Checking the COMPAS: An Open Records Analysis

In 2004 Tim Brennan, David Wells, and Jack Alexander authored a report for the National Institute of Corrections titled Enhancing Prison Classification Systems: The Emerging Role of Management Information Systems. The report was commissioned through a contract with Northpointe Institute for Public Management of Traverse City, Michigan, founded by Wells and Brennan in 1989. 

The report’s goals were to explore how then-recent advances in networked computing technology could improve the efficiency of classifying those in prison by risk level. “Basically,” they write in their executive summary, “current methods of prison classification are underutilizing this information technology infrastructure. The vast memory and analytical power of today’s hardware and software offer great potential for improving classification decisionmaking” (page xix). 

Brennan et al. describe the work of classifying prisoners as “knowledge work”, as it involves prison staff compiling data from various sources and analyzing it using “implicit mental models and explicit algorithms”. Networked computers could improve productivity of those classifying prisoners by automating portions of the data collection process. They could also allow for more rapid classification of prisoners by prison staff, identifying potential trends or factors that might predict a person’s likelihood to commit new criminal offenses more quickly and accurate than human evaluators, or so they claimed.  

These technologies have advanced much further in the intervening years, and Northpointe has offered their services under contract to multiple states, including the Wisconsin of Department of Corrections (WIDOC). They entered into a contract to provide their  Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) tool to the WIDOC in 2015 and have remained under contract until at least FY2022. I requested records related to this contract and, after a little under a year, I received them. I will provide these for download in full at the end of this post, but because the records were quite extensive and this is an often overlooked aspect of the US prison system (imo), I thought it would be useful to provide a preliminary summary and analysis. 

This issue is also of interest to me in part because it resembles at least in broad strokes the kind of work that I do for libraries, namely sorting, classifying, and describing all manner of published material from zines published in the 1980s to monographic series written by subject matter experts for a specialized, technical audience. This is done according to a dizzying array of description standards and metadata schema (each with their own acronym, of course), all of which must be processed and manipulated by the vendor-provided software where much of this work takes place. Because of this, I appreciate the vast improvements in efficiency that networked computers represent when it comes to classifying, storing, and retrieving information. However, as my e-mail inbox can attest, these technologies are not without their problems.

In my work the potential downside of misclassifying or misdescribing something is often minor. Perhaps a student does not find all the relevant books held by the library on a subject for their class assignment or a researcher is unable to find a specific work they are looking for even though it is held by our institution. There are more serious issues when it comes to the description of marginalized groups in libraries, such as the classification of literature from various parts of Africa alongside the literature of those countries that colonized them (See Classifying African Literary Authors). There are other examples related to other groups, but these hardly invalidate the inherent convenience of computerized library catalogs compared to their printed predecessors. In the case of prisoner classification systems, the risks are much greater: people may be kept in prison longer or required to take intensive psychological treatment programs that aren’t appropriate. 

Northpointe acknowledges these risks themselves in their original bid for the contract. One of the risks of classifying prisoners, according to Northpointe, is the risk of “prisoner ‘deterioration’ and ‘prisonization’”. Though they do not define these terms specifically, the text which follows gives a telling suggestion: 

These risks have serious consequences for both the institution (idleness, discipline problems) and the community (high recidivism, more alienated offenders). These risks are more likely if prisoners are simply “warehoused” and if the prison fails to match the inmates to needed programs to prepare for reentry to the community.

(Attachment B, page 133)

There is also the risk of litigation stemming from “custody classification errors” or the public relations problems stemming from “high profile crimes” being linked to early release or parole decisions. Conversely, “if agency policies and procedures adopt overly restrictive classifications styles,” they write, “more systematic ‘over-classification’ errors occur … escalating overcrowding”. Combine enough of these errors and it can lead to a “loss of public trust in agencies ability to distinguish high risk from low risk offenders” as well as a “failure to rehabilitate”, which produces “on-going cost escalations” and, again, the potential for costly litigation (ibid., page 133). 

So how are these decisions made? Northpointe is rather unambiguous in its assessment of their competition: most systems in prisons and jails “were not developed statistically and have minimal or unknown levels of predictive accuracy”. Their COMPAS system, by contrast, was developed to improve on these efforts so that more information could be gleaned about a particular prisoner as soon as they enter prison custody. Because they market the service to both courts as a way to assess risk after arrest but before trial as well as to prison officials assessing whether someone can be released prior to the completion of their sentence (e.g. on parole), accurate predictions made using existing or minimal additional data is of the utmost importance. “The aim,” they write, “was to use data that was currently available at the earliest stage for new incoming prisoners. These data include the offender’s criminal history and selected demographic and other criminogenic factors” (ibid., page 135).

Through an analysis of  “a large [Michigan Department of Corrections] database”, Northpointe claims to have found a number of these “criminogenic” factors that were statistically correlated to “the commission of new infractions”: 

  • Age at first arrest
  • Age at assessment
  • Number of probation revocations
  • High school graduation
  • Criminal thinking 
  • Educational vocational resources
  • Number of mental health commitments (ibid., page 135)

Unfortunately they do not provide a definition of “criminal thinking” in this document, though we will return to the subject later. “Age at first arrest” is also problematic, as being arrested is not the same as being found guilty and yet there seems to be no distinction made here. Furthermore, whether someone is arrested is often the decision of police officers rather than any kind of automatic process.

Nevertheless, “using both training and validation samples,” they write “and two separate statistical methods (Logistic regression and Random Forests), the above six [sic] factors formed an ‘optimal sub-set’ of factors for predicting new infractions.” That they misstate the number of factors when describing their own model in their own document makes me hesitant to take their numbers at face value. In any event, according to Northpointe’s submission their analysis found that both the logistic regression and random forest models had an accuracy of around 70%, meaning it correctly predicted whether additional disciplinary infractions occurred based on these factors (ibid. page 136). 

In studying to be a librarian I took a class on data mining. One of the most important lessons our instructor hammered into us throughout the course is that creating the dataset will often comprise over 90% of the work of any given machine learning project. Computers asked to develop a model to predict the likelihood of an outcome will always give you an answer. They will never tell you that there is not enough data or that you are analyzing the wrong kind of problem with a particular method. A computer cannot tell the difference between data representing weather patterns and crop yields or that conveying the results of a psychological questionnaire. It is up to the people both creating the data and evaluating the results to determine how reliable a given prediction is for a particular context.

 One of the projects we did in that class involved analyzing genetic sequencing data in an effort to identify potential connections between specific genes and specific attributes in a given animal. For this assignment we were paired with another person in the class and asked to prepare and then analyze a genetic dataset and provide a short impromptu presentation of our findings for the class, mainly to demonstrate we’d chosen an appropriate analysis type and prepared the dataset correctly. I happened to be paired with a woman pursuing her PhD in Animal Sciences. When I said that I found these datasets a little confusing because I lacked a background in genetics or biology, she informed me that when researchers in her field investigated some of the predictions made by models like the one we were practicing with they often found that the predicted connections were often faint or nonexistent. 

As interesting as this class was, I am humble enough to recognize the limitations of my knowledge in this area. Luckily because Northpointe has successfully implemented versions of its COMPAS software in other states, their work has attracted the attention of experts in this area. In 2007 Skeem and Louden of University of California-Davis conducted an independent assessment of the COMPAS tool then in place and found it significantly lacking. 

“The strengths of the COMPAS”, they write in their conclusion, “are that it appears relatively easy for professionals to apply, looks like it assesses criminogenic needs, possesses mostly homogenous scales, and generates reports that describe how high an offender’s score is on those scales relative to other offenders in that jurisdiction. In short, we can reliably assess something that looks like criminogenic needs and recidivism risk with the COMPAS. The problem is that there is little evidence that this is what the COMPAS actually assesses” [emphasis in original] (Skeem & Louden, page 29). 

In addition to critiquing specific factors added to COMPAS, Skeem and Louden also cast doubt on whether COMPAS does actually predict recidivism. “In our view, the reader must wonder why the COMPAS produces no single “risk” score that can be evaluated by independent investigators. Instead, the authors create various ‘Risk Scales’ that change from evaluation to evaluation, and often combine parts of the COMPAS with other variables” (ibid., page 29). In addition to this lack of data, the authors also highlight the fact that there is no evidence COMPAS actually adjusts to changes in criminogenic factors over time. This is particularly important for use in prisons if, for example, completion of treatment programs is considered a factor for someone being granted parole. Because of these issues, Skeem and Louden state that they cannot recommend the COMPAS for application to individual offenders within the California Department of Corrections (ibid., page 6).

From what I can tell, that is precisely how it is being used by WIDOC. 

A paper published by Northpointe staff in 2009 responded to these critiques to defend their product and its application in a response paper. It is no longer available on their website, but thanks to the Wayback Machine I was able to download a copy. It opens with a telling acknowledgement: “most of the evidence for the reliability and validity of COMPAS is found in the results of in-house research studies conducted by Northpointe across a variety of jurisdictions and states” (page 2). That is to say, the evidence purporting to show the efficacy of their tools is based on internal data not shared with anyone other than perhaps the agency with which they are under contract. Later on in their response the authors highlight the fact that peer-reviewed papers on COMPAS have subsequently been published, but the citations given for both of these were authored by the same people who authored this response paper. Neither share the underlying data used in their analysis.

They claim that because agency personnel do have access to this data that their analysis “are often subjected to a more thorough vetting than that provided by the editors or peer-reviewed journals” (ibid., page 2). However, it’s important to remember that these agencies are contracting with companies like Northpointe precisely because they do not have the ability or desire to develop their own tools for this kind of analysis. For example, I found no independent analysis by WIDOC staff in the records responsive my request, which did include specific mention of any meeting minutes or deliberations related to the bidding process.

Herein lies the limits of technological “efficiencies” in addressing inherently social problems like crime, punishment, and justice.  Vague variables like “criminal thinking” provide ample room for clinical and correctional professionals to conclude that, for example, someone describing the effect of larger social forces on the circumstances of their crime is demonstrating a lack of remorse or unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions. This is not hypothetical, as we will see later.

Consider one of the features COMPAS claims to aid in analyzing: an “inmate’s behavioral adaptation to prison” to determine if, for example, they could be moved to a less restrictive prison or become eligible for things like work release. Northpointe lists the factors their system uses to determine these “behavioral adaptation ratings”:

  • Cooperation with staff  
  • Respect vs. Disrespect to staff  
  • Completion of work tasks  
  • Program successes vs. failures 
  •  Defiant
  •  Aggressive to staff  
  • Tries to Con staff  [sic]
  • Troublemaker with other inmates  
  • Victimizes weaker inmates 
  •  Quick Temper  Etc.

Using this scale, they found “floor officers can reliably assess an inmate on several key behavior dimensions within minutes using this short checklist (e.g. less than 4 minutes)”. They caution that whoever is performing this analysis should know the inmate well enough to provide “a reasonably fair assessment” of their adjustment. These criteria are further refined in order to classify inmates into a number of “behavioral classes”. “The results are very encouraging and we found that the ‘inmate classes’ were validly linked both to prospective disciplinary levels, criminal history patterns, and also to several main criminogenic factors (e.g. criminal personality, criminal attitudes” (Attachment B, page 139).

I think it’s important to focus on a couple aspects of these adaptation criteria. Firstly, the emphasis on how quickly they can be completed by staff. There is little attention paid to establishing any guidance for how long prison staff should know a particular prisoner in order to make these assessments. This is apparently left to the institution or staff themselves to decide. There is precious little discussion of how prison staff supervising those completing these analyses can check the work of their subordinates, though naturally Northpointe does include costs for “training the trainers” in their bid (approximately $11,000 in the most recent contract renewal). 

Secondly, the criteria are almost exclusively focused on interactions towards prison staff rather than the thoughts, emotions, behaviors, or actions of the prisoner themselves. When I would visit WIDOC prison I witnessed numerous staff members get visibly angry to the point of shouting at other prison visitors, including the elderly and small children, for very minor issues including moving beyond a taped line on the floor while waiting to be processed or failure to notify the prison in writing in advance that they would be using a wheelchair. Anecdotes are anecdotes, but personally these are not the kind of people I would want making snap judgments about my behavior (“less than 4 minutes”) that could determine whether I spend another year or more in prison. 

One might argue that these are implementation problems as opposed to methodological flaws, but the emphasis on staff interaction shows that these criteria have little to do with characteristics of the prisoner and more to do with the attitudes of staff towards prisoners. Of course these factors are not completely absent, but as these bidding materials show even when they are included it is not without issue. In their bid Norhtpointe included some sample COMPAS reentry narratives and bar charts to demonstrate how the tool can be used to evaluate an individual’s risk. Here is a sample:

Bar chart showing sample from COMPAS system showing the re-entry risk factors for a sample prisoner. Provided by Northpointe as part of its bid materials.

These are accompanied by a narrative assessment that is meant to elaborate on what some of these factors mean, though confusingly they do not map exactly onto what is being shown in the bar chart. For example, while criminal history (both personal and familial), mental health, substance abuse, and ReEntry Vocation/education are present in both the narrative and the bar chart, all of the factors shown in the chart under Personality/Attitudes are reduced to a single section in the re-entry narrative as “Cognitive Behavioral/Psychological Score”, which in this example shows a score of 10 or “highly probable”. The section of the sample narrative assessment it where a “Cognitive Behavioral/Psychological Statement” could be is literally left blank. 

