He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a condition with debilitating symptoms attributed to Havana Syndrome, a medical condition named after the city in Cuba where the side effects first surfaced in 2016. Polymeropoulos has described Havana Syndrome in several interviews as ‘an act of war’, but what or who is the enemy?
Unlike many of the 130 US Havana Syndrome cases now diagnosed, Polymeropoulos’ story began in Moscow in 2017 when he awoke in a five-star hotel near the US Embassy. He was supposed to be meeting the ambassador and Russian officials but could barely stand up.
“I had an incredible case of vertigo. The room was spinning. I had tinnitus ringing in my ears, a brutal headache, and I knew something was seriously wrong,” Polymeropoulos said. In the months that followed his trip to Moscow, Polymeropoulos partially lost his vision and battled brain fog. The headaches have been unrelenting.
Polymeropoulos isn’t alone. Dozens of US Embassy staff - both diplomats and spies - described similar symptoms in Cuba. By 2019, complaints about the syndrome had spread to staff in China, then to American soldiers in Syria, and later even the White House.
Was it a sonic attack? Or were the CIA being targeted by directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy, a theory that gained credence with a 2020 US study? The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit initially decided it was a mass psychogenic illness - basically a psychological condition where a group of people think they’re suffering from a dangerous exposure at the same time - but the FBI hadn’t spoken directly to any of the victims. No one really knows exactly what’s causing the invisible wounds.
“Many of us have said, subsequent to being injured, we wish we’d been shot. We wish there was a gunshot wound to show people,” Polymeropoulos told CNN.
Polymeropoulos said he’s fought to be taken seriously since 2017 when the number of complainants was much smaller: “I did a lot of unusual things for the CIA but I always knew that the leadership should have my back if I got jammed up, if something bad happened to me. And that just didn’t happen.”
The tide turned with the appointment of CIA Director William J. Burns in March 2021, however. Burns promised to make Havana Syndrome a priority under his watch. Yet it is still unclear who or what is causing the symptoms.
There’s a speculative case to be made against Russia - although Moscow denies any involvement - but given the number of countries involved, it might also be a coordinated effort. Or, as some medical experts have suggested, there may be a common denominator among the victims such as exposure to a neurotoxin, or another explanation entirely.
While a new generation of CIA officers investigates Polymeropoulos will be looking for a way to relieve the headache he’s had for three years, a ‘vice clamp’ with pressure coming over the top of his head. He’ll also keep pushing for answers to the Havana Syndrome - or in his case Moscow Syndrome - conundrum: “Who feels safe to serve now overseas with this happening?”
Marc Polymeropoulos is still haunted by his work as a CIA operations officer, including the deaths of seven Agency colleagues in a suicide bombing during a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan in December 2009.
“I was in a position of responsibility for the operation, and I can think of multiple ways in which I personally failed,” Polymeropoulos writes in his book Clarity in Crisis. “Years later, when I received a promotion to the senior intelligence ranks, my first thought was, ‘I don’t deserve this honor.’”
Polymeropoulos regained his control, however, rising to the top of his profession. He ran clandestine operations in Europe, briefed the White House situation room, sat with kings and prime ministers, and attended more diplomatic receptions than he cares to remember until 2019 when his body gave out after 26 years on the job.