American diplomats and intelligence officials in three countries are suffering lingering health effects from what appear to be concussions. But these officials haven’t been indulging in Australian rules football and they haven’t all taken up second careers in MMA. In fact, they don’t seem to have done anything that would generate the kind of injuries that doctors are finding when they examine the victims. These workers in overseas embassies seem to have suffered their debilitating blows suddenly—in their homes, in hotel rooms, behind their official desk—but also invisibly, from a source that no one understands.
In some cases, those who had this touch-free concussion complained of hearing a sound. Sometimes not. But if the cause is a mystery, the results are all too obvious; a long list of symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and memory loss.
Actually, there are two mysteries. The first is what’s causing the problem. The second is why, even though the incidents have happened in three countries—Cuba, China, and Russia—only the embassy staff in Cuba has been treated as if their injuries are worth review. Those injured in China and Russia have been left to use their own medical leave, and to seek treatment on their own, as the White House has done nothing to follow up on the most basic question: What happened to them?
In the meantime, contribute now to bring back science in the White House.
In 2015, the United States reopened its embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years. Thanks to decisions made by President Obama, and negotiations headed by Secretary of State John Kerry, the American flag was hoisted that August, and hundreds of diplomats and their families came to the island to start a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. It was an extremely hopeful moment.
But in the fall of 2017, nine months after Donald Trump moved into the White House and Rex Tillerson replaced John Kerry, most of those diplomats were on their way back to the states. Not because Trump had already soured relations between the two nations (though he had), but because at least 21 employees at the facility were reporting a whole panoply of medical symptoms following what were thought to be “sonic attacks.” Acknowledging that it could not keep its personnel safe, the State Department ordered all nonessential staff to come home.
The nature of those attacks was never understood, and the resulting illnesses were vague enough that some were easily convinced the whole thing was imaginary. A kind of … mass psychosomatic illness. The chuckles got even louder when recordings thought to capture the sound some staffers heard turned out to contain a noise made by the Indies Short-Tailed Cricket. That connection with sound also sent investigators down apparent blind alleys. Even though studies indicated that what the symptoms reported did not match what might be expected from a sonic weapon, that idea was the focus of extensive investigation.
How 21 diplomats received immaculate concussions was, and still is, an absolute mystery. However, the Trump White House at least acknowledge that something had happened. In response, they expelled a set of Cuban diplomats from the U.S., placed the injured diplomats on paid medical leave, and launched an investigation to determine what had happened and who was behind the injuries.
What happened in Cuba was so odd, and so widespread, that it developed a name. As The New Yorker reported in 2018, it was called Havana Syndrome. The onset could be slow, or it could be immediate. In several cases, it seemed to be extremely localized, with the symptoms appearing, and worsening, when the worker was in a specific area. Moving away helped keep things from getting worse, but did little to relieve the damage already received.
And there were those frequently reported sounds. For some it was a low hum. Others described it as a buzz. Frequently it was described as a loud repetitive sound, like the buzzing made by cicadas. Those afflicted would sometimes feel waves of pressure move through their heads in apparent time with the sound.
That association with sound at first made some suspect that Cuba was directing some form of “sonic weapon” at embassy staff. Such weapons do exist. There’s the Long Range Acoustic Device used by both the military and some police forces—essentially a very powerful loudspeaker that can be used to disorient crowds. These devices can also be used with ultra-high frequency sound, making an annoying tone that has sometimes been used to keep teenagers, who are more sensitive to higher tones, out of shopping areas at night. They can also be used with ultra low tones, with some of the same results—confusion, nausea, and disorientation—reported in Cuba.
However, when doctors got a chance at look at the returning victims of what was happening in Cuba, their injuries didn’t really line up with the results of a sonic weapon. What it looked like was the effect of concussion, or even multiple concussions. The diplomats and CIA workers showed similar damage to soldiers who had been near an explosion, or football players after many jarring impacts.