There are training materials for how these COMPAS scales should be completed by prison staff, but one of the supposed benefits of the COMPAS software is that it can be customized to fit a variety of criminal justice settings, from pre-trial release to probation and parole decisions. They suggest that a subset of criteria be used to “triage” all offenders within a probation agents purview, with the full scale used for only “higher risk offenders” (“Meaning and Treatment Implications of COMPAS Score”, page 4). 

This slide deck also sheds some light on what is meant by “criminal thinking”, which is apparently determined using the questionnaire shown below:

Sample questionnaire used by COMPAS to assess a person's criminal thinking. It includes three sections describing how the scale is measured, notes and treatment implications, and sample scale items

Consider statements like “A hungry person has a right to steal” or “The law doesn’t help average people”. If I were asked for my reaction to these statements I would almost certainly strongly agree. Apparently this means I may be in need of “cognitive restructuring”. If you want a definition of what that means you will have to file an open records request of your own.

Here we should return to where I opened, with Brennan et al. expressing a desire to use networked computers to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of classifying those in criminal custody. The desire to reduce such an inherently complex question as “will someone convicted or accused of a crime commit another crime in the future?” to a set of numbers s implicitly linked to a desire to outsource more and more of this work to computers. After all, computers are indeed better able to evaluate a set of numerical variables to predict a given outcome than a human would be if they attempted to do the same calculations by hand. Appeals for more data by policymakers are usually a request for more numbers to be analyzed, as opposed to non-numerical kinds of data such as oral or written personal histories or the notes from a psychological evaluation conducted by a licensed therapist. Furthermore, those analyzing the data often have more incentives to keep people incarcerated (or at least disincentives for release) than they do moving the opposite direction, and this will invariably color decisions at either the institutional or systemic level.

In spite of these problems, the contract with the WIDOC has been lucrative. In their request to extend their current contract, Northpointe, now called equivant, gives a cost for the licenses and hosting fees for COMPAS at over $930,000. The total cost, which includes project management, technical support, and training, comes in at over $1 million ((“Exhibit_A_-_WI_DOC_Contract_Renewal_Price_Proposal_FY22”). As is common with government contracting, this is far above the cost submitted with the initial bid. In their original cost proposal, Northpointe estimated that the cost over the life of the contract (up to 7 years) to be somewhere between 2 and 3 million dollars in total (“Northpointe_Cost_Proposal-Options_1_2_with_Notes.pdf”). 

This brings me to my final point regarding what ultimately led me to request these documents in the first place. Services like COMPAS purport to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of prison operations, but in reality they often reinforce existing systemic issues while also providing plausible deniability in the form of a seemingly objective numerical rubric by which incarcerated people are evaluated. It is much easier for a DOC official to justify keeping someone in prison for any reason if they can point to a score on a chart to demonstrate instead of defend the decision solely on their own words and judgment. I’ve heard from others with loved ones in the WIDOC that they have faced many hurdles trying to request copies of COMPAS evaluations regardless of whether the person incarcerated has given their personal permission.  

These systems have a clear impact on the persistence of mass incarceration because of their use in determining when and if someone is released. While the war on drugs and over zealous prosecution have been correctly highlighted as leading to mass incarceration, an often overlooked factor is the length of sentences and the difficulty of being released on parole or other forms of supervised release. Interrogating how systems like COMPAS are used by prison and jail administrators can hopefully address this issue and I hope that by making these records available I can aid in that effort.

There is much more to be found by going through these documents, certainly more than I could hope to cover in one post. There are materials from other vendors who also sought this bid, additional training and sample materials from Northpointe, and specific documents related to how these services operate in women’s prison or those for juveniles. They can be browsed or downloaded using the link below.

“All Symptoms are Real”: A Deep History of Havana Syndrome Part II

In part 1, I traced the history of Havana Syndrome phenomenon and argued that it is best understood not just as mass hysteria, but a mass hysteria informed by larger developments of the US state and those within it. In Part 2, I continue the narrative where part 1 ended chronologically: with the development of the nuclear deterrent as well as the many smaller but equally important covert actions that took place beneath this nuclear umbrella.

Nuclear Strategy and the Costs of Deterrence 

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bockscar en route to Nagasaki to drop Fat Man (USAF)

Though putting them nominally under the control of a democratically elected president was often touted in US propaganda by way of contrast with the USSR, nobody working within the new national security state sincerely believed that the US voting public should actually exert much democratic influence over nuclear weapons policy. United States Policy on Atomic Warfare, also known as NSC 30, was published in September 1948, just before the USSR tested their first nuclear weapon. It states that even discussion of the issue on moral grounds is inherently dangerous and unpatriotic:

Were the United States to decide against, or publicly debate the issue of the use of the atomic bomb on moral grounds, this country might gain the praise of the world’s radical fringe and would certainly receive the applause of the Soviet bloc, but the United States would be thoroughly condemned by every sound citizen in Western Europe, whose enfeebled security this country would obviously be threatening.


Perhaps part of the reason they were not keen to entertain real democratic input on this issue is that they already had a pretty good idea of what the policy should be:

[The Soviets] should in fact never be given even the slightest reason to believe that the U.S. would even consider not to use atomic weapons against them if necessary. It might take no more than a suggestion of such consideration … to provoke exactly that Soviet aggression which it is fundamentally U.S. policy to avert.


It’s fitting that the first attempt to create nuclear policy relied on this cagey and awkward double negative: the Soviets must always never not believe we would absolutely use our nuclear weapons, though only defensively of course. To even entertain the idea of any international limits on the use of these weapons was not just antithetical to US interests but risked the security of western Europe, which the US had invited under its nuclear umbrella with the establishment of NATO.

The doctrine of containment as laid out by George Kennan was embodied in the strategy of deterrence. Within this simple formula were many complex tactical and engineering challenges. The placement of weapons in particular locations was both a military maneuver and a political gesture. 

In the US, the task of implementing nuclear weapons policy fell to a newly-reorganized military bureaucracy. Each branch competed to ensure their role in overall US nuclear strategy. Bombers had to evade always-improving defenses and reach more distant targets. Missiles needed to carry more warheads and be able to strike targets around the world within minutes. Submarines must dive longer while also maintaining a more compact but also always-ready missile. This became known as the nuclear triad, and continual improvement in all three was necessary to maintain a credible deterrent. And credibility don’t come cheap. 

Prior to the US entry into World War I, US military spending had never gotten far above or below 2% of GDP except during the US Civil War. The First World War caused a spike to 15%, but afterwards it returned in line with the pre-war trend. World War II not only led to a much larger increase—well above 35% at its peak—but also a permanent increase in US military spending. It remained at least above 5% of GDP from 1941 to 1975 and has hovered around there to this day, never coming close to returning to the pre-World War II trend even as overall US GDP has skyrocketed. Even if one might quibble with the specific numbers here, it’s easy to see that this represents a considerable structural fiscal adjustment in favor of military and intelligence spending. 

Inter-service rivalry became a matter of institutional survival within the also-new Department of Defense. Similar turf battles between the CIA and FBI have been a constant, and the addition of new agencies over the years has only fed this dynamic. Over time battles over budget lines would become as important as the overall mission to those who would make their careers in this deep state. Some of this went to nuclear weapons. Some of it went to protect US nuclear secrets. Some of it went to intelligence gathering. A lot of it has never properly been accounted for.

All this was, at least in theory, under the control of the president. The unique role of the president as both elected head of state and commander in chief gave the office a powerful and singular role in the strategy of deterrence. The technical capability to launch either a first strike or deliver a second strike was moot if US adversaries did not believe threats of nuclear attack would actually be carried out. The president’s perceived attitude and public comments were therefore not just a matter of policy but could, at least in the eyes of some, have a direct and immediate impact on the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent itself.

Deterrence through nuclear weapons as US policy created a lacuna between the existential threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and the everyday interests of money, resources, and power. First the Soviets were to be contained, but over time this was extended to other countries in the decolonizing world, especially when the postcolonial governments sought to harness the resources of their country for economic development.

Hints of this kind of intrigue were visible from before World War II even ended in the plot to rescue Nazis from prosecution at Nuremberg so they could work for either US weapons development agencies or the newly formed West German state. Covert efforts to keep the Italian Communist Party out of power in the 1948 elections and overthrow governments in Iran and Guatemala just a few years later were but the opening salvos in the war against communism that would be fought by and on behalf of the elite of the new corporate national security state. 

Desire to achieve these ends without provoking a larger nuclear conflict encouraged the use of secrecy and cultivation of plausible deniability. The use of private proxies kept operations at arms length, but it also creates new risks.  Illegal actions by these proxies must be covered up, including from investigations by other arms of the US state itself. Those entrusted with state protection could use this relationship to pursue their own agenda independently, which may lead to unforeseen or undesirable consequences that in turn must also be kept from public view.

Those in charge of these operations often came from wealthy and well-connected families, which no doubt only encouraged the elitist premise that their actions were of such vital importance to America that they should not have to disclose them to the common rabble. Even those who did not come from such a pedigree would not advance very far in trying to push against this upper crust consensus. 

Understanding the history and structure of the national security state itself is important for the Havana Syndrome story because while the symptoms themselves are commonly found in psychogenic illnesses, that a hostile power wielding an as-yet unknown device to cause them is still considered to be a credible explanation is itself a direct outgrowth of the reflexive paranoia within this national security state combined with the disproportionate power that individuals within this state wield over US policy.

Despite sharing many ideological goals and interests, factions emerged within this state that, while in power, could use this national security apparatus to achieve their own political and economic goals. In order for these groups to be victorious, the operations of the state itself would become weapons against both their political enemies and the American public. To pursue an aggressively anti-communist agenda using only defensive rhetoric meant that any US goals would have to be shown to the public through the distorted lens of an always-escalating fight between the US and its adversaries.

Team B and the Delicate Balance of Terror

Albert Wohlstetter was a leading nuclear strategist at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. In 1958 he published an essay titled The Delicate Balance of Terror in which he critiqued the idea that both the US and USSR possessing thermonuclear weapons had created a “thermonuclear balance.” He argued that in an age of hydrogen bombs, it was not sufficiently powerful offensive weapons that created an effective deterrent but the capability to retaliate. “To deter an attack,” he wrote, “means being able to strike back in spite of it.” 

Wohlstetter’s emphasis on second-strike capability flows from his worries over a possible surprise nuclear attack by the Soviets: 

the risks of not striking might at some juncture appear very great to the Soviets, involving, for example, disastrous defeat in peripheral war, loss of key satellites with danger of revolt spreading — possibly to Russia itself — or fear of an attack by ourselves. Then, striking first, by surprise, would be the sensible choice for them, and from their point of view the smaller risk.

Wohlstetter eventually left RAND but continued this work at the University of Chicago. In 1964 he met a graduate student named Paul Wolfowitz. Wohlstetter had been primarily concerned with nuclear strategy against the Soviet Union, but of interest to Wolfowitz was the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East given America’s reliance on oil from the region. 

Wohlstetter became convinced that the CIA suffered from a chronic optimism with regard to Soviet nuclear strategy. Wolfowitz, who had been appointed to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, was pushing a similar line from inside the government along with Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief of staff.  What these men and others wanted was a team of outside analysts to be given access to the same intelligence that the CIA used to create its National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) to see if different conclusions could be reached.  

These efforts were also advocated for by the reformation of a group which had first come together in the 1950s: the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). The first iteration had lobbied the public and those in government to pursue the strategies outlined by Paul Nitze in NSC 68. Nitze was a member of the 1970s iteration along with other national security luminaries like William Casey, Richard Perle, George Shultz, and Andrew Goodpaster.

Detail of photo reel depicting meeting between Reagan, Secretary of State George Schulz and Donald Rumsfeld, then a private citizen, at the White House in 1983 (Reagan Library)

Initial attempts to convince then-CIA director William Colby of the necessity for an alternative assessment of Soviet capabilities were rejected. Colby was apparently skeptical of the idea that these outside analysts would be able to see something missed by the CIA’s own analysts. Or perhaps he saw this campaign for what it was: an attempt to give the agency’s imprimatur to the agenda of people opposed to detente with the Soviets.

Colby was eventually fired as CIA director by Gerald Ford in 1975 along with Kissinger and James Schlesinger. Brent Snowcroft, another member of the CPD, replaced Kissinger as National Security Advisor while Schlesinger was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld. George H.W. Bush was appointed to replace Colby as CIA director under the false premise that he was an outsider with no prior connection to the agency. When Bush became CIA director he gave enthusiastic approval to the Team B plan. According to an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists from 1993, he approved the Team B plan by writing in a note: “Let her fly!” 

The official title of the Team B report was Soviet Strategic Objectives: An Alternative View, and the introductory remarks of the report give some hint as to the rigor that these men would bring to their work: 

The report concentrates on what it is that the Russians are striving for, without trying to assess their chances of success. Nor has Team ‘B’ sought to produce a full-fledged counterpart to NIE 11-3/8 , covering the same range of topics: its contents are selective, as befits the experimental nature of the Team’s assignment. Failure of the Team to address itself to any given subject should not be taken to mean that it necessarily concurs with the NIEs’ treatment of it

In other words, this was an exercise in narrative creation, bolstered by cherry-picked information designed to fit a predetermined policy. As contrived as the conclusions of Team B were, reading them illuminates the ingrained reflexes of those who were ultimately successful in determining US national security policy in the following decades:

“Communist ‘grand strategy’ requires that a variety of weapons be utilized to stimulate the process of Western decline and to seize such opportunities as may present themselves while it is in progress. Thus, for example, the establishment of close Soviet economic ties with Third World countries or Soviet direct or indirect involvement with these countries can help weaken the links connecting the ‘capitalist’ economies with their essential sources of raw material and cheap labor and thereby help to accelerate ‘capitalism’s’ economic decline.”

