The Buzz

Are Purported ‘Sonic Attacks’ at Embassies in Havana an Elaborate Intelligence Operation?

The Canadian government pulled families of diplomats from its embassy in Cuba on April 16, 2018 after 10 Canadians reported symptoms similar to those afflicting Americans on the island. In 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alleged that a “targeted attack” sickened 24 people at the U.S. embassy — recently downgraded to an “unaccompanied post” with reduced personnel.

The symptoms had psychological and physical effects. Workers and their family members experienced difficulty concentrating. They became dizzy, experienced blurred vision, and suffered headaches and hearing loss. Some workers occasionally reported hearing a high-pitched whining sound, although it’s unclear if that was a side-effect of other symptoms.

In combination, it was enough to touch off months of speculation that someone — perhaps the Cuban government or an ally — had aimed a sonic weapon at the American and Canadian diplomatic compounds.

“More recently we have received information from Canadian medical specialists involved in the evaluation of affected Canadian diplomats and dependants, as well as from American medical specialists studying a cohort of affected U.S. diplomatic staff at the University of Pennsylvania,” the Canadian government stated on April 16. “According to these specialists, medical information raised concerns for a new type of a possible acquired brain injury.”

Cuba has denied involvement. “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception,” the Cuban government stated in August 2017.

Adam Rogers, writing in Wired, detailed the disturbing possibility of poison or some other kind of toxin as being the culprit. Canada and the United States also took the possibly seriously, but environmental studies at the Canadian embassy later found nothing unusual in that regard, according to the Associated Press. This has kept speculation afloat that a “sonic weapon” or some kind of directed electromagnetic energy device is behind the illnesses.

We, of course, don’t know either way.

Militaries and intelligence agencies have been interested in electromagnetic energy since the invention of the radio. The actual effects of this energy — which includes microwaves on a higher frequency than radio waves — on the human brain is less clear, but the U.S. military researched the question as far as back as the 1950s under the Pentagon’s Triservices Program to study the health of military radar operators.

To be sure, electromagnetic energy can cause tissue damage if you subject a person to enough of it, but the question is how much. Your cell phone probably can’t hurt you. A high-frequency microwave? Absolutely, if it’s powerful enough.

The purported attacks at the U.S. and Canadian diplomatic compounds in Cuba might be somewhere in the middle — and may not be a weapon at all. One possibility is that Cuban intelligence, or an intelligence agency with a close relationship with Cuba, is beaming microwaves at the buildings to power very small electronic eavesdropping devices implanted inside.

The Soviet Union, a pioneer in electromagnetic research, relied on a similar method as part of an espionage operation between 1953 and 1976 — in this case directed at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, according to the U.S. State Department.

“The State Department indicated that, in addition to the mass interference and interception of radar-based communications, the microwave radiation could have adverse effects on the health of the occupants of the embassy. In fact, Soviet data provided the strongest basis for this accusation,” psychologist Mary O’Connor wrote in a 1993 paper on the phenomenon for the Journal of General Psychology.

Curiously, while the Soviets had conducted cutting-edge research in this field, the Soviets and Americans had different standards for what constituted acceptable exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic energy or NIEM — with U.S. safety standards considerably higher than Soviet ones. Soviet standards for military personnel, unlike the U.S. military, were non-existent, O’Connor noted.

“Also, almost all of the symptoms reported in Soviet communications and radar workers were psychological in nature. The symptoms included lethargy, lack of concentration, headaches, depression, and impotence.”

That sounds familiar to what is apparently happening to American and Canadian diplomats and their dependents in Cuba.

Out of that experience — which caused a brief diplomatic row in 1976 — came the U.S. military’s Pandora Project which researched the phenomenon. A fodder for conspiracy theories, it’s unclear if the project established a conclusive link between psychological changes and exposure to NIEM.

There is also no evidence to suggest the Soviet microwave bombardment of the U.S. embassy was anything more than part of an elaborate intelligence-gathering operation.

This article by Robert Beckhusen originally appeared on War is Boring.

Image: Wikimedia Commons