The Sound (Maybe) and the Fury (Definitely)

We live in a time of rapid technological advancement. This has large implications for national security. Even during peacetime, covert attacks can easily be carried out with the help of evolving technology. Most recently, Canadian and American diplomats in Cuba have reported strange ailments, which the US government has attributed to sonic weaponry—a new realm of technology whose ramifications are not yet fully understood.

The mysterious symptoms experienced by US diplomats in Cuba, such as hearing loss and mild concussions, demonstrate the growing threat posed by new, and often unexplained, weapons. Sonic weaponry in Cuba and the uncertainty about what caused the attacks on American and Canadian officials demonstrate the disruptive consequences of advancement in military technology. The US government’s analysis of and response to the attacks, which contradicts scientists’ understanding of them, suggests that the Trump administration is making false claims in order to end the détente with Cuba.

The State Department and the American Foreign Service Administration (AFSA) have capitalized on the uncertainty surrounding these attacks to end rapprochement with Cuba. Despite evidence to the contrary, the US government has scapegoated sonic harassment to expedite the breakdown in Cuban-American relations.

Cuba is no stranger to covert attacks on individuals. The CIA spent over 50 years hatching plots to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. From exploding cigars to sabotaged wetsuits and scuba-diving expeditions, the US employed a wide range of potentially deadly machinations in attempts to oust Castro. The recent and unexplained attacks on US diplomats in Havana are only the latest in a string of surreptitious attacks between Cuba and America.

In September, the US State Department announced that it would reduce the United States’ diplomatic presence in Cuba by 60%. This decision came after nearly two dozen American diplomats in Havana reported mysterious symptoms, including hearing loss, speech problems, balance issues, damage to the nervous system, headaches, ringing in the ears, and nausea. The US government justified the removal of its diplomats because the Cuban government failed to fulfill Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that the receiving state must “protect the premises of the [sending] mission against any intrusion or damage.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez claims that the US government is using the injuries as a pretext to damage the bilateral partnership.

The reported explanation about the cause of the attacks from Washington was that U.S. officials had been exposed to “an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.” AFSA has also attributed these symptoms to sonic weapons aimed at American and Canadian diplomats, though scientists are skeptical.

There is no consensus within the scientific community as to what caused the symptoms experienced by diplomats posted in Cuba, though there is a general agreement that a sonic attack is fairly implausible. The US military has tried to weaponize infrasound – low frequency sound – but has abandoned the project because it was too difficult to focus the wavelengths. Ultrasound– high pitched noises – has been known to cause headaches and nausea, though physicists maintain that such a weapon would be unlikely to harm diplomats from a distance. Though a larger weapon would theoretically be able to overcome this challenge, a weapon sizable enough to project high frequency sound waves across a distance and through walls would hardly go unnoticed in a metropolis like Havana. Furthermore, ultrasound does not cause mild brain injury, like concussions, which many American diplomats in Cuba cited as a symptom. Other causes, such as environmental factors including toxins, bacterial, or viral infections, could also explain the symptoms.

On October 3rd, 2017, the US government escalated tensions when it expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States. The State Department has said that this expulsion was intended to bring the Cuban embassy in D.C. to the same emergency status as the US embassy in Havana. This action, combined with the State Department’s September 29th travel warning to Cuba and new commercial restrictions implemented on November 8th, has the potential to reverse the normalization process between the nations initiated by the Obama administration. Fraught Cuban-American relations reveal the dislocating effects that new and inexplicable weaponry has on foreign policy and international relations.

Though the US government maintains that the events in Cuba were targeted attacks on American personnel and their families, these “attacks” could also be representative of relatively benign espionage technology gone awry. The first reported symptoms date back to Fall 2016, and John Sipher, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Team, thinks it unlikely that Cuba would engage in overtly hostile acts during the election, especially because most outlets at the time predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton. Given the advancement in Cuban-American relations under Obama’s presidency, in the Fall of 2016 most people assumed that with Clinton in the white house, relations with Cuba would continue to improve, and thus hostile attacks perpetrated by the Cuban government would be illogical.

Sipher alludes to other similar technological “attacks” which have had unintended negative consequences. In the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s, Soviet and later Russian intelligence agencies used nitrophenyl pentaden against suspected American spy handlers. This invisible electromagnetic powder was a tagging agent, used to track and discover unreported interactions between Russian agents and Americans. At the time, the chemical was thought to be carcinogenic, and thus posed an unintended health threat to the officials who had been “dusted.” Sipher believes the “attacks” against American diplomats in Cuba can be explained by a similar counterintelligence collection process gone wrong.

Yochi Dreasen, Jennifer Williams, and Zack Beauchamp of the Wordly podcast suggest that Cuba was perhaps spying on American diplomats in order to gauge the country’s willingness to act on Trump’s campaign promise to reduce engagement with Cuba. Given President Trump’s wide-ranging and inconsistent threats and promises, it is not incomprehensible that foreign governments would do all in their power to glean information about the current administration’s policy plans.  

The Cuban threat of sonic warfare, though contentious, has raised new questions about technological advancements in weaponry, while simultaneously exacerbating already strained Cuban-American relations. Though the mysterious symptoms reported by American diplomats are unexplained, the general scientific consensus is that an acoustic attack does not account for the symptoms described. Despite the agreement in the scientific community, the US government has continued to operate under the assumption that a sonic weapon targeted American officials. The Trump administration is using this false assumption to justify its actions against Cuba, in an attempt to end the détente. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is capitalizing on the equivocal nature of the situation to advance his political agenda.  

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About the Author

Annie Lehman-Ludwig '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Annie can be reached at anna_lehman-ludwig@brown.edu

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