The Soviet record of supporting its Third World allies hardly corresponds to the Team B account, especially compared to US efforts to influence events in these same countries, but remember that everything the US is doing is only out of concern for what the Soviets might do first if they haven’t begun already.

They get to the heart of the matter later in discussing how the Soviets are promoting the policy of detente to reduce the influence “of those elements in U.S. society which desire greater military preparedness and military R&D, resulting in a weakening of the United States precisely in that sphere where lies its particular strength”. They are, of course, speaking of themselves and the others who would come to be known as the neoconservatives. To them, their critics were not just wrong but in fact acting as perhaps unwitting dupes of Soviet influence.

Notably in the context of Havana Syndrome, among Team B’s objections to in the NIE was the discounting of Soviet R&D into “directed energy” weapons, writing “it seems a reasonable conclusion based upon the expense and vigor of Soviet R&D in these areas that the Soviets attach greater probability to eventual success over a shorter period of time than does the U.S.” (emphasis in original).

Their findings fit nicely into Reagan’s campaign against Carter as evidence that more military spending was required to keep America and its allies safe. One can gauge the importance of the re-formed CPD and Team B by what happened to its members following Reagan’s defeat of Carter in the 1980 election. Paul Nitze became the lead negotiator for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from 1981-1984 before he became a Special Advisor on arms control. Wolfowitz was appointed to be the Director of Policy Planning in the State Department. Historian Richard Pipes left a position at Harvard to join the staff of Reagan’s National Security Council, where he wrote influential policy documents such as NSD-75, which identified a desire for regime change within the USSR as a national security priority for the US.

Though we cannot yet see many internal documents related to the official investigations into Havana Syndrome, we can get a close enough approximation from the Washington Post opinion page. From an October 28, 2021 column by David Ignatius about Havana Syndrome:  

The Russian playbook has emphasized deniable “gray zone” operations over the last decade. Networks of “illegal” operatives, such as those the KGB sent abroad a generation ago, are now reportedly used by the GRU and FSB, Russia’s military and domestic security agencies. Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst who heads an intelligence consulting firm, describes the networks of criminal organizations that operate in Europe to support the Kremlin’s interests as the “Crimintern.” Russia analyst A.E. Goldberg has used the Russian word bespredel to describe these reckless operations. It’s a word used by Russian criminal gangs that means “anything goes.”

With its freewheeling network of mercenaries, hackers and thugs, Russia is an obvious suspect. But that’s not the same thing as having proof. So, what should the Biden administration do about these anomalous health incidents to make sure they stop, when it lacks the evidence to support a potential military confrontation?

What Ignatius argues is that the lack of evidence for Russia’s ties to Havana Syndrome is all the more reason to suspect their involvement, just as Team B argued with Soviet threats almost 50 years ago.

In addition to the similarities in rhetoric, the Team B episode also demonstrates that despite sharing many of the same major premises, the national security state has its own internal factions and divisions. This also appears in the Havana Syndrome story.

On January 20, 2022 NBC News reported that a new CIA assessment has concluded that most of the reported instances of Havana Syndrome were not the result of “a sustained global campaign by a hostile power”. The finding was met with anger and disappointment from a group called Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome:

In a statement, a group that represents U.S. officials who have reported suspected incidents said, “The CIA’s newly issued report may be labeled ‘interim’ and it may leave open the door for some alternative explanation in some cases, but to scores of dedicated public servants, their families, and their colleagues, it has a ring of finality and repudiation.”

“We have reason to believe the interim report does not even represent the consensus of the full CIA,” said the group Advocacy for Victims of Havana Syndrome, “instead reflecting the views of a subset of officials most interested in resolution and closure

Personally speaking, I would be psyched to learn I am not the target of a sustained global campaign by a hostile power, but I guess that’s why I don’t have any national security clearance.

One of the reasons Mark Lenzi believes he is being retaliated against is that he went public after being frustrated at the lack of action by his superiors at the State Department. The people interviewed in the NBC report and elsewhere suggest much the same feeling. It’s difficult to address the medical aspects of a psychogenic illness when members of the intelligence agencies and foreign service are able to go directly to journalists who are already inclined to take US State Department and CIA employees at their word when they say someone is out to get them.

Media and war are closely intertwined throughout history, but this symbiosis between members of the press corps and those working in various capacities within the national security state grew in fits and starts throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The Team B experiment harnessed the power of the national security state to help Reagan into the presidency and win domestic political support for a renewed cold war through manipulation of the intelligence process. Once in office, the intense drive for massive military spending was matched with an equal effort to bring an end to the tarnishing of this corporate national security state by both journalists and legislative oversight while also expanding the reach of US covert power.

Iran-Contra and Project Democracy

In 1982, CIA director William Casey and Walter Raymond began work on a public diplomacy program within the NSC. Raymond was a veteran CIA officer with experience in psychological operations and Casey had been Reagan’s campaign manager prior to becoming CIA director. This led to the creation of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America headed by Otto Reich, who had previously worked for US Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, CIA Director William Casey and others break ground on an addition to CIA headquarters 5/24/1984 (Reagan Library)

In January 1983 Reagan issued National Security Directive 77, establishing four specific working groups within the NSC. The document states that the “Public Affairs Committee” would be responsible for “planning and coordination of major speeches on national security subjects and other public appearances by senior officials … This committee will coordinate public affairs efforts to explain and support major U.S. policy initiatives”. 

 Though ostensibly justified to counter Soviet disinformation efforts, as Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh document in their article Iran-Contra’s Untold Story, these public diplomacy efforts were in fact propaganda efforts aimed at convincing the American people to support its anti-communist agenda and fall in line behind their efforts, no matter how sleazy. They quote a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force J. Michael Kelly speaking at a 1983 forum on low-intensity warfare apparently attended by Oliver North: 

“The most critical special operations mission we have … today is to persuade the American people that the communists are out to get us. If we win the war of ideas, we will win everywhere else.” 

There were efforts to discredit stories of contra atrocities by smearing the journalists who reported them as Soviet and/or Sandinista misinformation. In one instance the office dismissed reports of contra slitting the throats of civilians by claiming that it could not be true because the contras were not issued combat knives.

The Reagan administration was determined to bring the US press corps to heel. Efforts to suppress criticism was coupled with planted positive stories written by either administration officials or nominally outside voices who had close ties to the administration. This arrangement proved highly effective and might not have been uncovered for years if not for a few chance events. From Parry and Kornbluh:

If the plane carrying the American mercenary Eugene Hasenfus had not been shot down on October 5, 1986, and if the Beirut weekly Al Sbiraa had not leaked the U.S. arms sales to Iran a month later, the discovery of the Iran-contra diversion might have been deferred for years and the American public kept ignorant about key elements of U.S. foreign policy. The domestic campaign had proved so successful that the traditional checks and balances had failed. Despite its image of abrasive independence, the American press corps had turned quiescent and compliant. Congressional oversight had failed to pierce the veil of deception. Many members of Congress were simply worn down by the constant Red-baiting that characterized the administration’s hardball lobbying strategy.

In 1983 a symposium titled “The Role of Special Operations in US Strategy for the 1980s” was held in Washington D.C. Among the attendees was George Bailey, then the head of the US government sponsored-Radio Liberty. In his response to a paper on psychological operations, Bailey captures the attitude of the Reagan types towards adversarial journalism: 

[T]errorists exploit the publicity provided by an indiscriminately sensationalist Western press to use murder as an element of political power, and with increasing effectiveness. The coverage (particularly by American television crews) afforded the hostage takers occupying the American Embassy in Tehran did more than any other factor to increase the political leverage of the hostage takers and to weaken the position of the US government.


It is ironic that Bailey would lament positive coverage of Iran during the hostage crisis given what we now know, thanks to Parry’s later reporting, about efforts of William Casey during the 1980 campaign to sink Carter’s negotiations with the Iranians over releasing the hostages in order to ensure Reagan’s victory in the 1980 election.

The Iranians had inherited a large US-made arsenal from the deposed Shah. Then at war with Iraq, they were in urgent need of US military equipment. Building on ties forged during these campaign efforts, the Reagan administration arranged for sales of US weapons to the Iranians. The funds for these Iranian sales were then deposited in a Swiss bank account managed by Adolfo Calero, the head of the largest contra group. Oliver North’s notes from 1985 indicate that even then he knew that a plane being used by Adolfo’s brother Mario was “probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” These efforts in support of the contras were in clear violation of amendments to Defense Appropriations bills which limited US military aid to the contras, known as the Boland Amendment. 

At almost the exact same time as this operation is well underway, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed, creating among other things a 100-1 disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Because crack was often a way to stretch the same amount of powder cocaine further, it meant that those on the lowest end of the international drug trade faced the steepest legal consequences. In addition to the general disparity between the two drugs, some of those moving powder cocaine from South and Central America were also under the protection of the US government because of their role in carrying out the covert operation to overthrow the government in Nicaragua. The ideological agenda of expanding US prisons to contain all those arrested on low-level drug charges at the same time that large-scale traffickers were being protected in order to subvert the Sandinista government are not exactly subtle.

In his opening statement at the beginning of the hearings on the Iran-Contra affair, Rep. Cheney described the events as a “case study” in US foreign policy. Cheney’s remarks amount to an prefatory defense of the scandal that was just then being investigated: 

The development of a private support network to assist insurgents fighting the civil war in Central America makes little sense considered in isolation. But it takes on a whole new significance when placed in the context of the following developments: the establishment of a communist government in Nicaragua, an outpost of the Soviet empire on the North American continent … The issues raised by these events are not new; we have had previous debates over the role of covert action, the power of the president, the role of private individuals and the appropriate role of Congress in the conduct of US foreign policy. Some will argue that these events justify the imposition of additional restrictions on presidents to prohibit the possibility of similar occurrences in the future. In my opinion, that would be a mistake. 

Cheney and others who came to the defense of the actions of the Reagan administration would contend that Congress had somehow forced their hand by cutting off aid to the contras. Building off the original policy around nuclear weapons, this essentially amounts to an argument that Congress should not interfere with US foreign policy at all. Richard Secord perhaps put this dismissive posture most succinctly in his opening statement: “if we had been successful, I would not be here today.” 

Even before any formal investigation took place, many were skeptical of the official story, which posited this as a some kind of rogue operation led by Oliver North. Rep. Jim Wright of Texas gave a press conference after meeting with the president when the story was first breaking and before any formal investigation had begun: 

Reporter: Doesn’t this strike you as a classic case of plausible deniability where you’ve got planes going down in Nicaragua, you’ve got all this stuff pointing to North, to the White House, to the NSC, and repeatedly the White House is saying “we don’t know what’s going on”. Wasn’t it set up so they could say that? 

Wright: Well, uh it does appear that way. The president is a positive thinker. I want to say that in a way that is perhaps both compliment and criticism. Mr. Reagan, of almost all the people I have met in high government positions, is unique capable of psyching himself up into a frame of mind in which he can believe whatever he wants to believe and can just utterly reject factual information which does not fit comfortably with his preconceived predilection. I think that’s just a characteristic of Mr. Reagan. It makes it very difficult for those who have information which is unpleasant to him to get through to him and get him to accept that it is fact. That truth is truth. 

Other reporter: Are you suggesting that the president is not always aware of reality?

Wright: I didn’t put it in quite those terms. […] I think I prefer my own description of the situation, and I think I have given you to the best of my ability an accurate description of what could cause a situation of this kind in response to the question that was asked, [that is] how could all this go on and the president be unaware of it? The answer is, basically, I think the president is able, in his own mind, to reject information that he doesn’t want.

Though eventually the foreign aspects of this operation would become at least partially revealed through an official investigation, there was a concerted effort to limit disclosures of the domestic propaganda aspects. An initial draft of the committee report included a section discussing the public diplomacy efforts, but these were kept out. According to Parry and Kornbluh, sources on the committee told them that Cheney lobbied the chairman of the committee, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), to focus the report on the arms transfers and money laundering and leaving the public diplomacy efforts out of their final report. 

Following the Iran-Contra hearings, a 1987 Gallup report found that while the scandal had tarnished Reagan’s popularity somewhat, there was a simultaneous decline in trust of the press, especially among his base. It had been a major scandal and news event, but its political implications were less clear. A year later, his vice president George H.W. Bush was elected president. It seems the public in general had also developed a case of Reagan’s “positive thinking.”

In 1998, about 10 years after the Iran-Contra hearings took place, Parry and Kornbluh gave an interview to KPFA about the changes they’d seen in their years covering the national security state throughout the Iran-Contra affair and into the 1990s. When discussing the role of investigations and transparency, Parry describes the changing dynamic with respect to the press and covert activities:

The CIA knew about 50 or so contra entities and contras who were involved in drug trafficking. They had a thousand or so cables that provided evidence that it had been hidden through the 80s, but here it was being made public and the Washington press corps chose almost across the board to ignore it. … even when the information comes out you still need a media that is willing to do it, has the courage to do it, and has the knowledge to do it and that we don’t have right now. 

