Cuba’s “magical sci-fi sound gun”

Finally, a major news source is applying some skepticism to the claims of acoustic attacks on U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba. A new article in Wired by Adam Rogers acknowledges that acoustic or sonic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms:

Most of the reporting on this story so far has talked about some kind of a “sonic weapon” or “sonic attack,” maybe a side-effect of a surveillance technology. The problem is, physicists and acousticians don’t know how ultrasound (high frequency) or infrasound (low frequency) could do what the State Department says happened to its people. That leaves two possibilities: a new, sci-fi sound gun or something else.

The range of reported symptoms

…suggests some kind of focused acoustic attack. But nobody will admit to knowing about any technologies that can do all that. “Nothing about this story makes any sense to us,” says Robert Putnam, senior marketing director at LRAD, which makes the long-range acoustic device that a cruise ship deployed against pirates in 2005. But the LRAD uses audible—very, very audible—sound. Most of the Cuban attacks seem to have been inaudible. “If it’s infrasound, they’re not really hearing it, and you’d have to pump a tremendous amount of energy into the ground,” Putnam says. “If it’s ultrasound, it attenuates very quickly, and if you pumped a lot of energy into it, it’d heat the skin.”

And technologies that focus a beam of audible sound at a single spot don’t have the kind of range our nominal magic sci-fi sound gun would need—as of 2010 “you had to be within five or ten feet of the emitter for it to have an effect,” Putnam says. Of course, maybe the magical sci-fi sound gun has made significant technological progress since then.

“Magical sci-fi sound gun”…sounds a lot like what I said on Saturday: “Cuba’s magic sonic weapon.” The Wired article considers other explanations, including various poisons and synergistic effects. For the most part, the article assumes that some kind of attack is responsible, though it does concede the injuries

…might not have been intentional. Presumably a magic sound gun could have synergistically combined with environmental noise, or some unknown ototoxin, and caused injuries when it was only supposed to pick up secret conversations. Maybe this isn’t James Bond or the X-Files; maybe it’s Coen Brothers. Perhaps nobody, as hapless bad guys are wont to say, was supposed to get hurt.

Robert Bartholomew, writing at Psychology Today, does not assume an attack. The article, titled “‘Sonic Attack’ on the U.S. Embassy Likely Psychological” considers another possibility:

Based on the scant information that has been disclosed thus far, it is very possible that the symptoms are psychogenic in nature, as most of the complaints are headaches and dizziness. The claims do not make logical sense. For instance, an acoustical device generating inaudible sounds, cannot damage a person’s hearing. The most serious case is described as “mild traumatic brain injury” and could be entirely unrelated. Furthermore, what exactly does this diagnosis mean? It is very, very vague.

Dr. Bartholomew prefers mass hysteria as an explanation:

There have been many documented cases in the mass hysteria literature of so-called ‘sick buildings’ that have supposedly caused outbreaks of illness, that turn out to be psychological. The human mind can play tricks on itself, especially in the wake of rumors and conspiracy claims. For instance, shortly after the anthrax mail attacks attributed to possible terrorists during the fall of 2001, the U.S. Postal Service began to irradiate mail to kill any biological agents sent through the mail. Soon dozens of workers at the irradiation centers reported feeling unwell and blaming their symptoms on the machines. Yet the irradiation of medical supplies had been going on for over a decade, without any reports of adverse effects. Irradiating mail produces no residual radiation, but the perception was that it was radioactive.

Of course, there doesn’t have to be one explanation. Given the range of complaints, I think there’s unlikely to be one. As I said a week ago,

…my money is on some combination of multiple real but unrelated conditions, distortions in the telephone chain from alleged victim –> embassy supervisor –> unnamed ‘US official’ –> reporter at AP, and possibly psychosomatic complaints arising from the conviction that there IS some kind of attack going on. I’ll be very surprised if there really is an attack, of any kind, at all.


  1. says

    There was the famous “microwave-acoustic cavity in the great seal” bug that the USSR used. I always wondered about that one because it meant that they were using a focused beam of microwaves to bombard the office – is that a health risk?

    I heavily discount the whole Cuba incident as merely posturing to provide an excuse for rolling back the clock a bit.

    • Andrew Dalke says says it was 330MHz, so low-end microwaves – lower even than UHF channel 13. I can’t find mention of the power levels, but says of an equivalent US one: “The transmitter produced a peak power output in the order of 25 Watts, which was enough to cover a distance of 50 metres in free space and pass through several walls of the laboratory building. If necessary, peak power could be enhanced later to 1-5 kW by using magnetron radar oscillators”. It also says that this approach stopped because “both the Russians and the Americans had been complaining about excessively strong RF signals beamed at them by the other party”.

  2. says

    Yeah, I would first apply scepticism to the claims of an “attack” in and on itself.
    Seems more like an attempt to roll back on diplomatic progress made under Obama while playing the victim to me.
    It’s not like there haven’t been Cubans that I personally wanted to murder for being damn loud, but you could never accuse them of being stealthy.


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