The sound of vi­o­lence

DAVID HAMBLING won­ders what might be be­hind the sonic at­tacks on US diplo­mats in Cuba

Fortean Times - - Science -

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.

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