What developed in the Reagan years was the notion that manipulating the perception of controversial events or scandals could lead to better results than complete coverups. Framed in the correct way, even scandals could be used to create new attacks against your domestic and foreign political enemies. Reagan would give this new capability a clear mission by changing US doctrine from one centered around deterrence and containment to a more aggressive promotion of its own brand of democracy and rolling back communism as an ideology. 

Despite receiving most of its funding directly from the US government, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was founded as an independent non-profit. There are four primary recipients of NED grants: the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. Each group is awarded grants that are in turn awarded to activists and NGOs all over the world. 

Establishing NED was part of a larger shift to not merely contain but rather “rollback” communist powers in the world. The US would now not just be protecting western liberal capitalism from the communist menace. “What I am describing now” Reagan said in a famous 1982 speech to British Parliament, “is a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” This meant giving weapons to anti-communist paramilitaries but also support to civil society groups, protest movements, and other efforts to destabilize socialist and communist governments. 

Mark Lenzi was working at the IRI in 2005 they were involved in training and funding various activist groups in Russia. This was the same period that Mueller’s team had questioned Lenzi about during their investigation. Lenzi’s testimony to the Mueller investigation, given around the same time he and members of his family began experiencing symptoms, is specifically cited as one of the links between Paul Manafort and Russian intelligence. According to Lenzi, it was well-known that Kilminik had been fired from his position as a translator at the IRI in 2005 because his intelligence ties were too strong. Then-director for Eurasia Programs for the IRI Stephen Nix, who incidentally seems to have disagreed with Lenzi’s characterization of Kilminik according to the Mueller report, described the work of the IRI in 2005 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations committee:

 Hundreds of thousands of human rights and political party activists continue their work in the regions regardless of pressure applied on them by the FSB and the Kremlin. IRI has worked with a number of these activists and the organizations they represent. Using innovative means to reach out to the public, they communicate their messages through forums, press releases, internet sites, newsletters, rallies, and even leaflet campaigns. They are fighting to make sure that dissenting voices, no matter how small, are heard. … This is not a government that the Russian people deserve. This is not a government that the Russian people should tolerate. I say this because I firmly believe that our friends, the Russian people, are capable of creating a democracy that offers them the stability, the prosperity, and the freedom they so richly deserve. 

After working at the IRI and before he joined the State Department, Lenzi worked as deputy communications director for John McCain, chairman of the IRI from 1993 until his death. According to his initial complaint to the State Department, filed as part of his ongoing lawsuit after his experience with Havana Syndrome, Lenzi joined the State Department only after the nature of his work with the IRI was exposed:

Approximately ten years ago Wikileaks illegally released my name and detailed some of the political work I was doing in the former Soviet Union for the International Republican Institute with U.S. Government funding. After this release I could not work safely doing political activities in certain former Soviet republics so I formally joined State Department to continue working on and in former Soviet countries with a diplomatic passport and diplomatic privileges.

Though in many ways Reagan’s execution of this policy was a continuation of previous cold war tactics, the idea of using American covert power to overthrow governments in the name of democracy would become important as a domestic rhetorical tool. No matter how cynical and sleazy the US policy was in the particulars, it was always reduced to a necessary act in the eternal struggle of democracy against tyranny, freedom against dictatorship, America vs the forces of evil.

“The strength of the Solidarity movement in Poland,” Reagan told British Parliament in the same speech quoted above, “demonstrates the truth told in an underground joke in the Soviet Union. It is that the Soviet Union would remain a one-party nation even if an opposition party were permitted, because everyone would join the opposition party.”

Joint Special Operations University Press recently published a book called Support to Resistance which describes the various efforts taken since World War II to provide financial, military, and political support to groups in other countries with the aim of coercing or overthrowing governments. Though incomplete and of course sympathetic to the US government policy, it is nevertheless candid about how these operations work and how they fit into the overall strategy. By the end of 1982, the program to support Solidarity was well underway:

In addition to money for the payment of fines and legal assistance for Solidarity leaders brought into court, the United States provided advice, food, clothing and tons of other nonlethal support, primarily in the form of communications equipment: computers and word processors, printing presses and ink, fax machines and copiers, telephones and telex machines, shortwave radios, transmitters, video cameras and other office equipment. Equipment bound for Solidarity usually arrived at the Polish port of Gdansk by ship from Denmark and Sweden, packed in mislabeled crates. Dockworkers unloaded the crates, which were then separated from the other cargo by the shipyard manager before Polish authorities were able to complete their inspections. The crates were then transported by truckers who were all secretly working in support of Solidarity. Support provided to Solidarity by the USG grew from $2 million to $8 million during the mid 1980s.


In September 1982 Reagan signed National Security Directive 54 outlining its policy towards governments in eastern Europe like Poland. The overarching strategy was to separate these governments from the influence of the USSR. 

In implementing its policy, the U. S. was to calibrate its policies in favor of governments which:

— Show relative independence from the Soviet Union in the conduct of foreign policy as manifested by the degree to which they resist associating themselves with Soviet foreign policy objectives and support or refrain from obstructing Western objectives; or

— Show relatively greater internal liberalization as manifested in a willingness to observe internationally recognized human rights and to pursue a degree of pluralism and decentralization, including a more market-oriented economy. 

Promoting democracy would create a powerful tool for mobilizing the US public in favor of US involvement, military or otherwise, in the politics of other countries. Building off of the successful efforts to convince Americans that presidential control of nuclear weapons and national security strategy was superior to the single-party Soviet model, operatives within this corporate national security state set about working against enemy governments using whatever tools were at their disposal. Within a decade, all the countries named in NSD 54 would no longer be led by the same governments. Indeed, the USSR itself would no longer exist.

Though they may have been effective domestically, reliance on simple moral binaries to whip up domestic support for utterly sleazy operations like Iran-Contra would feed growing alienation around the world as many saw these covert and often non-lethal activities as essentially war by other means. It also made it increasingly difficult to see precisely where the US support for opposition groups ended and the genuine grievances of people around the world against their governments began. The most effective of these campaigns were capitalizing on genuine local discontent, but the scale of US influence was such that some began to suspect US influence behind any protest movement of sufficient size with plenty of historical precedent on their side.

Few governments in the world, regardless of their structure, remain in power solely through the iron handed grip of a single dictator. Even those who do not like their government tend to resent when an outside power exerts its influence, especially when it can often be clearly linked to the self interest of the US and the multinational corporations which reside here. The caricatures that the US created of both its enemies and friends to sell their policies to the voting public, supposedly the source of sovereignty in the US, distorted not only events abroad but also how those in the US saw the rest of the world. Even if successful in the short term from a US perspective, these accumulated distortions, combined with the fact that much of the violence which resulted from them was kept mostly out of sight, created a picture of the world within much of the US that is as indelible as it is inaccurate. Eventually, the US public would have to be fully absorbed into the hall of mirrors created by the growing power of the national security state.

9/11: from National Security to Homeland Security

One day in fifth grade, while I was busy perusing the nature guides for made up birds, our teacher told us that there had been an attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Some of my friends were picked up early because their parents worked in the IDS tower, the tallest building in Minneapolis, evacuated out of safety concerns. I did not have any fully-formed political beliefs to speak of, but the idea of there being anything in Minneapolis important enough to run a plane into seemed a little silly. Then again I had never heard of the World Trade Center until I was watching it collapse on TV.

It took only a few days for the FBI to release the names of the 19 suspected hijackers. At a press conference on September 14, the same day the names were released, FBI Director Robert Mueller, the same man who led the inquiry into the Trump campaign and Russia, took questions from reporters:

Reporter 1: [of the hijackers] Have they been connected to organizations connected to Bin Laden?

Mueller: I can’t get into the details of that.

Reporter 2: Does it astonish you that all their training came from the U.S. There were so many of them trained as pilots and that they lived in the open. They weren’t hiding their identities here. Did any of that astonish you or shock you?

Mueller: Well the tragedies quite clearly astonish and shock me and the country. The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to have received training at flight schools here is news quite obviously. If we had understood that to be the case we would have perhaps, one could have averted this.

In fact, the Minneapolis FBI field office had already been investigating Zacarias Moussaoui, who would later be charged with conspiring with the hijackers, after a tip from a company providing flight simulator training. The company told them that Moussaoui had paid cash for the lessons and provided no pilot’s license, which was odd considering the simulator they offered was primarily used to train newly hired airline pilots on flying large commercial jets. The FBI opened an intelligence operation in on August 15, 2001 and it was quickly discovered that he had overstayed his visa, which allowed him to be arrested on immigration charges on August 16, 2001.

According to an Inspector General’s report into the FBI’s handling of intelligence, the FBI agent leading the case filed a report on August 20, 2001 outlining the result of their investigation into Moussaoui that had led them to believe he was plotting to commit a terrorist attack:

The numerous inconsistencies in his story, his two month long trip to Pakistan which ended less than three weeks before his coming to the U.S., and his inability to explain his source of financial support all give cause to believe he is conspiring to commit a terrorist act, especially when this information is combined with his extremist views as described by Al-Attas [Mossaoui’s roommate] in his sworn statement.

As Moussaoui was in the process of gathering the most knowledge and skill possible in order to learn to fly the Boeing 747-400, Minneapolis believes that his plan involved an aircraft of this type. This is especially compelling when considering that the 400 series of this aircraft has a smaller flight crew and is more automated than other versions, lending itself to simpler operation by relative novices. His request of Pan Am that he be permitted to fly a simulated flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK Airport is suggestive and gives Minneapolis reason to believe that he may have been attempting to simulate a flight under the conditions which he would operate while putting his plan into motion in the future.

Despite the FBI’s findings, there was skepticism that it was sufficient to obtain a criminal search warrant for his belongings and so the FBI chose to request a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a 1978 law that created the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The request was met with initial skepticism as it was unclear to some how Moussaoui was connected to any foreign power.

On August 22, the Minneapolis FBI office received information from the French government about Moussaoui, which they had requested because Moussaoui had entered the US with a French passport. From the OIG report:

On August 22, the FBI’s Paris Legat reported to the Minneapolis FBI and FBI Headquarters that the French government had reported that Moussaoui was purportedly associated with a man who was born in France and died in 2000 in Chechnya fighting with “the Mujahideen.” We call this person “Amnay.” The Legat’s EC stated that while in Chechnya, Amnay worked for Emir Al‑Khattab Ibn (Ibn Khattab), the leader of a group of Chechen rebels. According to the EC, the French authorities, after Amnay’s death, had interviewed a person who we call “Tufitri” who had known Amnay. That person stated that Amnay was recruited to go to Chechnya by Moussaoui and that Moussaoui was “the dangerous one.”

This was apparently still considered an insufficient link to any recognized terrorist group according to the FBI agents evaluating these reports. One agent described the “situation in Chechnya as dissidents engaged in a “civil war” and that he was not aware of any insurgency/rebel group ever being pled as a foreign power.” In other words, these foreign connections were insufficient to justify surveillance because they needed to be connected to a foreign government, not just people from a foreign country.

Some may say all this only looks obvious through the lens of hindsight, but considering the massive changes to the structure and power of the US state following the attacks it is remarkable that the existing law enforcement apparatus seems to have picked up lots of relevant information prior to the attacks taking place without any such powers. Nevertheless, discussion of wide-reaching changes to national security policy were frequent points of discussion by Attorney General John Ashcroft and others in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Ashcroft had begun restructuring the counterterrorism aspects of the Department of Justice by creating new task forces that would show the outline of the new national security apparatus being constructed. From a press conference on September 18, 2001:

At my direction last week, each US Attorney’s Office identified an experienced prosecutor who will serve as the anti-terrorism coordinator for that district. That coordinator is to convene a meeting of representatives of the federal law enforcement agencies. That would be the FBI, INS, the DEA, the Marshalls Service, Customs, Secret Service, and ATF. Together with those federal officials there would be the invitation to primary state and local police forces in that district. That group headed by the US Attorney would be the Anti-Terrorism Task Force in that US Attorney’s district. These task forces will be a part of a national network that will coordinate the dissemination of information and the development of a strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and punish terrorist organizations throughout the country. […]

In sum, the implementation of the task force coordinated by the US Attorney in each district, working with the FBI, will provide the operational foundation for a concerted national assault against terrorism. This system will provide law enforcement with a comprehensive, seamless approach to attack terrorism within our borders.

I understand this is an aggressive and an ambitious agenda. It represents a more preventative approach to doing business in the US Attorney’s offices together with the FBI than perhaps has been the case in the past. We must all recognize that our mission has changed. It has been changed by the events of this last week. The threat that seemed fairly remote to most Americans seven days ago is now felt in every heart and every home in the United States.

In these press conferences, Ashcroft repeatedly stresses the already ongoing efforts to lobby Congress, particularly those on committees related to intelligence and national security, to pass new laws granting enhanced surveillance powers. These efforts would prove successful when the USA Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001 with no public hearing and little discussion of the text prior to its passage.

In addition to this law, the structure outlined by Ashcroft would help to inform the structure of a new cabinet-level agency: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS was created with the passage of the Homeland Security Act on November 25, 2002. The new agency combined 22 existing agencies formerly held by the Departments of Treasury, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Energy, Defense, and the General Services Administration into this new agency.

