-energy weapons is a theory that came out of sonic weapons. That was the original guess back in Cuba in 2017, when some of these investigations were first made public. And that's because a lot of the symptoms were associated with what was described in different ways but mostly as an annoying screeching sound that people heard. And that got officials wondering if perhaps this could be linked to a weapon, and I think that the theory snowballed from there.

MARTIN: What made you question that theory?

SHURE: Well, to begin with, the symptoms experienced by these diplomats and spies are, as I mentioned, debilitating but also extremely common. We're talking things like headaches, fatigue, dizziness. Even a ringing in ears is something that is experienced by huge numbers of people at any given time. And reading about these symptom clusters, it just didn't necessarily seem like something novel or specific. It seemed more like the description of symptoms that we often call general malaise, things that can be very, very difficult to go through but that don't necessarily point to anything specific or nefarious. And when you take that away, when you take away the assumption that these people are suffering from something specific that was caused by a specific exposure and they're all suffering from the same thing, if that's not true, then a lot of this narrative falls apart.

MARTIN: You know, it was interesting to me that you said at one point in your reporting on this that - you said that those in the national security space, you know, a lot of reporters - some reporters, certainly officials who are - have people who work in foreign policy and national security as their constituents, for example, embraced the Havana syndrome theory but that a lot of health and science reporters and analysts and researchers really did not. And I was just wondering about that. Could you talk a little bit about why you think that might be?

SHURE: Yeah. I think it is a red flag and something that stood out to me that this story was being almost exclusively pushed by national security reporters and not by people who report on health topics. And, you know, speaking to people who do health reporting or, you know, what little titters you saw online, I think that there was a lot more skepticism. There were some questions of, hey, wait a minute; why would you think that migraines point to a microwave attack? It just doesn't add up. And I think that there are a few reasons for that. I think that some people really got swept away in the excitement of the story and that it led them to, you know, drop skepticism that they really should have had about this.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you write about health and politics. That's a difficult balance because you want to cover what's going on in the world. You want to do that in a way that's as accurate as possible. You want to respect the fact that people say they're suffering, but we don't always have all the information. Moving forward, how do you think a story like this should have been approached or should be approached?

SHURE: When we're talking about something that potentially implicates other states that would require a national security response, I think it's very important that we get that story right. And so we can honor whatever illness that people are going through and be sympathetic to that, but I don't think that they deserve any more deference as to their preferred cause than did the demonically possessed young women in 17th-century Salem.

MARTIN: That was Natalie Shure. She's a columnist for The New Republic. She writes about health, history and politics. Natalie Shure, thank you so much for talking with us.

SHURE: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMILA CABELLO SONG, "HAVANA (FT. YOUNG THUG)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.