In November 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, American diplomats in Cuba began to complain about hearing strange noises and of exhibiting various symptoms including nausea, headaches and hearing loss. From the start the claims were self-contradictory. Initial reports talked about a “sophisticated sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound”, but also talked about people hearing a “deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects”. The story did not become public until August, 2017; by the following month, the U.S. had withdrawn all but a skeleton staff from the Embassy, and a few days later expelled two-thirds of Cuba’s diplomats from the U.S. These moves followed new restrictions on travel to and trade with Cuba, announced by Trump in June, 2017.
Cuba not only denied having perpetrated any such attacks, but offered unprecedented cooperation with the United States in investigating them, even allowing FBI agents to come to Havana. The U.S., on the other hand, was less forthcoming. The medical records of the allegedly affected personnel have never been provided to Cuba; even their names were withheld at first.
For nearly a year, the predominant theory was that of a “sonic attack”, some kind of acoustic weapon beaming sound waves at the diplomats. This despite the fact that Cuban scientists as well as scientists around the world offered convincing evidence that there was no such weapon, nor could there be, producing the alleged symptoms. Cuban scientists, joined by some Americans, posited that stressful conditions had produced a “collective psychogenic disorder”, i.e., a mass delusion. Other scientists produced evidence that the sounds that the diplomats reported could have been produced accidentally by interference between two different wireless signals.
Until this point, reports of the symptoms were vague and unquantified, but in March, 2018 a team of doctors and scientists at the University of Pennsylvania ran tests on 21 of the allegedly affected individuals which purported to measure the types of damage that had occurred. That study almost immediately came in for criticism, with other scientists noting that the study “misinterpreted test results, overlooked common disorders that might have made the workers feel sick, or dismissed psychological explanations for their symptoms”. To give just one example, the study purported to measure “cognitive impairment”. Conventionally, such tests only claim subjects are impaired if they score in the bottom 5% of the population, but the U. of Penn. study used a figure of 40%! In other words, if they had tested personnel at a U.S. Embassy in England, or in Canada, or anywhere else in the world, they would have concluded that 40% of them were cognitively impaired! Obviously that makes no sense.
“Hearing loss” was a frequently claimed symptom. Interestingly, the study found 9 of their 21 subjects claiming hearing loss, but only 3 of them actually measured as having impaired hearing on the actual tests, which suggests that the theory of “mass psychosis” may well be relevant. And for the three who did show impaired hearing, there was of course no “before” test. And, just to show how sloppy the researchers were, they report in their paper that the 3 (of 21 total) represent 23% of the total, when actually it’s just 14%. A simple math error, but perhaps indicative of the careful (or careless) nature of their work.
One thing that was always unclear was a possible motive for such an attack. The leading theory was that there was a “rogue faction” in Cuba which was alarmed by improving U.S.-Cuba relations. Even aside from the lack of any such alleged faction, it’s a rather peculiar theory, given that the alleged attacks started after Trump was elected, a man who was prepared to (and did) worsen U.S.-Cuba relations all by himself, without any additional motivation. But even those flimsy theories should have evaporated (although they haven’t) when similar alleged attacks surfaced in China in July of this year.
Earlier this month, NBC News, in a report subsequently denied by the U.S. State Department, reported that intelligence agencies now believe Russia is the main suspect based on “communications intercepts”. Curiously, though, these alleged intercepts were “not yet conclusive enough, however, for the U.S. to formally assign blame to Moscow.” One is reminded of the “communications intercepts” presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in February, 2003, which “proved” that Iraq was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction from weapons inspectors, “proof” which led to the invasion of Iraq and the deaths of more than a million people. If these latest intercepts weren’t even conclusive enough for U.S. intelligence agencies, how much less so they would undoubtedly be to the rest of us!
But the story continues. After a full year of the “sonic attack” theory being the accepted (although completely unproven) explanation for the events, suddenly on Sept. 1 the New York Times published a major article which asserts that it was microwaves, not sound waves, which were responsible for the symptoms. Although you can’t generally hear microwaves like WiFi, any more than you can hear light or any other electromagnetic signals, apparently if microwaves are beamed at just the right part of your head (just below the temples), they can cause your head (internally) to vibrate and cause your brain to perceive that as sound. If you read the article, it all sounds very plausible scientifically. But it turns out this affect has been known since 1960! So one then has to ask, if this explanation is so plausible, why has the prevailing explanation for more than a year been the implausible sound wave theory?