Though these changes were largely premised on the idea that the US military and intelligence apparatus was not suited to this new task, in fact the major premise resembles the justification offered by Douglas Stuart in his history of the National Security Act of 1947 discussed in Part 1. Stuart, who is no ideological critic of US power, argued that the National Security Act of 1947 reoriented US military and intelligence policy around the concept of national security, with all decisions now needing to be articulated in terms of how they did or did not support this mission, even when they were clearly offensive rather than defensive. Evaluating the NSA in the context of the newly-created DHS, he writes: 

The 1947 NSA overturned the long U.S. tradition of thinking about peace and war as distinct phenomena requiring different institutional responses. For the next experiment in comprehensive reform to be effective, it will have to overturn the long tradition of treating domestic and international security as distinct realms. But this poses unprecedented problems for the American people. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has warned, ‘‘It can never be too often stated that the greatest threats to our constitutional freedoms come in times of crisis’’. But this is the first time in American history that a domestic crisis has no foreseeable end date.

Douglas T. Stuart, Ministry of Fear: The 1947 National Security Act in Historical and Institutional Context, International Studies Perspectives, Volume 4, Issue 3, August 2003, Pages 293–313, https://doi.org/10.1111/1528-3577.403006, p. 311

The US entered World War II as a state which considered war and peace to be separate states requiring their own specific institutions. In the aftermath of World War II, this distinction was scrapped in favor of a permanent baseline mobilization of the military and the creation of a permanent foreign and domestic intelligence apparatus that would take on more aggressive foreign and domestic operations over the course of the 20th century. Now, in the aftermath of 9/11, a massive expansion of not just executive power but specifically military and intelligence power was considered essential for keeping us safe from the supposedly omnipresent threat of terrorism.

At around the same time as the Homeland Security Act was passed, Donald Rumsfeld created the Office of Special Plans (OSP) and tapped Douglas Feith and Team B veteran Paul Wolfowitz with staffing the group. The group made sure  that all intelligence related to Iraq would go through them instead of being vetted through the normal military and intelligence channels, including the State Departments Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The OSP stovepipe ensured that intelligence from Ahmed Chalabi and others who supported a US invasion reached the highest levels of the Bush administration without any internal dissent. Just as Team B bypassed the typical intelligence estimate process, then-head of the INR Greg Thielman knew nothing of this group. He told the Guardian in 2004: 

“I didn’t know about its existence,” said Thielman. “They were cherry picking intelligence and packaging it for Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to take to the president. That’s the kind of rogue operation that peer review is intended to prevent”

Another veteran of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations who loomed over these proceedings was John Bolton. In W. Bush’s administration he was appointed assistant deputy for arms control from 2001-2005 and then served as UN ambassador. In these roles he repeatedly stressed the connection between terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction as well as dismissed concerns for international law.

According to CBS, two of Bolton’s staffers were struck with symptoms during a 2019 trip to London while he was working in the Trump administration. He told CBS:

Bolton: That it was on a floor completely taken up with personnel from the White House and White House agencies struck me as being pretty good evidence of a deliberate attack.

CBS: You believe it was an attack?

Bolton: I don’t think there’s any other hypothesis when you begin to look at the number and the pattern that we’ve experienced.

Miles Taylor, who later was revealed to be the author of a 2018 New York Times opinion piece titled I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration, experienced his attack in 2018 right as he was about to assume a new leadership role at DHS:

Taylor: It was late one night in April 2018. I’d just become Deputy Chief of Staff of the department, taking on some additional sensitive issues at DHS, and woke up in my apartment that night, a row house on Capitol Hill, to a really strange sound. … It was sort of a chirping, somewhere between what you would think is a cricket or sort of a digital sound. I didn’t know what it was but it was enough to wake me up. What was really strange about it was I went to the window, opened up my window, looked down at the street. And keep in mind, Scott, that this probably 3, 3:30 in the morning, and I see a white van and the van’s brake lights turned on and it pulled off and sped away.

Reporter: How long did it last?

Taylor: this whole episode only lasted about 7-10 minutes.

Reporter: How did you feel the next day?

Taylor: Off. Off, not ready to go to work. You know kinda wanting to take the day off. You know sick.

Reporter [voice-over]: then about 5 weeks later Taylor says it happened again.

Taylor: The next day, feeling off balance. Feeling just out of it. Again sort of those concussion like symptoms … that incident stood out to me because I was just about to leave to go to Israel on a Congressional delegation. We were going to meet the Israeli Prime MInister Benajmin Netanyahu, have some sensitive conversations with the Israelis on important cybersecurity issues.

The counterterrorism bona fides of those who have been struck by this mysterious disease are stressed repeatedly throughout the CBS report and others. The implication is that these are people who have worked in war zones and confronted terrorist groups but are nevertheless helpless in the face of this mysterious attack. They claim a number of these attacks occurred near the White House, including one member of the National Security Council, who declined to go on record but was happy to describe his experience to his “close colleague” John Bolton, who described their ordeal as “disorientation, and ringing in their years, and just a general inability to function.”

Others profiled in this report include former CIA officers and State Department officials, many of whom experienced their ordeals on US soil. After dismissing the prospect of mass hysteria, the CBS report accepts the idea that it is caused by “pulsed microwave energy” and ends on an ominous note:

The iron gates of West Executive Avenue went up in 1951 after the attempted assassination of Harry Truman. 70 years later, there is evidence the gates may have been breeched by an invisible threat.

The post-9/11 consolidation of the national security state overtly fused domestic and foreign operations in a way that was previously kept covert or semi-covert and represents a culmination rather than a break with previous efforts. The very fabric of the state had been set up to frame the aggressive pursuit of US interests, or at least the interest of those who matter, as a purely defensive struggle that required constant mobilization. This was supported by a massive adjustment of public spending towards military and intelligence efforts. Executive authority gradually dismissed and ignored any oversight by Congress at the same time that domestic propaganda efforts reinforced the idea that US state power was always and everywhere a force for moral good.

In May 2020 I lived about five blocks from where George Floyd was murdered by officers from the Minneapolis Police Department. The protests sparked by his death rippled around the world, which made the events in my neighborhood feel all the more surreal. Helicopters circled overhead of any gathering of size in our neighborhood and even overnight when no protests were occurring, continuing with less frequency up to the present. Police and elected officials claimed roving armed bands of people from outside the city were committing widespread arson in order to justify a complete shutdown of the highways and a curfew. Stories of flammable liquid being left near dumpsters and suspicious people in the area abounded throughout the many text and chat groups that formed among neighbors. At one point, having heard a story of this on our block, I went out to see if I could find anything near our trash cans only to look down the alley and see someone doing the same thing. 

A few days into this I attended a neighborhood meeting to discuss safety measures the community could take as well as to share information about what we’ve seen. I asked if anybody here had actually found any of the gasoline or other arson materials. Nobody had, but one attendee then mentioned that she had “actually worked at Homeland Security for 10 years” and in her experience this was indeed a serious threat that we needed to continue to monitor. 

Though I’m sure some people did find these dangerous substances, the constant surveillance and spreading of this kind of story had the effect of reinforcing the need for strong police action despite the fact that police violence had set the events in motion in the first place. Efforts to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety were ultimately defeated in a ballot referendum in 2021. During the campaign, a man named Winston Smith was killed by a federal task force. Because it was a federal task force, even the name of the officer has not and will not be released. 

9/11 led to a similar explosion in military spending, but now this money could not just be used for domestic operations by federal military and intelligence but also gave new tools and powers to local police as well. The result has been further militarization of US society with even less transparency, let alone accountability, for the use and abuse of this state power. While many still cling to the idea that it can be only used against their enemies, the grim reality is that this power remains one of the primary obstacle to practically any progressive development in US politics. 


In the conclusion of their book on Havana Syndrome, Baloh and Bartholomew discuss mass hysteria in a military context:

Over the past 150 years, soldiers returning from combat have been diagnosed with a novel syndrome for which no organic cause could be found. Despite the array of names given to it, the symptoms have remained remarkably uniform. Some of the most common complaints include headaches, dizziness, disorientation, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, insomnia, chest pain, and impaired sight and hearing … These psychogenic symptoms associated with American soldiers living under continuous stress are virtually identical to those reported by the US diplomats (p.182)

Those treating soldiers showing these symptoms have found simple interventions like rest and supportive psychotherapy are the most effective treatments. They also stress that doctors must also recognize that from the patient’s perspective the symptoms are completely real. “If a physician shows even the slightest hint of skepticism towards a patient’s symptoms,” they write, “there is little chance of helping the patients.”

By contrast, if the patients are referred to a specialist then they are not only less likely to recover but may in fact develop chronic conditions related to the specialty to which they were referred. When the State Department employees were sent to a specialist in acoustic weapons based on reports of an odd noise accompanying some of the symptoms, it all but ensured that some of those afflicted would become more convinced that they were under attack from just such a weapon. 

Among the issues Lenzi raises in his lawsuit is the damage to his reputation as a result of the State Department stating publicly in September 2018 that his own symptoms did not correlate with those afflicted in Havana. “This decision,”, Lenzi writes, “especially after State Department management tried to steer a Bureau of Medical Services Psychiatrist towards diagnosing me with a “mental illness” caused and continues to cause immense harm to my reputation and was done in a discriminatory manner.” Here we see the intense hostility to any implication that the source of his symptoms is psychological rather than technological despite all evidence to the contrary.  

The State Department has asked that the case be dismissed, but says little about the actual phenomenon of Havana Syndrome itself in their filings. They argue that not only were his accommodations implemented, but the argument that denial of particular overseas assignments that Lenzi was seeking constitutes employment discrimination is without merit. 

When I began doing research for this essay, I thought it was an interesting coincidence that Lenzi’s symptoms seemed to emerge around the same time he was being interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation. Therefore I was fascinated to see that Lenzi himself connects the two in his own filings. Though he does not name the country he believes to be behind the attacks against him, read this keeping in mind his role as former official with the International Republican Institute and see if you can guess who he is talking about:

 The country alluded to in Attachment 1 (not China or Cuba) is the same country that committed these standoff RF microwave attacks against my apartment and the adjacent apartment of my medevac’d neighbor. It is a country with which I have had a contentious multi decade history with. DS [Department of State] and the U.S. Government writ large have given me numerous awards for my expertise working in and on this country – often in hazardous working environments. Because of this expertise, and as DS management is fully aware, at the time of my injury in 2018 I was involved in a high-profile FBI counterintelligence investigation concerning this particular country.

I should state now that I am no more a doctor than I am a lawyer. I am simply a regular guy with a PACER account and a library card who likes reading documents. However, that someone with connections to many different branches of the US national security state in Russia would be under significant stress while being interviewed as part of an investigation into potential manipulation of US elections by a nuclear-armed state on behalf of the sitting president seems reasonable. Such stress might even cause headaches and sleep issues. That someone experiencing such an ordeal with a background in technical security would consider a sophisticated radio frequency attack before other potential explanations also would be perfectly in line with the description of  mass hysteria laid out in Baloh and Bartholomew’s book.

Though Lenzi’s ordeal has been more publicized because of his decision to take the matter into the courts, recent reporting by the Telegraph identifies a CIA officer in Havana as the “Patient Zero” for Havana Syndrome. In fact, that is his codename among those investigating these cases. The Telegraph’s reporting describes how his experience led to others reporting symptoms:

Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA man then working in Havana, remembers Patient Zero’s own zealous campaign: ‘He was lobbying, if not coercing, people to report symptoms and connect the dots,’ Armstrong has said. The concerned officer went to the embassy’s chief of mission, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who called a general meeting in the Havana embassy. ‘If you have any doubts about anything,’ DeLaurentis urged the gathered staff, ‘step forward and we’ll have you evaluated.’

The steady accumulation of power by the national security state and its gradual movement from the foreign to domestic front means that anyone who hopes to influence US politics will also have to confront this apparatus. This means understanding both those within this state as well as the effects their actions have on the rest of us and the world. Though this makes the task much more daunting, successfully challenging the paradox of increasing militarism and aggression justified in the name of defense and promotion of simplistic ideas of democracy could have positive ripple effects for both foreign and domestic policy.

One issue that has attracted considerable attention within this state recently is the danger of disinformation and conspiracy theories. In recent testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) asked DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas what the department was doing to counter misinformation. Mayorkas identified a number of efforts by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to alert the public to this threat.

CISA has released some infographics aimed at helping people counteract disinformation titled Disinformation Stops With You. In it they define three different kinds of false information. In addition to false information not created to cause harm (misinformation), they also describe material that is deliberately meant to “mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country”, otherwise known as disinformation. Finally, they define “malinformation” as information that is “based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.”

Portion of infographic titled Disinformation Stops with You, released by CISA.

The danger of false information, according to CISA, is that it undermines “democratic institutions and the power of facts … polluting healthy conversations about the issues and increasing societal divisions”. The implication of this is that an otherwise healthy polity cannot solve its problems democratically because the normal mechanisms have been corrupted by various kinds of false information. If only a common set of facts could be established, so the thinking goes, then the solutions to our problems would present themselves as if by logical induction.

It’s hard not to notice that “malinformation” is basically just inconvenient information to the US but which is now treated as essentially the same as completely false information. I hope that by the end of this long essay I have convinced you that those working in these roles have little reason to be given the authority to determine what information is true or false.

