Enlarge /. The picture of the U.S. embassy in Havana was captured on September 29, 2017 after the U.S. announced it would be withdrawing more than half of its staff in response to mysterious health attacks against its diplomatic staff.
At the end of 2016, US diplomats in Cuba reported bizarre and alarming episodes in their homes and hotel rooms. They spoke of irritating or piercing noises – buzzing, squeaking, or clicking – that seemed to come from a certain direction but weren't always muffled when they put their hands to their ears. Some also described the feeling of pressure and vibration.
With the disturbances came a constellation of debilitating symptoms: dizziness, nausea, headache, balance disorders, ringing in the ears, visual disturbances, nosebleeds, concentration and memory difficulties, hearing loss and language problems.
Since the first reports in 2016, the mysterious episodes appeared to hit more than 50 US diplomats and their families. more than 40 in Havana and at least a dozen more at the US consulate in Guangzhou, China. Some CIA officials working in Russia have reported similar cases.
Some victims have recovered; others suffer from chronic symptoms and are still unable to work. Extensive medical studies of some Cuban diplomats revealed that the diplomats had "an injury to widespread brain networks." The doctors who examined the victims were so baffled that they described their condition as "flawless concussion" – traumatic brain injuries with no apparent blows to the head.
Almost from the outset, the US State Department viewed the episodes as "health attacks" that sparked wild speculation about cloak and dagger operations using secret high-tech weapons. Cuba and China quickly and relentlessly denied any knowledge of or involvement in the episodes. Officials in the US eyed Russia – which remains a prime suspect.
Scientists and journalists quickly began to delve into the possibilities of a sonic weapon, faulty surveillance equipment, or some fateful device that radiated microwave radiation on people.
Others were skeptical that an attack was taking place – or that people were even injured. Two neurologists, who did not have access to the diplomats or all of their medical records, expressed doubts about some of the clinical methods they used to conclude that they had suffered brain injuries. The neurologists suggested that the evaluating doctors only documented cognitive deviations in the normal range, which the evaluating doctors denied by citing data that were withheld for privacy and security reasons.
Cuban scientists – who also didn't rate the diplomats – suggested that the episodes were due to stress and a mass psychogenic illness (MPI), essentially a collective deception that was also denied by the evaluating doctors. Biologists in the US and UK, meanwhile, suggested that the noisy disturbances reported by diplomats were nothing more than the shouts of crickets looking for partners.
While each possibility seems as far-fetched as the last, the most troubling is actually the closest to the truth.
According to a new report from a committee of scientific experts assembled by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the "most plausible mechanism" that explains diplomats' experiences and symptoms is pulsed radio frequency energy. In other words, a devious device that shines microwave radiation on people's heads.
The panel of experts, which was set up at the request of the US State Department, was not tasked with examining how the diplomats could have been exposed to such a device. However, the implications of the committee's conclusion were very clear.
"Just looking at such a scenario raises serious concerns about a world with uninhibited malicious actors and new tools to harm others, as if the US government weren't already hands full with naturally occurring threats," said the chairman of the committee and Stanford researcher David Relman wrote in the foreword to the report.
But Relman and the other experts on the 19-member committee were unable to come up with any other, less worrying, explanation that fitted. And they rated many. The committee, entitled "Standing Committee to Advise the State Department on Unexplained Health Effects on US Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies," included researchers with expertise in neurology, psychiatry, epidemiology, neuroaudiology, electromagnetics, exposure science, and radiology . It met several times between December 2019 and May 2020 and invited other experts to discuss specific topics.
The committee was tasked with evaluating clinical features and plausible mechanisms of the diplomats' experiences and injuries, and ruled out chemical exposures – particularly insecticides used in Havana – as the likely explanation for what happened. The experts also found that infectious diseases like Zika were an unlikely explanation.
Similarly, the committee was not convinced by the Cuban scholars' suggestion that psychological and / or social factors were the cause of the situation. Although the committee found that there was a lack of case-level data to fully assess this hypothesis, it was skeptical that delusional disorders could explain some of the acute and chronic symptoms of the diplomats' experiences. On the other hand, psychological and / or social factors can easily explain some of the non-specific chronic symptoms such as dizziness and fatigue that some diplomats have reported. The Committee therefore concluded that these factors can contribute to some cases.
