New York Times 1 September 2018
Doctors and scientists say microwave strikes may have caused sonic delusions and very real brain damage among embassy staff and family members.
During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was seeking to turnmicrowave radiation into covert weapons of mind control.
More recently, the American military itself sought to develop microwave arms that could invisibly beam painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads. The aims were to disable attackers and wage psychological warfare.
Now, doctors and scientists say such unconventional weapons may have caused the baffling symptoms and ailments that, starting in late 2016, hit more than three dozen American diplomats and family members in Cuba and China. The Cuban incidents resulted in a diplomatic rupture between Havana and Washington.
The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.
“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.
Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.
In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.
Scientists have known for decades that the brain can perceive some microwaves as sound.
The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.
Members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.
Asked about the microwave theory of the case, the State Department said the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. And the F.B.I. declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any theories.
The microwave idea teems with unanswered questions. Who fired the beams? The Russian government? The Cuban government? A rogue Cuban faction sympathetic to Moscow? And, if so, where did the attackers get the unconventional arms?
At his home outside Washington, Mr. Frey, the scientist who uncovered the neural phenomenon, said federal investigators have questioned him on the diplomatic riddle and that microwave radiation is considered a possible cause.
Mr. Frey, now 83, has traveled widely and long served as a contractor and a consultant to a number of federal agencies. He speculated that Cubans aligned with Russia, the nation’s longtime ally, might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States.