The US State Department has remained tight-lipped about the strange circumstances in which US diplomats to Cuba reportedly suffered permanent hearing damage from an "inaudible covert sonic device". But new details reveal that "a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping" was also used to harass the American envoys. What's more, the number of people who were harmed is reportedly even greater than was previously known.
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People pose for photographs at reopening of Cuban embassy. Photo. Getty Russia is a boogeyman once again, and the threat of nuclear war looms in the background of our daily lives, but it wouldn't be a real reboot of the Cold War unless the US was having problems with Cuba. On Wednesday, officials confirmed that two Cuban diplomats were expelled from the US embassy following an 'incident' that, well, apparently involved a secret 'sonic device' giving diplomats hearing loss?
According to government sources speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, at least 10 US diplomats and family members have been treated for various symptoms following the unexplained attacks that are believed to be part of a concerted harassment campaign. Five Canadian diplomats and their family members have also experienced some sort of "symptoms". From the report:
In some of the attacks a sophisticated sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound was deployed either inside or outside the residences of US diplomats living in Havana, according to three US officials.
The weapon caused immediate physical sensations including nausea, headaches and hearing loss.
Other attacks made a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor, but the source of the sound could not be identified, the two US officials said.
The additional information that victims heard traditional, irritating sounds within the human hearing range certainly makes the reports of permanent hearing damage more understandable. And the revelation that family members were also affected makes this all sound more plausible. But still, if the sound was loud enough to cause damage, how could it possibly be so hard to identify the source? And were any neighbours in the areas that US diplomats were living not also suffering?
The fact that the psychological warfare on diplomats reportedly began in the spring of 2016 and remained secret until this month has made everything all the more mysterious. The New York Times reports that at least six patients were flown from Havana to The University of Miami at an unspecified time this year when a panicked Trump administration could not figure out what was wrong with the victims. The Times was told that "a sonic wave machine" was believed to have caused the symptoms which apparently became worse with prolonged exposure. Sources also claimed that one person had developed a blood disorder.
Steve Dorsey from CBS Radio in Washington DC was the first to ask State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert about the situation when she gave a press conference on August 9. Nauert appeared to be taken aback by the question and stumbled to give the vaguest answers possible — only being willing to confirm an "incident" in which diplomats experienced "physical symptoms". She also acknowledged that some American diplomats had come home and two Cuban diplomats were sent home from Washington, DC on May 23. "There was so much that hearkened back to the days of the Cold War that it was hard to believe at first," Dorsey told Radio National. His initial source said at least one of the victims has been deaf for 10 months, and there are concerns it may be permanent.
Considering that President Trump has criticised the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has called it "a completely one-sided deal", it's easy to be sceptical of this as all being some sort of cloak and dagger stunt to make Cuba look bad. The US embassy remains "fully operational" and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has only said, "We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you've seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved." For hawkish Republicans, the incident has been an opportunity to point fingers at the Cuban leadership that they never wanted to deal with in the first place. "The Cuban government has been harassing US personnel working in Havana for decades." Marco Rubio told Dorsey on August 9. "This has not stopped with President Obama's appeasement." Writing for Foreign Policy's "Elephants in the Room" blog, Jose R. Cardenas declared, "Cuba is up to its old tricks again."
But Cuba has repeatedly denied any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, setting up a special investigative unit to get to the bottom of the matter. The fact that Canadians were targeted as well certainly confuses the situation because the two nations have consistently had a good relationship since the US first cut off ties with Cuba in 1959. Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security in the Obama administration, told The New York Times, "It just doesn't strike me as something the Cuban government would do." He says that "they have been pragmatic about Trump", and indeed the US president has done very little to scuttle the new relationship, despite his tough talk. This leads some to believe that a third country is trying to sabotage the US/Cuba relationship.
But even if we knew who was responsible for this bizarre circumstance, we still don't know how such an attack would work. As far as what kind of weapon could be used to damage hearing without producing an audible sound, most outlets have had to resort to very cursory speculation. When Gizmodo originally reported the incident, we reached out to several experts on hearing damage to ask if they were aware of any scientific basis for such a device. No one wanted to give their medical perspective on the record and all seemed genuinely confused by the scenario.
The US Air Force has acknowledged its testing of "Direct Energy Weapons" and acoustic weapons that "use sound across the entire frequency spectrum to kill, injure, disable, or temporarily incapacitate people". But the results of those tests and details of the weapons remain murky. And a study from 2014 showed that the human ear does respond to low frequencies that are typically understood to be outside the human range of hearing, but it made no conclusions about potential long-term damage.
New Scientist did manage to get Dr Toby Heys, Leader of the Future Technologies research centre at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, to speculate on what kind of device could possibly do what's being reported in Cuba. Heys said that sound waves below the human range of hearing could theoretically cause damage but enormous subwoofers set to extremely high volumes would be required. The only other possibility he was aware of is directing ultrasound into the ear cavity, but he says this would have to be highly targeted with a clear path from the device to the victim's ear. "It is all very Philip K. Dick territory," Heys told New Scientist, acknowledging the tinfoil hat-nature of the circumstances.
If some nation really does have a weapon that causes hearing damage using inaudible sound, it would signal a new, terrifying chapter in psychological warfare. And it's quite understandable that the US government would want to keep every detail of that situation secret. Generally, Heys is sceptical of the stories surrounding this incident but acknowledges, "we are living in a fairly surreal world right now."