What happened to those Cuban sonic weapons?

Now and again over the last three years, I’ve complained about credulous news sources taking seriously the absurd claims that the illnesses experienced by U.S. diplomats in Cuba were caused by mysterious attacks with a sonic weapon. Infuriatingly, some articles (this one from CNN, for example) quoted acoustic weapons experts saying that it couldn’t have been an acoustic weapon, then went on to assume that it was.

A new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine considers the possible causes of the illnesses. Not surprisingly, their findings are being misreported.



As a side note, the new report does not even consider sonic weapons among the plausible explanations, presumably because it is not and never was plausible. Sonic or acoustic weapons are literally never mentioned in the report. Most of the news organizations that hyped the sonic weapon nonsense have failed to mention that, even as they reported on the National Academies’ analysis.

More importantly, though, many news organizations are substantially overstating what the new report actually says. Here are some sample headlines:

Report finds microwave energy likely made US diplomats ill — Associated Press

‘Havana Syndrome’ likely caused by pulsed microwave energy, government study finds — Brenda Breslauer, Ken Dilanian and Josh Lederman, NBC News

American diplomats in Cuba were likely targeted by microwave energy, study finds — Audrey McNamara, CBS News

Microwave radiation behind illness of US diplomats in Cuba, China: Report — Business Standard

New report attributes strange attacks on US diplomats to microwave radiation; victim demands investigation — Holly McKay, Fox News

U.S. diplomats in Cuba and China targeted by microwave radiation that caused brain injuries, study finds — Joseph Wilkinson, New York Daily News

None of this is actually in the report. What the report actually says, in a nutshell, is that the symptoms reported by embassy personnel are consistent with directed, pulsed radio energy in a frequency range that includes microwaves, and that this is the most plausible of the four explanations they considered: (directed radio frequency energy, chemicals, infectious agents, and psychological and social factors):

Overall, directed pulsed RF energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered, along with PPPD as a secondary reinforcing mechanism, as well as the possible additive effects of psychological conditions. The committee cannot rule out other possible mechanisms and considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others. In particular, the committee could not be certain that the individuals with only the chronic set of signs and symptoms suffered from the same cause(s) and etiologic mechanisms as those who reported the initial, sudden onset set of signs and symptoms. [emphasis added]

Nowhere does the report conclude that a microwave attack occurred, or even that it ‘likely’ occurred (as most news agencies report), only that it is consistent with the symptoms and more plausible than chemicals, germs, and psychological factors. The report also acknowledges serious limitations, including lack of a control group, highly variable reported symptoms, and lack of access to data:

In particular, much of the detail and many of the investigations performed by others were not available to [the committee that assembled the report], either because they are classified for reasons of national security or restricted for other reasons (e.g., internal department deliberations, protected health information, etc.). Thus, the committee had only limited amounts and kinds of information.

I’m not criticizing the study here; I respect that the scientists who assembled the report acknowledge its limitations. This is a sign of good science, but it doesn’t merit mention in most news stories. Similarly, I respect the report’s frank evaluation of the strength of its conclusions:

…the significant variability and clinical heterogeneity of the illnesses affecting DOS [Department of State] personnel leave open the possibility of multiple causal factors including psychological and social factors. These factors could exacerbate other causes of illness and cannot be ruled out as contributing to some of the cases, especially some of the chronic symptoms or later in the course of illness in some cases. Finally, the committee concurred with the diagnosis of persistent postural-perceptual dizziness (PPPD), a functional (not psychiatric) vestibular disorder that may be triggered by vestibular, neurologic, other medical and psychological conditions and may explain some chronic signs and symptoms in some patients…

While there are several studies on the health effects of continuous wave and pulsed RF sources, there are insufficient data in the open literature on potential RF exposure/dosage characteristics and biological effects possible for DOS scenarios. Specific experiments would be needed with RF exposure and dosage characteristics (frequency, pulse repetition frequency, pulse width, incident angle between potential source and subject, duration of exposure, number of repeated exposures, etc.) to quantify the biological effects, but would be ethically difficult to justify. In the absence of such data, it is difficult to align specific biophysical effects within the potential RF exposure regime that could explain specific medical symptoms reported by DOS personnel and the variability in specific experiences and timelines of individuals…

Clarity about the nature of the illnesses that first began to affect DOS employees in Cuba in 2016 and subsequently in China, and the causative mechanism(s), remains elusive…

The committee cannot rule out other possible mechanisms (see Section 4), and again, considers it likely that a multiplicity of factors explains some cases and the differences between others. Commencement of appropriate neurological rehabilitation methods early in these illnesses, even without a diagnosis, would have been helpful…

The committee and others are limited today in what can be pieced together about these cases.

…further experiments are required to demonstrate causal links between an RF exposure regime and biological dysfunction observed or experienced by DOS employees.

This is, unfortunately, not at all unusual. Scientists prepare a nuanced report that presents tentative, carefully worded conclusions and acknowledges all kinds of uncertainty, and news organizations ignore all of the subtleties and present the suggestions as if they were certainties.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that some news sources did a much better job with this story, for example, Greg Myre at NPR:

Microwave Radiation ‘Most Plausible’ Cause Of Diplomats’ Ailments, Report Says

and Beth Mole at Ars Technica:

US diplomats’ brain injuries may be from covert microwave attack, experts say
Data from Russian experiments on pulsed RF energy offers best explanation.

That story in particular does an outstanding job of presenting a carefully measured assessment:

The committee was careful to avoid saying its report was conclusive. The experts noted significant limitations to the data and their access to it. For one thing, much of the data provided to the committee was aggregated data on the diplomats’ cases, not data on each case individually. In addition, some of the data was collected months after the diplomats fell ill, making it difficult to assess health effects.

See, AP, CBS, NBC, Fox, et al.? It’s not so hard.


  1. says

    This report isn’t just doing “good science;” it’s also being very diplomatic in its language, since it’s dealing with allegations of acts of war against US personnel, which could get kinda inflammatory.

    • Matthew Herron says

      That may be true; I’d rather not guess at the committee’s motivations. What I do know is that it’s a common feature of responsible scientific writing, but you’re right that there could be other reasons for it as well.

  2. raven says

    What is missing here is motive.
    The Cubans had nothing to gain by targeting US Department of State personnel.
    At that time, we and they were trying to improve relations between the two countries, not make them worse.

    • Matthew Herron says

      I agree, and wrote something similar in October, 2017:

      We have already established that sonic attacks are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms: no means. Cuba is, by all accounts, desperate to improve relations with the U.S., and certainly has no reason to attack Canada: no motive. The administration doesn’t believe Cuba is culpable, and there’s no evidence of third-party involvement: no suspect.

  3. says

    I’m still going to stick with my original idea: The building is lined with asbestos or similar toxic material and the government finds it more convenient to blame Cuba than admitting that it just doesn’t care about the health of its own people.

  4. Trickster Goddess says

    In addition to the missing motives, this also begs the question: Why would anyone spend all that money and resources to develop and deploy a science-fictional weapon that only causes mild illness and discomfort in its victims? Why even bother?

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