Microwave weapon could have triggered diplomats’ symptoms

US staff in Cuba and China may have been hit with beam upsetting cognition, experts say

US embassy in Havana: Diplomats reported strange noises and symptoms doctors say may have resulted from strikes with microwave weapons. Photograph: Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

US embassy in Havana: Diplomats reported strange noises and symptoms doctors say may have resulted from strikes with microwave weapons. Photograph: Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

 

During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was seeking to turn microwave radiation into covert weapons of mind control. More recently, the US military itself sought to develop microwave arms that could invisibly beam painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads. The aims were to disable attackers and wage psychological warfare. Now, doctors and scientists say such unconventional weapons may have caused the baffling symptoms and ailments that, starting in late 2016, hit more than three dozen US diplomats and their family members in Cuba and China.

The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March. But Douglas H Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Centre for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.

“Everybody was relatively sceptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion. Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits – sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety. In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

The false sensations, experts say, could account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents: the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.

Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.

Asked about the microwave theory of the case, the state department said the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. The FBI declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any theories.

Unconventional arms

The microwave idea teems with unanswered questions. Who fired the beams? The Russian government? The Cuban government? A rogue Cuban faction sympathetic to Moscow? And, if so, where did the attackers get the unconventional arms?

At his home outside Washington, Frey, the scientist who uncovered the neural phenomenon, said federal investigators have questioned him on the diplomatic riddle and that microwave radiation is considered a possible cause. Frey, now 83, has travelled widely and long served as a contractor and a consultant to a number of federal agencies. He speculated that Cubans aligned with Russia, the nation’s longtime ally, might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States.

He speculated Cubans aligned with Russia might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States

“It’s a possibility,” he said at his kitchen table. “In dictatorships, you often have factions that think nothing of going against the general policy if it suits their needs. I think that’s a perfectly viable explanation.”

Microwaves are ubiquitous in modern life. The short radio waves power radars, cook foods, relay messages and link cellphones to antenna towers. They are a form of electromagnetic radiation on the same spectrum as light and X-rays, only at the opposite end.

While radio broadcasting can employ waves a mile or more in length, microwaves range in size from roughly a foot to a fraction of an inch. They are seen as harmless in such everyday uses as microwaving foods. But their diminutive size also enables tight focusing, as when dish antennas turn disorganised rays into concentrated beams.

The dimensions of the human head, scientists say, make it a fairly good antenna for picking up microwave signals. Frey’s first paper, in 1961, reported that power densities 160 times lower than “the standard maximum safe level for continuous exposure” could induce the sonic delusions. His second paper, in 1962, pinpointed the brain’s receptor site as the temporal lobes, which extend beneath the temples. Each lobe bears a small region – the auditory cortex – that processes nerve signals from the outer and inner ears.

Diplomats and their families recounted high-pitched sounds in homes and hotel rooms at times intense enough to incapacitate.
Diplomats and their families recounted high-pitched sounds in homes and hotel rooms at times intense enough to incapacitate.

Russia, China and many European states are seen as having the know-how to make basic microwave weapons that can debilitate, sow noise or even kill. Advanced powers, experts say, might accomplish more nuanced aims such as beaming spoken words into people’s heads. Only intelligence agencies know which nations actually possess and use such unfamiliar arms.

Satellite dish

The basic weapon might look like a satellite dish. In theory, such a device might be hand-held or mounted in a van, car, boat or helicopter. Microwave arms are seen as typically working over relatively short distances – across the length of a few rooms or blocks. High-powered ones might be able to fire beams across several football fields, or even for several miles.

Vladimir Putin, as Russia’s president and prime minister, sought to recover the economic, political and strategic clout the Soviets had lost. He also sought to resurrect Soviet work on psychoactive arms. In July 2014, Putin visited Cuba and brought a gift - the cancellation of some $30 billion in Cuban debt. The two nations signed a dozen accords. Moscow and Havana grew so close that in late 2016, the two nations signed a sweeping pact on defence and technology co-operation.

As a candidate, Donald Trump faulted the Obama administration’s policy of normalising relations with Cuba as “a very weak agreement” and threatened to scrap it on reaching the White House. Weeks after he won the election, in late November 2016, the US embassy in Havana found itself battling a mysterious crisis.

Diplomats and their families recounted high-pitched sounds in homes and hotel rooms at times intense enough to incapacitate. Long-term, the symptoms included nausea, crushing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss.

The symptoms included nausea, crushing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss

In October, Trump expelled 15 Cuban diplomats, producing a chill between the nations. Administration critics said the White House was using the health issue as a pretext to end President Barack Obama’s reconciliation policy. The day after the expulsions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed, top-secret hearing on the Cuba situation. Three state department officials testified, as did an unnamed senior official of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In January, the spooky impact of microwaves on the human brain never came up during an open Senate hearing on the Cuba crisis. But in a scientific paper that same month, James C Lin of the University of Illinois, a leading investigator of the Frey effect, described the diplomatic ills as plausibly arising from microwave beams. Lin is the editor-in-chief of Bio Electro Magnetics, a peer-reviewed journal that explores the effects of radio waves and electromagnetic fields on living things.

Nausea and vertigo

In his paper, he said high-intensity beams of microwaves could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury. The beams, he added, could be fired covertly, hitting “only the intended target”.

In February, ProPublica in a lengthy investigation mentioned that federal investigators were weighing the microwave theory. Separately, it told of an intriguing find. The wife of a member of the embassy staff, it reported, had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and seen a van speeding away.

The wife of a member of the embassy staff had reportedly looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and seen a van speeding away.

A dish antenna could fit easily into a small van. The medical team that studied the Cuba diplomats ascribed the symptoms in the March Journal of the American Medical Association study to “an unknown energy source” that was highly directional. Some personnel, it noted, had covered their ears and heads but experienced no sound reduction. The team said the diplomats appeared to have developed signs of concussion without having received any blows to the head.

In May, reports emerged that US diplomats in China had suffered similar traumas. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the medical details of the two groups “very similar” and “entirely consistent” with one another. By late June, the state department had evacuated at least 11 Americans from China.

For his part, Frey says he doubts the case will be solved anytime soon. The novelty of the crisis, its sporadic nature and the foreign setting made it hard for federal investigators to gather clues and draw conclusions, he said, much less file charges. “Based on what I know,” he remarked, “it will remain a mystery.” – The New York Times News Service