Of all the options considered by the committee, directional, pulsed radio frequency energy was the most appropriate. The committee, which had reviewed published scientific reports, found that pulsed RF energy may explain the sounds and sensations, as well as the acute and chronic symptoms reported by the diplomats.
In their assessment, the experts examined all biological effects of RF exposures, which are defined as 30 kHz to 300 GHz, including microwave radiation at 300 MHz to 300 GHz. In recent years, studies have shown that low non-heat RF exposures – non-thermal exposures – can disrupt activity on cell membranes and cause oxidative stress and even cell death.
However, the data that firmly linked the diplomats' experiences with RF exposure came from studies on pulsed RF exposure. "There has been significant research into the effects of pulsed and discontinuous RF exposures in Russia / USSR because responses to pulsed and CW RF energies at the same time-averaged intensities produced significantly different results," the report said.
In a review of Russian-language studies, the researchers found that "pulsation may be an important (or even the most important) factor in determining the biological effects of low-intensity RF emissions". The report notes that some of the studies concerned the exposure of military personnel in communist Eurasian countries to non-thermal microwave radiation. After that, the military personnel reportedly had symptoms eerily similar to the diplomats. This means that they had headaches, tiredness, dizziness, irritability, insomnia, depression, anxiety, forgetfulness and poor concentration as well as internal sound perception of frequencies between 2.05 and 2.50 GHz. Other studies since then have supported the finding that pulsed RF can have wide-ranging effects on the nervous systems of animals and humans, including negative effects on cognition.
RF exposure may also explain the bizarre auditory and sensory experiences that the diplomats reported, the committee found. To this end, the experts turned to data on the "Frey effect" identified in 1961 by the American researcher Alan Frey. Frey found that pulsed microwaves can essentially be perceived as sound by people, including the deaf. In summing up some of Frey's findings, the committee's report noted:
The areas near the ear were most sensitive to these RF exposures. Modulating RF energy can produce a variety of effects, including the perception of "head buffeting" or pressure on the face / head without dizziness or nausea, a "pinprick sensation" and a sound known as a "buzz, click" "Hiss or Knock" in the head for RF frequencies between 0.4 and 3 GHz, depending on the pulse width, pulse repetition frequency (PRF), and peak power density … Frey reported these symptoms with an RF source running at 1.3 GHz transmits (which offers the greatest absorption depth in cortical tissue) with a PRF of 244 Hz, a pulse width of 6 μs, a peak power density of 267 mW / cm2 and an average power density of 0.4 mW / cm2. Others have shown that pulsed RF energy (~ 14 μs pulse width) in the GHz range that interacts with common materials can generate external noises that are audible to nearby people.
Finally, the committee also found that the RF pulsed declaration also fits in with the joint report by diplomats that the episodes they witnessed only occurred in "certain physical locations near windows, or as coming or coming from a certain direction coming from a certain direction ”.
The committee took care not to say that its report was final. The experts found significant restrictions on the data and their access to it. For one thing, much of the data made available to the Committee was aggregated data on the diplomats' cases, not data on each individual case. In addition, some data was collected months after the diplomats became ill, making it difficult to assess the health effects.
Nevertheless, the data adjustment of pulsed RF exposures is disruptive – and perhaps not as turned out as it initially seemed. As Ars noted earlier, the discovery of the Frey Effect is known to spark decades of research into microwave weapons and devices. The direction of research was certainly followed by Russian, Soviet and US researchers. Research funded by the US Navy even led to the development of a crowd control weapon called MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio), which uses low-energy microwave pulses to create loud, unpleasant noises in people's minds. There is open speculation that Russia developed and started using its own microwave-based weapon.
In a press release, Relman addressed the worrying nature of the committee's findings, saying:
The committee found these cases rather worrying, in part because of the plausible role of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy as a mechanism, but also because of the considerable suffering and weakness that some of these individuals have experienced. We as a nation must approach these specific cases, as well as the possibility of future cases, with a concerted, coordinated and comprehensive approach.