This panic occurs, not coincidentally, alongside signs of a severe political crisis domestically. US police are facing increasing calls for their outright abolition at the same time that both political parties seem to be doubling down on their vital role in society. As reports of insider trading in Congress become more common, these same legislators express bafflement at the suggestion of basic social democratic policies like paid sick leave, universal health care, and public education. As private spending on influencing politics in the form of campaign donations, think tanks, and front groups grows, so too does lack of trust in the results of elections and belief in credible news and academic authorities.

I chose to start this narrative in the aftermath of World War II because I believe the establishment of these new national security structures which were designed to be constantly mobilized had a profound effect on the social and political life of the US. Though it was not necessarily a predetermined outcome, the result has been an increasingly resolute and expansive executive branch taking more and more authority from an increasingly shambolic and ineffective legislature, with the judiciary following behind to grant the imprimatur of legality to the proceedings. Though I harbor no illusions about the realities of what happens in Congress, it seems a glaring structural problem when the branch granted the most expansive powers in the constitution because it is purported to be the closest to the electorate faces difficulties passing laws by simple majority. Exhortations for more people to participate in elections will cause only greater resentment if compliance is rewarded with only more inaction.

Sometimes thinking about all this gives me headaches, sleeplessness, nausea. At times, it becomes difficult for me to perform my regular job duties.

Towards the end of the Long Telegram, Kennan described the Soviet state in a way that curiously parallels the operations of the US national security state which had then just been established: 

it has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries , an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history. Finally, it is seemingly inaccessible to considerations of reality in its basic reactions. For it, the vast fund of objective fact about human society is not, as with us, the measure against which outlook is constantly being tested and re-formed, but a grab bag from which individual items are selected arbitrarily and tendenciously [sic] to bolster an outlook already preconceived. This is admittedly not a pleasant picture. 

Not a pleasant picture indeed. In fact, I think I might be sick.

“All experiences are real”: A Deep History of Havana Syndrome (Part I)

“All experiences are real”: A Deep History of Havana Syndrome (Part I)

Every Tuesday in my fifth grade science class our teacher asked us to share any recent animal sightings. If you claimed to have seen something that you didn’t recognize, she’d invite you to look through a small library of wildlife guides to see if you might be able to identify it. 

For someone like me, who did not particularly like science class but did like books, this was a great arrangement. I could spend 15-20 minutes of a 40 minute class period looking through books with color illustrations of wildlife instead of filling out worksheets. All I needed to do was come up with an animal that matched the made-up description I had given her at the beginning of class.

Over time, my reports of increasingly exotic birds in and around Minnehaha Creek did start to raise suspicions, and eventually she determined that my reported findings were not of scientific use to the class.

Though my teacher eventually did get wise to this arrangement, medical doctors examining US diplomats do not seem as confident expressing skepticism. One person familiar with how the incidents are now being treated said in a December 2021 Washington Post article that “the fundamental statement we use is that all symptoms are real, all experiences are real”. 

As Bartholomew and Baloh lay out in their book on the subject, the most plausible explanation for the Havana Syndrome phenomenon is mass hysteria. Their book, however, focuses on the chronology of Havana Syndrome events and the history of mass hysteria. Informative as it was, I could not shake the feeling that something deeper was informing how and why this was unfolding in the way that it did. 

For starters, there was the assumption that old Cold War enemies must be somehow involved, even if it defied the logic of diplomacy and the laws of physics. Though easy to dismiss as just another invocation of one of America’s Official Enemies, it’s an interesting detail given that this new mass psychogenic illness seems to primarily affect US government personnel and their families working overseas. 

There was also the repeated complaints from those afflicted that their illness was not being taken more seriously. This has won them many champions in Congress, who in the midst of a pandemic passed the HAVANA Act, which was designed to make sure that those being attacked by these mysterious symptoms could receive treatment for their injuries. The bill was passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and signed into law on October 9, 2021.

Mass hysteria is both an individual psychological ailment and a contagion that can only exist in groups. It often occurs during a time of heightened stress, manifesting itself in individual cases but depending on certain group dynamics to spread. To understand Havana Syndrome then requires understanding what was going on among US officials stationed in embassies in late 2016 and early 2017 that would cause such a reaction. 

Trouble in Foggy Bottom

On February 11, 2017, the New York Times ran an article with the headline ‘A Sense of Dread’ for Civil Servants Shaken by Trump Transition based on interviews with employees of many different agencies.

In a grim preview of his rehabilitation into a #Resistance hero, one EPA official said that while some had “bristled” at the industry-friendly regulations enacted by George W. Bush, “at no point did they feel the alarm they do now.” 

On May 17, 2017 Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to investigate possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. This was the culmination of speculation that had begun before his victory, but its immediate impetus was Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey on May 9.

It’s not necessary for me to recount the story of his investigation because it was everywhere. In the end, as often happens, most of the people who followed this investigation closely saw more or less what they wanted to see. At no point was this clearer than upon the release of Mueller’s much-anticipated report. To those waiting for a very Mueller Christmas, the report, along with the various indictments that came out of the investigation, vindicated their suspicions at the precise moment that Trump himself was lauding Mueller’s findings as a total acquittal.

On November 24, 2017, the New York Times ran an article headlined Diplomats Sound the Alarm as They Are Pushed Out in Droves. It described a simmering conflict between then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and senior staff in the State Department. Even before he had been confirmed, Tillerson’s staff fired a number of senior foreign service officers and froze most new hiring. Tillerson made no secret of his belief that the department was too large and hoped to eliminate almost 2,000 positions. The article closes with a quote from Dana Shell Smith, former US ambassador to Qatar: 

“These people either do not believe the U.S. should be a world leader, or they’re utterly incompetent,” she said. “Either way, having so many vacancies in essential places is a disaster waiting to happen.”

The head of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Barbara Stephenson offered a similar assessment. In the December 2017 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, the official publication of the AFSA, she titled her statement for that issue as Time to Ask Why

[T]he need to make the case for the Foreign Service with fellow Americans and our elected representatives has taken on a new urgency. The cover of the Time magazine that arrived as I was writing this column jarred me with its graphic of wrecking balls and warning of “dismantling government as we know it.”

While I do my best, as principal advocate for our institution and as a seasoned American diplomat, to model responsible, civil discourse, there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution—and to the global leadership that depends on us.

By firing long-time employees and leaving many high level positions unfilled, the new administration seemed to be cutting off the head of an institution that operates on what Stephenson referred to in her 2017 testimony as the “up-or-out principle”. This means, roughly speaking, that employees must continue to advance in the organization or face dismissal.

That this is the tone of public comments among State Department personnel suggests that there was a lot of tension internally. Conflict between the State Department staff and those heading the agency had crossed from a political disagreement into an existential struggle.

Havana Syndrome Emerges 

On May 23, less than a week after Mueller was first appointed, two Cuban officials stationed at the recently reopened Cuban embassy were asked to leave the US, an act of diplomatic retaliation. Unlike the Mueller investigation, this act was not widely publicized. In fact, the State Department only revealed it a few months later at a briefing on August 9. 

That same day, the Associated Press published an article where anonymous officials suggested that the diplomats had been “exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences”. This is the first mention of any kind of device being responsible for Havana Syndrome.

In addition to these mysterious events, US-Russia relations were concerned with a more overt form of diplomatic tit-for-tat. On August 2, 2017 Trump signed additional sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea into law. Not long after, Putin announced that the US would have to reduce the size of its diplomatic mission in Russia. When asked about this at his New Jersey golf club, Trump told the reporters 

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” 

The remark drew swift and stern condemnation from members of the foreign service. Ironically most of the positions eliminated were likely held by Russian nationals, but to former ambassadors like Nicholas Burns, the remark “justified mistreatment of US diplomats by Putin”

The State Department held its first dedicated press briefing on the subject of Havana Syndrome on September 29, 2017. At this briefing they announced that all non-emergency personnel assigned to the US embassy in Havana would be returning to the United States with their families. The State Department said that this was in response to “attacks” instead of “incidents” as they had been described before. 

Among the effects of these mysterious attacks were “ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual complaints, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.” When asked if anybody else at the hotel where some of these attacks supposedly occurred had experienced similar symptoms, one of the unnamed State Department officials gave an interesting answer: 

[W]e’re not aware of any hotel staff or other individuals who have been attacked or suffered these systems [sic] beyond the U.S. Government personnel at the hotel. And in terms of our Cuban staff at the embassy, we’re not aware of any incidents involving them or attacks involving them. The victims that we’re aware of are the 21 U.S. Government personnel.

The State Department used the fact that this only seemed to affect US government personnel to conclude that they must be the result of some kind of attack.  However, this could also be explained by mass hysteria, since symptoms often travel within particular social groups, in this case US officials. 

It’s worth mentioning now that “Havana Syndrome” is a misnomer. A syndrome refers to a group of symptoms that all occur together which suggest the presence of a disease. This is not what we see among Havana Syndrome patients. Not only do the potential exposures vary in location and duration, but the symptoms themselves are not consistent from person to person. This also suggests mass hysteria. 

In December 2017 Marc Polymeropoulos took a trip to Moscow. According to an interview with The World, he was there to meet the ambassador and embassy, routine for a longtime CIA intelligence officer. Then, it struck:

it was on the night of Dec. 5, I woke up to a start. I had vertigo. I had a terrible headache, tinnitus, which is ringing in my ears — something really, really traumatic had happened to me. I had been in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and other places. I served over three years after 9/11 in war zones. I’ve been shot at. I put myself in harm’s way. But this was the scariest moment of my life. And so I knew something terrible had happened. I made it through about 10 days with the symptoms on and off. I came back to the United States and then the symptoms got particularly awful. And about March, April of 2018, to the point where I couldn’t work anymore. And after really seeing numerous doctors and undergoing just this incredible journey of trying to find out what happened, I, you know, I couldn’t drive for a while, I lost my long-distance vision. And so, ultimately, I had to retire from the CIA in July of 2019.

Later in the interview, Marc speculates that Russia must have been involved. Unfortunately he does not explain how whatever attacked him in Moscow followed him back and in fact got worse after returning to the United States.

A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches :  NPR
Marc Polymeropoulos in Moscow 2017 (NPR)

The Havana Syndrome phenomenon then spread to other geopolitical hotbeds. In June 2018, the New York Times reported that diplomatic staff in Guangzhou, China were being sent home following similar reports as those from the diplomats in Cuba, including Mark Lenzi. From their article:

Mr. Lenzi said that over the past year he and his wife had experienced similar physical symptoms, including headaches, sleeplessness and nausea, and on three or four occasions they heard odd noises, though they did not put them together until the disclosures last month.

The footnotes of the Mueller report show that Lenzi was actually interviewed as part of the investigation on January 30, 2018, not long after he first started showing symptoms (p.133). The subject of their interview was Konstantin Kilimnik, whom Lenzi worked with at the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Moscow office in the early 2000s. At the time, according to Lenzi, Kilimnik was fired from the IRI because of his close ties to Russian intelligence, though another IRI official seems to have remembered it differently.

In addition to his foreign service positions, Lenzi was a deputy spokesman for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and then worked for the New Hampshire Republican Party. In 2016, he told a local New Hampshire news station that despite his party affiliation he would be voting for Hillary Clinton:

Lenzi, 42, said that after working on NATO-related issues, he was dismayed to read Trump’s criticisms of NATO. Trump told the New York Times this week that as president, he would condition U.S. support of NATO allies on whether “they fulfill their obligation to us.”

“It’s not just that Trump is pro-authoritarian. He goes against what I was trying to with the International Republican Institute. There is a palpable fear in these countries about him becoming president.”

“As Trump went after mentors of mine personally – John McCain and Lindsey Graham — and opposes the principle I’ve worked for overseas.”

More recently, Lenzi has filed a lawsuit against the State Department over workplace discrimination after seeking accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The accommodations, which include reduced workload and the ability to use tinted sunglasses, were granted, but he alleges that the State Department began reassigning him to jobs below his qualifications after being afflicted by Havana Syndrome. 

The filing provides a more detailed glimpse into the internal process of evaluating these claims and demonstrates the power of social networks in spreading psychogenic illness. Beginning in November 2017, while working as part of diplomatic security, Lenzi says he and his family started experiencing “headaches, lightheadedness, nausea, nosebleeds, sleeplessness, and memory loss,” which he reported to his superiors. In April, unbeknownst to Lenzi, another employee, whom Lenzi described as his “closest American neighbor” (it’s unclear if they were literally neighbors), was sent home from Guangzhou to be evaluated at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Not long after the State Department sent out a technician to evaluate the living quarters of the employee who had just been evacuated. As Lenzi was working in diplomatic security, this technician needed to go through Lenzi to obtain the necessary equipment. According to Lenzi, the person evaluating the room was not really doing a thorough job and so he reported his concerns to his supervisor. His supervisor apparently did not share Lenzi’s concerns and told Lenzi that he was “being too emotional about an equipment issue.”

Mark Lenzi maintains emotional control when discussing equipment issue with 60 Minutes CBS News

 In May 2018 the Consul General held a town hall for employees and informed them that the technician had found nothing out of the ordinary. Lenzi was upset. A few days after this meeting, he got in touch with his former “closest American neighbor”. From the filing:

On or about May 26, 2018, Mr. Lenzi contacted his former neighbor, who had been medevac’d to University Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Mr. Lenzi informed her of the numerous symptoms he and his family had been experiencing over the past six months. After Mr. Lenzi described their short-term memory loss, Mr. Lenzi’s former neighbor stopped him and said that Mr. Lenzi needed to get himself and his family out of their apartment “right now.” ” She went on to say that she had pleaded with the State Department on three different occasions to inform and get her American consulate neighbors out of the Tower 7 Apartment Complex in Guangzhou, but that each time the State Department did nothing.

