Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Syndrome

Listen to Marc Polymeropoulos and John Sipher on True Spies' podcast: Havana Syndrome Special


Unlike many of the Havana Syndrome cases now diagnosed, Marc Polymeropoulos’ story began in Moscow in 2017 when he awoke in a five-star hotel near the US

While the cause of Havana Syndrome transfixes scientists, doctors, and politicians, some wonder if there are lessons to be learned from a Cold War operation at the US Embassy known as ‘Moscow Signal’.

“The Russian security services were known during the Cold War to flood the US Embassy in Moscow with electromagnetic radiation,” according to John Sipher, whose 28-year CIA career included serving in the Russian capital. “They concentrated microwaves and electronic pulses against the Embassy in an attempt to eavesdrop against US typewriters, computers, and conversations.”

Sipher told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast that it’s possible to send a beam against a window and trace the vibrations on that window in an effort to pick up sound or use a focused bit of radiation or microwaves to try to turn on or off listening devices.

So could microwave and electronic pulses also be the cause of Havana Syndrome? The mystery illness has left hundreds of US and Canadian officials complaining of brain fog, nausea, splitting headaches, and nosebleeds since 2016.

Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Sydrome


Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Sydrome
Listen to SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast: Havana Syndrome Special

Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Syndrome

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Listen to Marc Polymeropoulos and John Sipher on True Spies' podcast: Havana Syndrome Special


Unlike many of the Havana Syndrome cases now diagnosed, Marc Polymeropoulos’ story began in Moscow in 2017 when he awoke in a five-star hotel near the US

While the cause of Havana Syndrome transfixes scientists, doctors, and politicians, some wonder if there are lessons to be learned from a Cold War operation at the US Embassy known as ‘Moscow Signal’.

“The Russian security services were known during the Cold War to flood the US Embassy in Moscow with electromagnetic radiation,” according to John Sipher, whose 28-year CIA career included serving in the Russian capital. “They concentrated microwaves and electronic pulses against the Embassy in an attempt to eavesdrop against US typewriters, computers, and conversations.”

Sipher told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast that it’s possible to send a beam against a window and trace the vibrations on that window in an effort to pick up sound or use a focused bit of radiation or microwaves to try to turn on or off listening devices.

So could microwave and electronic pulses also be the cause of Havana Syndrome? The mystery illness has left hundreds of US and Canadian officials complaining of brain fog, nausea, splitting headaches, and nosebleeds since 2016.

Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Sydrome


Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spycraft to Havana Sydrome
Listen to SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast: Havana Syndrome Special

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Echoes of Moscow Signal

A Soviet defector told the Americans in 1963 that the US Embassy in Moscow was ‘riddled’ with microphones and sophisticated listening devices, some embedded in the building’s foundation. Many Embassy staff lived in adjoining apartments that were also bugged with live audio feeds, ex-CIA officer and author Tony Mendez revealed in his book Moscow Rules.

The USSR was accused of blasting the US Embassy and ambassador’s residence in Moscow in the 1960s and ‘70s with microwaves in an effort to control the listening devices. Dr. Allan Frey, discoverer of the ‘Frey Effect’, noted that microwaves could cause people in the beam’s path to hear noises or clicking sounds.

“Soviets were bombarding the upper floors of the central wing of the chancery in the 1960s, but it is equally possible that microwaves were used against the Embassy much earlier than that,” said James Schumaker, a retired Foreign Service officer who served in Moscow. 

Screens were put up on the chancery windows in an effort to diminish the microwave emanations getting into the US Embassy. 

Moscow Signal: From Cold War Spyraft to Havana Syndrome
The US Embassy in Moscow: Russia and Cuba deny involvement in Havana Syndrome

Microwaves and listening devices

Cold War studies showed that Soviet microwaves had a limited effect on health and mortality rates although for decades there's been a long line of US embassy officials in Moscow who have become sick, including some with rare cancers, said Marc Polymeropoulos, an ex-CIA officer whose career was cut short after he experienced severe headaches and other symptoms during a 2017 trip to Moscow.

Could Moscow Signal have been the precursor to Havana Syndrome? Some - but not all - of the Havana Syndrome victims reported hearing an unusual clicking sound or noises before the onset of symptoms.

The National Academies of Sciences published a 2020 analysis where it found that pulsed radiofrequency radiation, aka directed microwave energy, was the most likely cause of the mystery illness but it reached no definitive conclusions. 

A US intelligence report in 2022 said it was ‘plausible’ that a device shooting pulsed electromagnetic energy could cause at least some of the cases of Havana Syndrome. They noted that concealable devices could also produce symptoms and be effective even through walls but there is no concrete proof so far that a weapon exists.

There’s also no consensus about the underlying cause of the syndrome, despite many studies, and there is no evidence about who might be behind any attacks. Russia and Cuba deny involvement.

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