Who Is Behind the Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Workers in Cuba and China?

Dozens of embassy employees have suffered brain damage and other symptoms. U.S. intelligence believes Russia may be to blame

The U.S. intelligence community determined that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Two years later, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats declared that the “warning lights are blinking red again” in regard to potential cyberattacks. On Tuesday, NBC reported that intelligence officials now suspect Russia may be waging another type of attack on the United States, specifically on the mental health of American personnel stationed in Cuba and China.

Late in 2016, Americans working in the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, began experiencing strange physical symptoms, to the point where they were forced to return to the United States. The State Department described the cases as “incidents,” and some suspected the Cuban government could be to blame. “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in August 2017 after it was reported that Cuba was investigating the allegations. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement. Personal harm to U.S. officials shows the extent the Castro regime will go and clearly violates international norms.”

In October 2017, the Associated Press obtained a recording of what several of the affected Americans heard in the alleged “incidents,” which were determined to be deliberate attacks. One of the symptoms described by the victims was hearing loss, and some were even fitted with hearing aids upon returning to the United States. Though the affected Americans reported hearing the sound at loud volumes, it was unclear what was producing the noise. Have a listen.

At the time the recording was released publicly, at least 22 Americans were “medically confirmed” to have been affected by the incidents, but the attacks resumed this past spring. The number of government workers affected now stands at 26, not including an employee in China who experienced similar symptoms earlier this year. Though the attacks were first thought to be strictly sonic, victims also suffered brain injuries causing problems related to cognition, balance, vision, sleep loss and more, leading many to suspect that microwaves and electromagnetic waves — possibly coupled with other, unknown technologies — could also be at play. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that doctors and scientists believe microwave-based weapons are the most likely culprit.

The suspected use of concentrated microwaves harkens back to the Cold War, when the U.S. believed Russia was looking to use the waves as a means of psychological warfare. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military determined that pulses of microwaves can cause victims to hear painful sounds despite nothing being audible, a sensation known as the Frey effect. In January, a paper released by James C. Lin of the University of Illinois found that concentrated microwaves can also result in nausea, vertigo and brain tissue injury — in other words, the other symptoms experienced by the affected workers. A month later, ProPublica released a detailed report on the incidents, including an account of a wife of a Havana embassy staff member hearing the sounds, looking out the window and seeing a van speed away.

Despite the consistencies in the symptoms of the affected workers, no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly what condition they are suffering from. Also unclear is the weapons that have been used to carry out these attacks. The U.S. last year turned to the Air Force in an effort to reverse engineer the technology, which largely remains a mystery outside of a suspicion that microwaves are involved.

The response from the Trump administration has been sluggish. NBC reported last week that a report by the Government Accountability Office found that a special panel assembled to investigate the attacks was created eight months later than it should have been because of a communication breakdown within the State Department. The section of the department responsible for creating such a panel only learned of the attacks from media reports in August 2017, while the department’s medial unit knew of them at the beginning of 2017 when the symptoms were first being evaluated. By law, a panel should have been assembled within 60 days of the incident. It was ultimately established in January 2018.

Though U.S. intelligence now “strongly” suspects Russia is behind the attacks, they have not been able to confirm it. What they do know is that the attacks are deliberate. As a U.S. official told NBC, they have “no reason to believe this was anything but an intentional act.”