- Thomson Reuters
- Mysterious sonic weapons have been blamed for symptoms affecting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba. Victims reported hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, nervous-system damage, and balance issues. Sound-based weapons exist, but experts aren’t sure whether any were used in this case. Regardless, officials are slashing the US Embassy staff by 60% and warning Americans against visiting Cuba.
No one knows exactly what happened to the growing number of Americans and Canadians who returned from diplomatic missions in Cuba with mysterious and disturbing symptoms.
Some can no longer remember words, while others have hearing loss, speech problems, balance issues, nervous-system damage, headaches, ringing in the ears, and nausea. Some have shown signs of brain swelling or concussions – mild traumatic brain injuries.
Some of the victims remember strange occurrences before the symptoms appeared, though others didn’t hear or feel anything. One diplomat reported a “blaring, grinding noise” that woke him from his bed in a Havana hotel, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reported that some heard a “loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” in short bursts at night, while others said they could walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises that were audible only in certain spots.
Almost a year after the reports began, the AP reported on Friday that the US State Department had determined that the incidents were “specific attacks” on diplomats and had moved to cut its Cuban embassy staff by 60%. The State Department is expected to warn Americans against visiting Cuba, noting that the attacks have occurred in hotels – even though no American tourists seem to have been affected.
The AP said the US government had stayed away from blaming Cuba for the incidents, but the move is nevertheless a serious setback to improving diplomatic relations between the countries.
The vibrations, piercing sounds, balance issues, and hearing loss have led some to surmise that some kind of never-before-seen acoustic or sonic weapon was used against the diplomats.
But numerous experts aren’t sure whether such a device exists.
What really happened in Cuba?
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Many diplomats and their family members started seeking medical attention for mysterious nausea, hearing problems, and balance issues in late 2016. The US government first acknowledged these cases in August. The incidents seemed to cease for a while, but they started again as recently as late August, according to the AP.
The number of victims has grown to at least 21 Americans connected to diplomatic missions and fewer than 10 Canadian households, but the US has said the number of Americans affected could still rise.
The cause of the symptoms and a motive for any attack are still unknown. The FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police searched the homes, hotels, and other places where personnel seem to have been exposed to whatever triggered the symptoms but didn’t find any clues. Security footage hasn’t revealed anything, and the FBI has not been able to duplicate the effects in a lab, according to The New York Times.
Cuban officials denied involvement in the incident and said they would never permit another country’s security forces to carry out a covert attack.
“Cuba has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception,” the Cuban government previously said in a statement.
The US hasn’t accused Cuba of anything specific – instead, the decision to cut its embassy staff is being described as the result of concerns that Cuban officials cannot adequately protect US employees from these apparent attacks.
Since the US formally restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, diplomats have experienced other forms of harassment, like break-ins and surveillance, but this type of physical attack is unprecedented.
No such device
“There isn’t an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms,” Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist who wrote the book “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind,” told Business Insider via email.
Horowitz explained that no known inaudible – and seemingly undetectable – device could have the properties attributed to these suspected sonic weapons. The fact that victims didn’t all report hearing a certain noise and that symptoms varied from person to person makes the case even more confusing.
“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert, told the AP. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”
Sonic weapons exist, but for the most part they are “highly visible and easy to avoid,” according to Horowitz. No publicly known sonic weapon or malfunctioning covert listening device could be used in a covert way.
Toby Heys, the leader of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Future Technologies research center told New Scientist it was possible for something emitting infrasound – vibrations at a frequency below what humans can hear – to cause hearing loss. But Heys said that would require large subwoofers, making covert deployment unlikely.
Ultrasound devices, which operate above the range of human hearing, exist and could damage the ears, Heys said. But these would need to be directly targeted into the ear.
“Overall, I would be pretty circumspect about the claims to be honest – it is all very Philip K. Dick territory,” Heys said. “That said, we are living in a fairly surreal world right now.”
Horowitz previously said via email that without more evidence of these weapons this incident should be considered a nonstory and that other possible explanations for these medical problems should be considered. The State Department has clearly decided otherwise, though the mystery continues to grow.