Then, in December of that same year, it happened again. As GQ reports, CIA official Marc Polymeropoulos was responsible for clandestine operations across much of Eastern Europe. During a quick visit to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow under diplomatic cover, Polymeropoulos woke up in his hotel room feeling a sudden, severe nausea that he at first put down to food poisoning. But when he tried to stand, he discovered he couldn’t. The room spun around him, in his ears was a loud ringing. He was absolutely helpless. Though he eventually recovered enough to make his way home, he never fully recovered. It was the end of a long CIA career. Polymeropoulos also reported that another agent who travelled with him to Moscow became ill, and has lost his ability to hear.
Just months after that, as The New York Times reports, came a new series of events in China. At first, Mike Pompeo testified to Congress that the injuries in China were “entirely consistent” with those suffered in Cuba. Over a dozen diplomats, security personnel, and embassy staff were evacuated. But then, Pompeo seemed to walk back his earlier statements. Instead, the State Department reported that the staffers in China were suffering “health problems.” Rather than give them extended leave, like those evacuated from Cuba, they were required to use their own sick days, and if they weren’t well enough to return, to take unpaid leave.
There was no investigation into what happened to Polymeropoulos in Russia. No investigation into what happened in China.
What happened to all these people? The short answer is: No one knows. That’s also the long answer.
Some want to dismiss all the incidents as imaginary, no matter what doctors are seeing in scans. Others are still fixed on the idea of some kind of weapon that uses ultrasound, or infrasound, or … some kind of sound to cause brain damage.
The association of some injuries with sound has also pointed some speculation toward weapons using some an electromagnetic “ray.” Strangely enough, people can perceive some forms of radiation as sound. For example, the Frey Effect can make people hear crackling or popping sounds from microwave band radiation. Careful modulation of the energy can even be used to transmit what is perceived as speech, even though there’s no actual sound. Just there are auditory weapons, the Frey Effect has also been used as a weapon. The U.S. Navy worked on such a device shortly after the turn of the century, but abandoned it because the results suggested that the device would be more deadly than disorienting. Essentially, trying to generate enough microwaves to make someone perceive a loud sound, meant blasting them with enough energy to cook them.
Is it realistic to think that someone might be using the same unknown weapon against U.S. personnel in a Cuban embassy, a Moscow hotel room, and at multiple sites in China? It certainly reads like science fiction. In fact, in 1991 retired military officer Ralph Peters wrote a military science fiction novel called The War in 2020, in which U.S. troops are disabled by an electromagnetic weapon which damages their brains. It’s certain that the U.S. military has been looking for such weapons. It’s far from impossible that someone has developed them.
Only … if someone, say China, had such a weapon, would they be trying it out in Cuba? Would they loan it to Russia to blast a CIA operative in Moscow? Could two, or even three, other nations have developed such a weapon and still have it be secret? That seems highly unlikely.
Still, why not investigate? Pompeo’s initial statements, and hasty walk back, make it clear that the State Department made the connection between events in Cuba and China. The incident in Moscow might be dismissed as it was just one or two people … or because Donald Trump is terrified of doing something that might upset Vladimir Putin.
But there’s another thought that goes beyond just Trump and his “personal relationships” with Putin or Xi Jinping. After all, if any nation on the planet has a weapon that’s portable, capable of firing undetected through buildings, and able to leave its victims suffering such disorientation and genuine physical injuries that they’re no longer able to work … that’s a hell of a blackmail tool.
Note: Researching this story leads down enough rabbit holes to rival Watership Down. In addition to many different explanations for the injuries, some amateur sleuths have tied these events to the “hum” heard in areas like Taos, New Mexico, and Bristol, England. Those sounds, heard by only a percentage of the population, have been described in similar ways to those in Cuba and have also been reported to cause symptoms such as disorientation and fatigue. There are others who continue to believe the entire set of events are coincidence and nonsense, and that the “brain injuries” found are no worse than what might be observed in a very close examination of typical adults. There are certainly elements of this story that both lend it credence … and knock it down. Expect an even longer look at this some day … say, after November 3.