The sound of violence
DAVID HAMBLING wonders what might be behind the sonic attacks on US diplomats in Cuba
The weird sonic assaults reported by US diplomatic staff based in Cuba [ FT359:22] came as a surprise to the world media – but they bore many similarities with accounts by ‘Targeted individuals’ (TIs) since the early 2000s. TIs believe they are persecuted by unknown forces using weird, hightech weapons to send remote beam sounds into their heads, causing pain and illness. They cluster in Internet support groups; the legal and medical establishments tend to regard them as having mental problems rather than suffering actual directed-energy-weapon assaults. When government officials are involved it is a different matter.
We do not know when the apparent attacks started; it appears to have been shortly after President Trump was elected in November 2016. Attacks continued sporadically until this August. The number of ‘medically confirmed’ American cases stands at 21, plus several Canadians targeted after February. The attacks resemble some reported by TIs: victims were in bed at homes or in hotel rooms, and heard a loud ringing or grinding sound, sometimes accompanied by vibration. The sound vanished as soon as they moved, as though it was focused on one specific spot. Victims then experienced severe headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, nausea and hearing losses. Some have since been diagnosed with ‘mild traumatic brain injury’ with memory loss and mental impairment.
The US naturally assumed the Cuban government was responsible, and expelled two Cuban diplomats. The Cubans have accused the US of fabricating previous diplomatic incidents; this time they appear to be as puzzled as the Americans. Cuban President Raul Castro told acting US Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis that he was concerned by the attacks and made an unprecedented offer to allow the FBI to come to Havana to investigate.
Focused sound weapons do exist. The Long Range Acoustic Device has been used extensively by US military and law enforcement; it can act as a loudhailer, or at high settings it can be used for crowd dispersal. However, this type of device does not work through walls, and while it can project a beam of sound it would not be anything like as localised as the effects described by victims.
“Nothing about this story makes any sense to us,” a spokesman from the makers, LRAD Corporation, told WIRED.
Some have suggested that chemicals are involved. Ototoxins are chemicals that damage the ear; some chemotherapy agents such as cisplatin cause hearing loss as a side effect. Such drugs damage the microscopic hair cells in the inner ear, and may result in hearing loss, tinnitus and loss of balance, just the sort of effects reported by the victims.
There is, however, an elephant in the room for anyone familiar with exotic nonlethal weaponry. The microwave auditory effect is a genuine phenomenon that allows sounds to be beamed literally into someone’s head from a distance. Short, intense microwave pulses can heat tissue rapidly; if they are strong enough this sudden heating causes expansion and an acoustic shockwave inside the skull, which is perceived as a click. A series of pulses can be chained together to create a modulated sound, including (barely intelligible) speech.
This microwave auditory effect has never found practical application, though there have been plenty of ideas. Lev Sadovnik of the Sierra Nevada Corporation carried development for the US Navy of a device he called MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio). MEDUSA was supposed to generate a microwave auditory effect powerful enough to cause severe discomfort. This used a special electronic antenna capable of forming a very narrow beam.
When I talked to Professor James Lin of the University of Illinois in Chicago about MEDUSA in 2008, he granted that it might be feasible in principle, but to be effective the shockwaves inside the skull could be dangerous. “I would worry about what other health effects it is having,” he said. “You could see neural damage.” Neural damage being one of the more puzzling effects of the Cuban attacks.
A microwave weapon might also cause inner ear effects. In the early 2000s, the US Marine Corps funded work on Electromagnetic Personnel Interdiction Control (EPIC), another nonlethal weapon. This used radio waves to affect the tiny hairs in the vestibular system that gives us our sense of balance. EPIC was being developed by Invocon Inc, a company specialising in wireless data transmission.
“You have to get the resonant frequency,” Karl Kiefer, the company’s CEO, told me. “The vestibular hairs are heavily damped, so you have to have a precise understanding of their properties.”
EPIC was intended to cause dizziness and loss of balance, effectively preventing the targets from moving, and would work through walls. The aim was to disable a building full of terrorists so they could be captured without a fight. EPIC never progressed beyond the early states, but similar technology may have been developed elsewhere.
It is even possible that it was not a deliberate attack at all. There have been previous instances of wireless bugging devices that were powered by microwaves – one was famously concealed inside a wooden wall ornament in the US Embassy in Moscow. The injuries may have been caused accidentally by incompetent use of a highpowered microwave bug.
Perhaps a more important question is who is carrying out these attacks and what their motivation is. It is conceivable that there is a rogue element in the Cuban intelligence services trying to disrupt relations between the US and Cuba. However, the warming of relations under President Obama was quickly reversed by Trump, who has been decidedly hostile to the island neighbour. Further antagonism hardly seems necessary as relations are deteriorating anyway. And why target Canadians?
The answers, if any are forthcoming, will surely be more outlandish than any speculation. The case may also prompt a re-examination of some of the previous accounts by Targeted Individuals. Many of their claims, such as those involving mind control and telepathy, sound like schizophrenia, but some may be caused by the sort of devices used in Cuba.
Such devices, which can apparently strike covertly and undetectably through walls, will almost certainly be used again.
LEFT: The US Embassy in Havana.