Do You Hear What I Hear?

Thursday, January 04, 2018


Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba (detail), by Winslow Homer, 1901. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1906.

Over a nine-month period in 2017, twenty-four employees working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, experienced a range of unusual symptoms: ringing in the ears, blurred vision, dizziness, headache, and cognitive problems. Many of the afflicted remembered hearing a high-pitched sound prior to the onset of illness, although, strangely, others in the same room, or even sleeping in the same bed, did not hear the sound. Brain scans reveal mysterious changes, though a motive for what is assumed to be attacks on diplomatic personnel has not been uncovered. Doctors cannot pinpoint the source of the attacks, with blame placed variously on sonic weapons, poisoning, the chirping of crickets, and the Russian government. From the Associated Press

Physicians, FBI investigators and U.S. intelligence agencies have spent months trying to piece together the puzzle in Havana, where the U.S. says 24 U.S. government officials and spouses fell ill starting last year in homes and later in some hotels. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he’s “convinced these were targeted attacks,” but the U.S. doesn’t know who’s behind them.

Loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ear-ringing had led investigators to suspect “sonic attacks.” But officials are now carefully avoiding that term. The sounds may have been the by-product of something else that caused damage, said three U.S. officials briefed on the investigation. They weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity. Medical testing has revealed the embassy workers developed changes to the white matter tracts that let different parts of the brain communicate. White matter acts like information highways between brain cells. The case has plunged the U.S. medical community into uncharted territory. Physicians are treating the symptoms like a new, never-seen-before illness. After extensive testing and trial therapies, they’re developing the first protocols to screen cases and identify the best treatments—even as the FBI investigation struggles to identify a culprit, method and motive.


General View of the Kremlin from the Wooden Bridge (detail), by Roger Fenton, 1852. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

In 1956, during the Cold War, the Russian government beamed radioactive frequencies into the offices of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a practice which it denied for nearly two decades. Soviet officials apologized for the rays in 1976 during an attempt to repair diplomatic ties with the Americans. They claimed the alleged purpose of the beams was to jam American surveillance devices located on the roof of the building. However, the CIA suspected a more nefarious motive: they believed Moscow was developing an electromagnetic weapon to negatively influence the brain and nervous system of the Americans, a type of mind control meant to alter behavior. From the New York Times:

Soviet officials have privately conceded that microwaves have been beamed at the American Embassy in Moscow, but they justified the possibly harmful activity as necessary to jam American listening devices on the roof of the building. Congressional and administration sources said today that, after having denied for some 15 years that there had been such microwave emissions, Soviet officials recently conceded their existence.

Soviet diplomats here have discussed the purpose of the microwaves with American reporters and administration officials. The American officials said they accepted the Soviet contention that the microwaves were aimed at the embassy to disable the sophisticated monitoring equipment and not to bug the embassy or to harm American personnel.

Earlier news reports from Moscow noted speculation that the microwave emissions, which produce low‐level electromagnetic radiation of the kind found near radar stations or even radio and television transmitters, were either for recharging listening devices or for picking up conversations from within the embassy.