When you look deeper into the microwave theory, however, its plausibility lessens. The original reports of “hearing” microwaves happened at a radar installation, a place where the antennas are a hundred feet in diameter and the microwave power is measured in hundreds of kilowatts. By contrast, the power in your microwave oven is measured in watts, and the power in handheld radar guns used to clock speeding cars is measured in milliwatts. None of these devices, which are of a plausible size which could be turned into a weapon, has ever been implicated in causing any effects on the human brain or hearing whatsoever.
The Times refers to a Defense Intelligence Agency report from 1976 and falsely claims that it says that “Soviet research on microwaves for ‘internal sound perception’ … showed great promise for ‘disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel.'” Actually, what it says is “the results of these investigations could have military applications if the Soviets develop methods for disrupting or disturbing human behavior” [emphasis added]. A big “if”, for which there’s no evidence whatsoever in the length DIA report.
The Times also asserts that the NSA claimed in a memo that “a foreign power built a weapon ‘designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system.'” But their link to that memo reveals that the memo actually says “there’s no evidence such a weapon…existed”. It’s hard to conclude anything other than that the Times is deliberately misleading its readers in order to push this new microwave theory.
The Times also misleadingly refers to existing U.S. military weapons based on microwave technology. But those weapons produce heating effects, essentially an open-air directed microwave oven; they have nothing to do with the kinds of effects alleged to have happened to the U.S. diplomats.
Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, a well-known Cuban neurologist, demolished the latest theory when interviewed by CNN in Havana. “If you look at the alleged events, there have been reports that there are several people in a room with thick walls and thick windows and only one person was targeted. This is a kind of weapon that doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa. “It’s science fiction, not science,” he said. “First, it was sonic weapons, now microwave. What’s next, kryptonite?”
Cuba’s cooperation with the U.S. in attempting to unravel the mystery of these incidents has been unprecedented; FBI agents have visited Havana no less than six times. In May, a new incident occurred while FBI agents happened to be in Havana, and both Cuban investigators and FBI agents rushed to the scene to investigate. The Cubans concluded that the unpleasant, piercing sound was a water pump starting up in a nearby home! The FBI declined to comment, but according to the Cubans it drew a similar conclusion. In other words, it was just a panic attack on the part of the diplomats.
On September 13, Cuban and American scientists met in Washington, D.C. to discuss the known facts of the case. The Cuban scientists were frustrated by the continuing lack of access to clinical data and to the doctors who assessed the diplomatic personnel who reported health symptoms, but nevertheless, presented their analysis of the facts which are known, noting:
- The majority of the cases described show symptoms such as: headaches, nausea, dizziness, subjective balance and sleep disorders, which are caused by functional disorders and conditions such as: hypertension, stress and many others with high prevalence in the U.S. and worldwide.
- If the internationally established criteria (the 40% standard for “cognitive impairment” noted above) would have been applied only two subjects could be considered afflicted, the cause of which, could be attributed to different pre-existing conditions.
For the three people who showed some hearing loss, each audiogram showing correspondence with three different diseases that were probably preexisting.
- The neuro-images showed no evidence of brain damage. Two individuals showed mild signs and a third one showed moderate signs that, according to the JAMA report, are not specific, are present in many diseases and could be attributed to processes that occurred before those persons travelled to Cuba.
- Cuban scientists categorically rejected the use of the term “attack” given that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the use of that term, noting that “the scientific studies, the Cuban police and FBI investigations, as well as the information shared by the Department of State shows a lack of evidence of any kind of attack or deliberate act.”
As of now, here’s what we can say:
- The evidence that any diplomats were even physically affected by any outside force (whether a weapon or something in the environment) is inconclusive at best. Mass psychosis is still a distinct possibility.
- If something did actually happen to the diplomats, it was far less than we have been led to believe. “Hearing loss” is one of the most common symptoms referred to in the media, yet only 3 out of 21 tested individuals showed diminished hearing, and we have no idea how good or bad their hearing was previously. Claims of “cognitive loss” were vastly exaggerated. Other claims (“sleeplessness” for example) are obviously subjective and have many potential causes.
- If something did happen, there is as of yet no even halfway convincing explanation for how it happened, much less who or what was responsible. Sonic and microwave weapons have been posited, but no such weapons are even known to exist, or to cause the observed symptoms.
- The use of the term “attacks” must be categorically rejected, as the delegation of Cuban scientists demands. There is a complete lack of evidence to justify the use of such a description.
- The entire episode served, and still serves, as a convenient excuse for the U.S. to rupture relations with Cuba, and to warn potential travelers about the alleged “dangers” of travelling to Cuba (perhaps the safest destination a U.S. traveller could visit). And now it seems to be serving as an additional excuse for demonizing Russia as well, and ensuring that no improvement in U.S.-Russia relations occurs.