One day later he sent an email warning his diplomatic colleagues of these incidents. Eventually he and his family also left to be examined at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, which has examined multiple State Department employees claiming to suffer from Havana Syndrome. 

About a year after he left China, doctors at the University of Pennsylvania published a study titled “Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel With Possible Exposure to Directional Phenomena in Havana, Cuba” in the Journal of American Medicine. The article does not mention any of the symptoms experienced by the cohort. Instead they compared brain images to find “potential differences in brain tissue volume, microstructure, and functional connectivity in government personnel compared with individuals not exposed to directional phenomena.”

This study was widely cited as being proof that employees had suffered “brain damage” and therefore could not be suffering from any kind of mass hysteria. However, the study had a number of important limitations: 

the analysis involved a small sample with high heterogeneity, compounded by clinical (as opposed to research) neuroimaging acquisition. In the absence of a common clinical severity score due to varied symptomatology, the cohort cannot be subdivided. … Additionally, it cannot be determined whether the differences among the patients are due to individual differences between patients or differences in level and degree of exposure to an uncharacterized directional phenomenon.

Not only did the symptoms from patients not match, but the samples involved were both small and highly varied. Therefore this analysis is only capable of showing differences between the group of diplomats studied and the reference cases as two separate groups. Nothing detected in the analysis could explain specific differences in brain matter between individual diplomats, to say nothing of whether or how an “uncharacterized directional phenomenon” might have caused them. 

Though it contains lots of descriptions of his experiences with Havana Syndrome, the substance of Lenzi’s suit is employment-related. One of his chief complaints is being denied job placements overseas after reporting his symptoms. Recall that his symptoms began at the end of November 2017, about two months from when the US evacuated many of its employees from the embassy in Havana and at the same time the New York Times was reporting about conflict between career foreign service employees and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over unfilled positions. Not long after, the head of the American Foreign Service Association warned in their official publication of the dire threats facing the country and their members in particular. 

Early in their book, Baloh and Bartholomew dismiss a common misconception with respect to mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness. Those suffering from these ailments are likely not self-consciously faking their symptoms or experiences. Instead the illness is itself a reaction to someone’s surroundings, both social and physical. In the late 19th century there were reports of vague illnesses associated with telegraph lines and steam engines as the devices came to play a larger and larger role in people’s lives. Often how the disease is described and spread can reveal deeper issues that might not be clear even to those reporting the symptoms. 

In this two-part essay I argue that Havana Syndrome is itself symptomatic of a crisis of strategy and identity that most acutely affects people at the highest levels of US foreign policy. Though in some ways precipitated by the chaos of the Trump years, it has its roots in the inconsistencies and convenient fictions that formed the foundation of US policy and informed the structure of the US state itself during the Cold War.

Building on the massive mobilization during World War II, the US underwent a significant reorganization of its defense and intelligence apparatus based on the belief that they were engaged in an ideological death struggle. Assumptions made about the USSR and Russia in these early days would develop into institutional reflexes for US diplomats and intelligence operatives. These would form the basis of not just US policy but the creation of organizations like NATO. 

When their opponents in this existential struggle voted themselves out of existence without firing a single ICBM (with lots of American help to be sure), both the US and NATO faced a strategic vacuum that was ultimately filled by the threat of terrorism. Though this was sufficient grounds for another massive reorganization of the national security state and a dramatic expansion of the US military’s presence overseas, these foundational fictions remained at the heart of US policy and persist unconfronted up until the present. Though these national security types may be the ones showing symptoms, as these fictions run aground against the changing geopolitical reality of the 21st century, nearly all Americans will have to confront them one way or another.

World War II and the National Security State

Though the US did have various informal and often ad-hoc intelligence operations during the 19th and early part of the 20th century, the modern national security state as we know it today is largely a product of World War II. In many cases, changes made in the immediate aftermath of the war were codifying changes that had either been discussed or implemented in a preliminary way during the war. 

Prior to the signing of the National Security Act, the US had a Department of War and a Department of the Navy, both having been established in the first decades after the American Revolution. The State Department had also existed since the country’s founding, and had been considered the lead department for all peacetime foreign relations matters.

Now, the Department of War would be split into separate Air Force and Army departments, joining the Department of the Navy under a new structure called the National Military Establishment. This new group was to be headed by a single cabinet-level Secretary of Defense, replacing the Secretary of War. In 1949 an amendment to the Act was signed which officially created the Department of Defense from this National Military Establishment. Many activities which the US military had begun as part of the wartime effort were also slotted into this newly reorganized military structure.

Truman signing the 1949 Amendment to the National Security Act

The US did not have a governmental agency primarily responsible for foreign intelligence work until President Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services in 1942. At war’s end, Truman established the National Intelligence Authority via executive order to oversee the Central Intelligence Group. This National Intelligence Authority consisted of the Secretaries for War, Navy, State, and the president’s chief of staff. With the signing of the National Security Act this group was renamed the National Security Council (NSC). This group would, among other things, be nominally tasked with overseeing the operations of the newly-created CIA.  

Though the exact membership of the NSC has changed as new departments are created and presidential priorities change, this is still the structure which still forms the foundation of presidential authority over the US military and intelligence capabilities.  It should also be noted that in addition to these bureaucratic links between diplomacy and intelligence, at this time the State Department and CIA were being run by two brothers, Allen and John Foster Dulles.

In addition to reorganizing the institutions of government themselves, the National Security Act realigned US politics around the need for permanent defense mobilization against any existing or potential threats. While there was no shortage of bureaucratic jostling for position within this structure, the foreign intelligence, diplomacy, and military capabilities of the US were now firmly and irrevocably fused together under the banner of US national security.

These organizational changes mirrored or perhaps precipitated ideological changes in America. As Douglas T. Stuart, a historian who teaches at the Army War College, wrote in a study of the National Security Act: 

Over time, the concept of national security displaced national interest as the leitmotif of American foreign policy, and it became increasingly difficult for U.S. policymakers to calculate American interests unless they were framed, and justified, by reference to national security … In accordance with the logic of national security, policymakers were predisposed toward worst case scenarios and tended to favor military instruments of power and influence. (p. 303)

Stuart, Douglas T. Ministry of Fear: The 1947 National Security Act in Historical and Institutional Context
International Studies Perspectives, Volume 4, Issue 3, August 2003, Pages 293–313, https://doi.org/10.1111/1528-3577.403006

Though Stuart frames this result as an unintentional consequence, considering it alongside the ideological origins of the containment doctrine suggests this may as well have been the purpose of this reorganization all along. By laying the groundwork for an extensive system of intelligence collection and covert activity, and by creating procedures for consultation between the civilian and military agencies involved in national security planning, the National Security Act gave the United States a framework designed for anti-Soviet containment.

Birth of Containment

George Kennan

George Kennan was working as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow. It was from this post that he wrote his famous Long Telegram in 1946. The telegram, addressed to the Secretary of State but widely circulated throughout the government, lays out Kennan’s view of the Soviet state at the end of World War II. Following his assessment of the Soviet ideology and state structure, he writes: 

It should not be thought from above that Soviet party line is necessarily disingenuous and insincere on part of all those who put it forward. Many of them are too ignorant of outside world and mentally too dependent to question self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe. … The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth–indeed, their disbelief in its existence–leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this Government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of outside world. Here there is ample scope for the type of subtle intrigue at which Russians are past masters.

The picture Kennan paints of the Soviet Union is of an intensely paranoid and unpredictable adversary run by men so blinded by ideology that they may not even realize the depths of their self-deception. Officials operating within the Soviet government are encouraged to ignore any information which would contradict the official ideology. Therefore it is impossible to expect that the average Soviet citizen has anything approaching an understanding of the world around them. It is within this hall of mirrors that, according to Kennan, the Soviets have ample room to advance their own anti-American agenda as only they know how. Elsewhere in the telegram Kennan says that his assessment of the Soviet state should not be taken as an assessment of the Russian people, but I find this difficult to rectify with his allusions to Russian mastery of “subtle intrigue” and Russian “disrespect for objective truth.”

According to an article written by his biographer C. Ben Wright, earlier that year he told the audience at the Air War College that “with probably ten good hits with atomic bombs you could, without any great loss of life or loss of the prestige or reputation of the United States as a well-meaning and humane people, practically cripple Russia’s war-making potential.”

Even for the heady days of total US nuclear superiority, the idea of dropping ten nuclear bombs on a country “without any great loss of life” strikes me as basically insane. Nevertheless, Kennan would often contend that people citing his own words while arguing for aggressive action were misinterpreting his true intentions.

If Kennan’s stance was paradoxical, he would argue that with Russia this simply comes with the territory. Writing in a letter, he declared “in the consideration of Russian matters, [whenever] there is a question as to whether this or that, the answer is usually ‘both.’ 

In the same article Wright cites an unpublished essay titled “The United States and Russia” that gives some concrete suggestions as to what he may have meant in his own terms :

  • Don’t act chummy with them.
  • Don’t assume a community of aims with them which does not really exist.
  • Don’t make fatuous gestures of good will.
  • Make no requests of the Russians unless we are prepared to make them feel our displeasure in a practical way in case the request is not granted.
  • Take up matters on a normal level and insist that Russians take full responsibility for their actions on that level.
  • Do not encourage high-level exchanges of views with the Russians unless the initiative comes at least 50 percent from their side.
  • Do not be afraid to use heavy weapons for what seem to us to be minor matters.
  • Do not be afraid of unpleasantness and public airing of differences. Coordinate . . . all activities of our government relating to R ussia and all private American activities of this sort which the government can influence.
  • Strengthen and support our representation in Russia 

Just as the US was fusing together its new intelligence and military agencies, Kennan was creating an image of the USSR and Russia that would inform how the inhabitants of this new national security apparatus saw their Cold War adversary. Attempts at normal diplomatic relations were futile, and instead the US policy should be to contain and isolate the Soviets (and indeed any communist or socialist government) lest the contagion spread.

While the US was molding its own bureaucratic and political ideology into its Cold War form, the transnational arm of the anti-Soviet coalition was also taking shape: NATO. 

Diplomatic Origins of NATO

It’s easy to see the breakdown of the Allied powers as inevitable given the ideological differences between the parties, but the events themselves are interesting because the legal and political structures which emerged as a result of this fallout did much to shape the events of the ensuing decades.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officially came into existence with the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. The basis of the alliance took shape during secret negotiations between the US, UK, and Canada held  at the Pentagon earlier in March of the same year. (See Wiebes and Zieman 1983).  

On April 1 the State Department produced minutes of these meetings which represented a preliminary agreement for what would become NATO. The most important aspect from a geostrategic point of view is the concept of mutual defense. This principle would form the basis of NATO’s Article 5, also known as the mutual assistance pledge. Then as now, which countries should be party to this agreement was the subject of intense debate, though establishing it as a regional alliance was important legally because such arrangements are allowed under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson signs North Atlantic Treaty with President Harry Truman and Vice President Alben Barkley.   

On April 1, 1954, almost five years after the North Atlantic Treaty was ratified by the United States, the Soviet Union presented a proposal for them to join the alliance:

Plainly enough, given the proper conditions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could lose its aggressive character, that is, if all the big powers which belonged to the anti-Hitler coalition became its participants. In view of this the Soviet Government, guided by the unchanged principles of its foreign policy of peace and desirous of relaxing the tension in international relations, states its readiness to join with the interested governments in examining the matter of having the Soviet Union participate in the North Atlantic Treaty.

In addition to perceiving the existence of NATO itself as a de facto anti-Soviet alliance, the immediate impetus for this request was the establishment of the European Defense Community via a treaty signed on May 27, 1952 but which was never ratified. This proposed arrangement was to include a newly rearmed West Germany, which had become a highly contentious issue in the years following the war.

The Bundeswehr would not come into existence until 1955, but its formation was the product of many years of effort among officials in West Germany, including former members of the Nazi Wehrmacht like Hasso von Manteuffel. I will admit to being a partisan of the Soviet view on these matters, but even setting that aside I find it difficult to see in this proposal the kind of irrationality or paradoxical thinking that Kennan presents in his writings. Is there really no community of aims among the former anti-Nazi alliance? Nevertheless, this request was rejected and the Cold War counterpoint to NATO, the Warsaw Pact, was established a few years later.

That NATO is an international alliance conceived of initially through negotiations at the Pentagon between Anglo countries is significant for understanding its real purpose. One of NATO’s most important functions during the Cold War was as a mouthpiece which could claim to speak for an alliance of many countries. NATO would prove essential for US rhetoric during the Cold War as a way of contrasting liberal capitalist democracies with the authoritarian Soviet communism. Over time, speaking for “the international community” or later the “rules-based international order” would become common even in cases where it was clear that the US was in the driver’s seat.

Detail from 1956 travel map of Western Europe published by ESSO

As fascinating as all this diplomatic and covert action was, the ultimate backbone of US strategy post-World War II was the nuclear bomb. Though the term “mutually assured destruction” has become a shorthand for Cold War nuclear policy, it is notable that US military strategists were aware of the thorny political issues raised by nuclear weapons even before the Soviets had successfully tested a weapon of their own in 1949. 

