Since 2016, U.S. diplomatic staffers and their family members in Cuba and China have complained of hearing unexplained sounds and then developing symptoms similar to those of a traumatic brain injury. A variety of possible causes — from sonic attacks to crickets to mass hysteria — have been considered, but no definite culprit has been identified.
The New York Times reported Saturday, however, that several experts have pinpointed a “prime suspect”: Microwave weapons, which can invisibly beam painfully loud noises, paralyze victims, wage psychological warfare and “even kill.”
Dr. Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania who examined almost two dozen of the sickened people from Cuba, told the paper that “everybody was relatively skeptical at first” of the microwave theory but “everyone now agrees there’s something there.”
The State Department told the Times that no cause or source of the embassy attacks has been identified. The FBI declined to comment.
Russia, China and many European nations are believed capable of making basic microwave weapons, which emit focused energy in the form of microwaves and can be small enough to be hand-held or carried in a van or other vehicle.
The U.S. has been working on such weapons for decades. The nation’s military revealed that it had developed “a high-power microwave weapon that could disperse crowds without killing people by rapidly raising body temperature,” according to a 2015 Reuters report.
This isn’t the first time that microwave weapons have been floated as the possible culprit behind the unexplained illnesses to embassy personnel and their relatives.
ProPublica said in a February report that federal investigators were considering the possibility of a microwave attack, and at least two scientific papers have identified microwave weapons as a likely cause.
James Lin, an electrical engineering expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested in a December study that microwave pulses could have produced the strange sounds and caused the symptoms that diplomatic staff and their family members suffered.
Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego, has corroborated this assessment in a paper to be published next month in the journal Neural Computation.
“I looked at what’s known about [pulsed radiofrequency/microwave electromagnetic] radiation in relation to diplomats’ experiences,” Golomb said, according to a news release. “Everything fits. The specifics of the varied sounds that the diplomats reported hearing during the apparent inciting episodes, such as chirping, ringing and buzzing, cohere in detail with known properties of so-called ‘microwave hearing.’”
“And the symptoms that emerged fit, including the dominance of sleep problems, headaches and cognitive issues, as well as the distinctive prominence of auditory symptoms,” she said.
Not everyone is convinced by this hypothesis, however.
“That theory is a real stretch,” Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New Scientist in December following Lin’s paper on the topic. “It would require something like a major airport radar transmitter with the subject’s head close to the antenna in its direct beam. … I guess it is possible, but not likely.”
Journalist Sharon Weinberger, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News who for years has researched efforts to develop microwave weapons, also expressed doubt that such technology was behind the embassy illnesses.
Still, Allan Frey, a microwave radiation pioneer, told the Times he viewed it as highly plausible that microwave weapons had been used in the embassy attacks. In the case of Cuba, he speculated that “Cubans aligned with Russia… might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States.”
“I think that’s a perfectly viable explanation,” he said.