Nuclear Strategy and the American Cold War Ethos

A 1946 paper titled The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order was one of the earliest attempts at formulating US nuclear policy. Nuclear weapons caused destruction at such an epic scale that it was challenging many of the underlying assumptions of military strategy. Even from this early date, though, it was clear that the biggest challenges presented by nuclear weapons would be political, not technological.

The paper identified two political dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons. The first was that the primary political tool for arriving for any agreement between sovereign states is a voluntary treaty. Even if a treaty limiting atomic weapons could be negotiated and signed, the immense power wielded by nuclear armed states meant that the incentive to break the agreement would only grow as more states signed on. 

The second dilemma was that the growth in military air power meant attacks could happen more quickly, so the prospect of any kind of negotiated solution to the threat of atomic attack among any international bodies seemed slim to none. 

The political response to these twin dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons among political leaders was ably summarized in the report: 

After a few early flights of fancy, most of the political analysts lapsed into a discreet silence on the subject. It was quickly apparent that they had been handed one of the toughest problems which the members of their guild had ever had to face. … Each sortie into some promising opening either ended up against a solid wall or led to another tangle of seemingly insoluble problems. No clue could be found to a simple formula which would offer repose to men’s minds while opening up new vistas of unruffled prosperity. In fact there was reason to believe that nothing of the sort would ever be found and that the job was one of arduous and patient examination of a whole mosaic of related problems extending indefinitely into the future. 


Indeed no straightforward political solution to the problem of nuclear weapons has yet been found. Though some at the time believed no country could summon the scientific knowledge and technical resources required to create such a sophisticated device, the political benefits to having one all but guaranteed that total US nuclear superiority would not last for long. The work of nuclear strategists and the national security state was developing sufficient countermeasures such that any use of nuclear weapons on one side would all but guarantee that the attacker would be also annihilated by a nuclear counterattack. 

In order to reap the geopolitical benefits of this power, the holders of nuclear weapons must convince their opponents that they would indeed use it when faced with an existential threat. In a word: credibility. 

It was against the backdrop of this uneasy standoff that the complex politics of the Cold War played out. The main concern of US intelligence, military planning, and diplomacy would be to be under constant vigilance against any technological or strategic development that might give the USSR enough of an advantage to encourage them to actually fire their weapons. 

The authors of the report cited above believed that once other countries reached nuclear parity, it was far more likely that nuclear weapons would be used either at the very beginning of a war or after a few years of sustained fighting, probably by whichever side was losing. They declared it would be “foreign to human nature” for war to erupt between nuclear powers that would not involve nuclear weapons because if the conflict was great enough so as to lead to the outbreak of war, then it would be unlikely for war to occur in the first place. 

Bernard Brodie (military strategist) - Wikipedia
Bernard Brodie, one of the authors of the 1946 report

Though the US and USSR never did fight a head-on conventional war, looking back on the 20th century we can see that almost the exact opposite of what Brodie predicted happened. Instead of one single moment of annihilation, the Cold War was fought all over the world, with those in the decolonizing world doing the majority of the fighting and dying. Governments were overthrown covertly out of US embassies and weapons of the non-nuclear variety circulated around the world, all the while the threat of nuclear weapons waiting in the offing in case things really got serious. These wars were fought with covert arming and training of militias and aggressive propaganda efforts, often more intensely concerned with domestic rather than foreign opinion.

Intelligence work has been murky since the days of the Venetian Council of Ten, but now with weapons which could destroy the world many times over with just a few sorties or launches from submarines, the stakes of spook paranoia would reach dizzying heights. Over time, it became clear to anybody either already at the top of US national security as well as those who sought to rise up the ranks that there was rarely much to gain from deflating potential threats.

As the national security state solidified, this constant need for newer threats lurking around every corner became a matter of bureaucratic survival. Disagreements over strategy and tactics between different factions within it would reverberate through US politics, though largely unacknowledged by and often unknown to the general public.

On all sides, though, national security became the prime directive of the US state. Wars overseas were justified in the name of warding off a seemingly omnipresent enemy that no matter how much the US spent was always about to pull ahead if they weren’t ten steps ahead already. The imagery and rhetoric used to convince the American people became more sophisticated alongside similar refinements in the tools for effecting US policy overseas in both covert and overt ways.

What had once been fixed distinctions between wartime and peacetime were increasingly becoming blurred. Whether we were at war or peace became less dependent on formal declarations and more a matter of assessing the levels of violence in a given place and time.

The US may have “won” the Cold War, but the strategies and tactics used to achieve that victory would have profound effect on both domestic and international politics up to the present. These effects and their connection to this string of bizarre incidents known as Havana Syndrome will be the subject of part 2.

Washington Phillips – Lift Him Up That’s All

With many old blues and gospel 78s it can be difficult to pin down details about the recording or even the artist, but you often have a good idea what instrument is being played. The same cannot be said for Washington Phillips. He was born in 1880 in Freestone County, TX and farmed some acreage near Teague, and when he wasn’t farming he became known as a “jack-leg preacher,” meaning he was not ordained by a particular faith but would often attend churches with the hope of speaking. If that didn’t work, he spoke to gatherings on the street or in shop-window churches. Though it was long argued Phillips played a novelty instrument called a dolceola, but fans of his work and of zither music have debunked that theory. Eyewitnesses to Phillips performing said that he played an instrument that he assembled himself and since the dolceola was commercially sold at the time it would not have to be assembled. So where did these dreamy sounds come from?

An article from the Nov. 8, 1907 issue of the Teague Chronicle describes the instrument as a 2′ x 3′ box that is 6 inches deep which Phillips called the “manzarene.” Being a Texas newspaper from the early 20th century, there was some racism thrown in for good measure which I won’t repeat here.

It is unclear whether the instrument described in the article is the same one which appears on this and other recordings which Phillips made for Columbia records between 1927-1929. You can read more about the research into Phillips instruments in this blog post from a harp guitar enthusiasts’ site. He doesn’t reach a conclusion regarding what instrument Phillips used, but he did list some possibilities, which include

a giant homemade box zither, a secondhand Phonoharp and gizmo-less Celestaphone that were possibly assembled into some giant super-zither, and at least one, but possibly multiple, additional homemade zithers, smaller and eventually played with just one hand.

Regardless of what instruments he played, it’s amazing these recordings survived all the way to the present. They were first re-issued by a Dutch blues imprint called Agram Blues in 1980. An American roots label called Yazoo Records has reissued recordings by Phillips twice, once under the name I Am Born To Preach The Gospel in 2003 and then again under the name The Key To The Kingdom along with recordings by Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand. Mississippi Records also released a compilation What Are They Doing In Heaven Today in 2006. In November 2016 Dust-to-Digital released the most comprehensive version of Phillips’ music entitled Washington Phillips And His Manzarene Dreams. Along with remastered recordings, it also contains a 72 page booklet which collects the research of Michael Corcoran of the Austin Statesman, who probably knows more about Phillips than anybody. The history of Phillips is fascinating, but I’ll warn you before you dive in: you may learn more about zithers than you thought was possible.

Günter Schlienz – Dust

This track comes off what might be the best volume in the Air Texture compilation series. For each volume of the series, two artist curate a CD of contemporary ambient work, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I like Volume IV so much because Steve Hauschildt (formerly of Emeralds) was one of the curators. Schleinz performs on synths be built himself, the schemes of which he shares on his website, which is well worth checking out for anybody interested in technical details of synthesizers and electronic music. He started building standalone circuits from various books and sites and soon graduated to assembling modular synths by putting his “toys” into larger modular cases, with an eye towards portability (no easy task with modular synths). As an amateur musician myself, I’m so thankful for the great resources he’s assembled on his site, including links to DIY synth designs, CD printing services, and resources for live visual effects. Schlienz has released quite a few solo tapes/CDs on labels like Sacred Phrases and Constellation Tatsu, which have released material by other artists featured on this site. As if that weren’t enough, he also runs the label Cosmic Winnetou, which has featured some of my favorite artists including Pulse Emitter, Matthias Grassow, and TALSounds of Good Willsmith. I am always very pleased when in the process of writing these posts I learn that someone who I’ve previously just admired as a musician has been involved with a bunch of other artists who I also admire greatly. To hear more of solo work head over to Bandcamp. He also put out a series of collaborative tapes/CDs starting in the late 90s under the name Navel which have their own Bandcamp page. Just in case there weren’t enough Bandcamp links on this page, you can hear the rest of the Air Texture series here.

Sign “O” The Times

In my high school there was a rumor that would occasionally circulate that Prince attended for one day before switching to Minneapolis Central. It’s almost certain that this is not true, but it speaks to just how badly people wanted a piece of him to belong to them. What makes him so remarkable is just how hard that was to do. He gave up only what he wanted to and nothing more and got away with it. As one of the most prolific, popular, and respected artists of the last four decades he could have done whatever he wanted. So he built his own studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota and recorded material that we might not hear for another decade, if at all.

It’s not enough to say he was prolific. He was on a mission, and only he’ll know if he completed it or even what it was. I’m sure a lot of remembrances will mention his dogged efforts to keep his music off the internet, some painting it as a quixotic crusade and others as evidence of his desire to truly own his art forever. People might snicker at his DMCA complaints against Vine clips featuring his work, dismissing it as a bizarre power grab from an artist past his prime. But is he wrong? Is it really that crazy for someone with a work ethic most people would kill for to work to prevent its passive consumption?

Another comment people might bandy about is his view of the internet being “over”. Again, people can laugh him off as quixotic but is he wrong? I’ve read more thinkpieces than I care to mention that make the same basic point: “the internet will kill music”. I don’t agree that the internet will kill music and I don’t really think Prince would either. Because he didn’t fight that stuff to protect himself from us. I think he did it to protect us from ourselves. He labored for it because it had a value that is wholly separate from streaming revenue or record deals or intellectual property. He gave a shit, and he wanted everybody else to give a shit too.

He didn’t have his team of “female black lawyers” take down Vines because he didn’t want people to enjoy his music without giving him money. He did it to try and get people to focus on that ineffable quality that he spent his whole career trying to put out into the world, and the outpouring of grief and remembrances tells me he more than achieved that aim. He recorded under different names and assembled new groups because the market couldn’t support the amount of material he wanted to release. I suppose it’s reasonable to snicker about his idiosyncrasies, but there’s a lesson that is as universal as he was unique: music is not its delivery mechanism and art is supposed to matter enough to people that they devote their lives to it, not consume it in the most convenient way possible or refuse to create unless it’s economically viable. When people say the internet is killing music what they really mean is it’s killing the music industry, an industry Prince spent a career bending to his will through work ethic, determination, and the kind of talent that people usually only get through deals with the devil. I’m certainly in no position to know or guess how music will reach people in ten years, but I’m guessing people will want to listen to Prince on it and I have a feeling that if we can hear his music it’ll be on his terms. RIP.

Lake Mary – Chipa // North Dakota

Put out last year by eilean rec., who also put out Wil Bolton’s latest, Lake Mary’s And the Birds Sing in Chorus First is a treat from start to finish. While his earlier releases blend his guitar work with sustained drones, this release reflects a more stripped-down approach, which could have something to do with the fact that each track was recorded in a different place as the artist traversed the US. Lake Mary is the performing name for Chaz Prymek, who has been releasing music under the Lake Mary moniker since about 2010. The location may have been different, but Prymek’s masterfully contemplative playing remains solid throughout. I’ve been listening to his earlier releases, like There are Always Second Chances in the Mountains and Canopy/Mardotsha which add drone-y experimentation to the mix and they are also excellent. There’s also a live set on his Bandcamp where he performs with the Ranch Family Band, and it’s pretty neat to hear how those sounds are constructed in a live setting. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who reads this regularly that this ticks a lot of boxes for me, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

Construction & Consecration of Puma Punku

Howdy! I’m writing to let you know about an exciting opportunity to annoy me, Music for Cougars! I’ve been working on an upcoming release. If you would like to have a cassette of said release I can send it to you in the mail. If you hate the music and everything it stands for, all the better reason to purchase. I’ll have to go to the post office myself and mail it myself and it’s gonna be a big hassle so you can be happy that I’ll be annoyed. If you would like a cassette because you are genuinely curious, that would be preferred, but I won’t judge.

Be the first to hear the sounds of alien god creation!
Be the first to hear the sounds of alien god creation! Click the pic to get it!

“The only way the ancient astronaut theory can be disproven is when the extraterrestrials show up”

Giorgio Tsoukalos

You heard the man! Let’s bring ’em on back. First, a little detour to Puma Punku.

I mean, look at that spaceship.
I mean, look at that spaceship.

Take a journey with me to a place called Puma Punku. It’s a pretty cool place already, but what if it were made by aliens?

He's got some theories about Puma Punku, and he'd very much like to share them with you.
He’s got some theories about Puma Punku, and he’d very much like to share them with you.

According to local legends, the sky gods used a magical flute to move the great rocks of Puma Punku. Venture back in your mental time machine to a time where alien gods killed it so hard on the space flute that it moved mountains.

Space Laser Stonehenge!!!
Space Laser Stonehenge!!!

Interested parties should contact orionsbastard (at) gmail (dot) com or order using the link in the pic. Hear an excerpt here.

Update: You can stream the entire thing for free over at Bandcamp. I’ve since taken down this merch link but if you’re really jonesing for a cassette you can hit me up on Twitter and we can work something out.