Continuing Controversy Over Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (and China)

Since late 2016 some U.S. diplomats (now 26 in number) have complained about various medical problems that surfaced while they were serving in Cuba.[1]

The U.S., however, continues to assert publicly that despite subsequent investigations the U.S. does not know what or who caused the problems. Most recently, on September 6, 2018, at a House hearing, Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” At the same hearing, Charles Rosenfarb, the State Department’s Medical Director, testified, “We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause.”[2] (Emphases added.)

Cuba, on the other hand, continues to assert that it did not cause the problems and indeed that there is no scientific basis for any contention that the diplomats suffered any kind of medical issues. For example, in June 2018, a Cuban diplomatic official said that Cuba had “challenged the U.S. on the use of the word ‘attack.’ “There is no evidence of a weapon, there is no evidence of a source, nobody can point to motivation and yet they continue to use the word ‘attack.’ We see it as politically motivated.’” He also noted that neither American nor Cuban experts had been able to determine what caused the symptoms. He renewed concerns that the Trump administration is using the incidents as an excuse to roll back U.S.-Cuba rapprochement started under the Obama administration.[3]

In the meantime, at least the following four theories about causation of the medical problems have emerged.

University of Pennsylvania Theory[4]

Physicians at the University of Pennsylvania examined the affected diplomats and in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) asserted the following key findings:

  1. The patients “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.”
  2. The patients have experienced “persisting disability of a significant nature” involving “hearing, vision, balance and brain symptoms similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions, but without histories of head trauma.”
  3. In most cases, the affected diplomats reported hearing a loud, painful noise that they later associated with their symptoms, but the physicians concluded, “There is no known mechanism for audible sound to injure the brain” and “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.”
  4. “Viruses or chemical exposures are unlikely,” but could not be “systematically excluded.”
  5. “Advanced MRI scans spotted a few changes in some patients in what are called white matter tracts,” but these might be attributed to previous events.
  6. “Several of the objective manifestations consistently found in this cohort,” including vision and balance abnormalities, “could not have been consciously or unconsciously manipulated.”

In August 2018 JAMA published letters from 10 neurologists and doctors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany that questioned the conclusions of the University of Pennsylvania report. They said it could have misinterpreted the result of medical tests or ignored disorders that cause symptoms among a large group of people, as psychological factors.

Smith and two colleagues published a response that said they are performing “advanced neuroimaging studies” of the patients and are “hoping to identify structural brain changes that may underlie the neurological manifestations.”

University of Michigan Theory[5]

A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan’s Security and Privacy Research Group in March 2018 concluded that “if ultrasound played a role in harming diplomats in Cuba, then a plausible cause is intermodulation distortion between ultrasonic signals that unintentionally synthesize audible tones. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.” The conclusion of the research paper itself also states, “our experiments do not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent to harm diplomats.” (Emphasis added.)

If I correctly understand this theory, the audible sound similar to that heard in Cuba requires at least two ultrasound sources that interfere with each other and this suggests that the audible sound was accidental and not intended. This supports Cuba’s consistent assertion that it did not intend to do anything to harm the American diplomats, an assertion that makes obvious sense from Cuba’s own self-interest of avoiding antagonizing the U.S.

Microwave Theory[6]

The lead physician and author of the University of Pennsylvania report, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, recently told the New York Times that “microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.” He added, ““Everybody was relatively skeptical at first [but] everyone now agrees there’s something there.”

According to the Times, “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.” Moreover, “scientists have known for decades that the brain can perceive some microwaves as sound.” Indeed, “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.”

Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, is a leading proponent of the theory that pulsed microwaves could explain the symptoms. She has authored a paper that will be published in coming days in the journal Neural Computation.  The symptoms experienced by the Cuba patients match symptoms in other people who are “electrosensitive,” according to her analysis, which relies on the JAMA study and news reports.

Asked about the microwave theory, 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. In addition, In addition, 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.

James C. Lin of the University of Illinois, a leading investigator of the Frey effect, described the diplomatic ills as plausibly arising from microwave beams. Dr. Lin is the editor-in-chief of Bio Electro Magnetics, a peer-reviewed journal that explores the effects of radio waves and electromagnetic fields on living things. In his paper, Dr. Lin said high-intensity beams of microwaves could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury. The beams, he added, could be fired covertly, hitting “only the intended target.”

In February, ProPublica in a lengthy investigation mentioned that federal investigators were weighing the microwave theory. This article also mentioned that a wife of a member of the embassy staff had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and had seen a van speeding away.

Kenneth R. Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied microwave phenomena while working at the Naval Medical Research Center in Bethesda. Foster, who was not involved in examining the diplomatic personnel, said that the reported illnesses remain mysterious and that he doesn’t have an explanation.

Nevertheless, Foster said, “But it’s sure as heck not microwaves.” Such a theory is “wildly impossible.” According to Dr. Foster, “to actually damage the brain, the microwaves would have to be so intense they would actually burn the subject, which has never happened in any of these incidents.” Foster added that there is no technology capable of using microwaves to produce the kinds of symptoms that the U.S. diplomats have experienced — and not for lack of trying. “Actually the Navy was interested in seeing whether this could be used as a weapon, and we spent a lot of time thinking about it, but the phenomenon was simply too weak to be of any conceivable use.”

A rejection of this theory also was voiced by University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto J. Espay, who said, “Microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news.”

A Cuban diplomat, Fernández de Cossío, Director for United States at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, insisted that the microwave theory cannot explain the symptoms suffered by the U.S. diplomats in Havana. Mr. Fernández de Cossío accused the U.S. of carrying a deliberate political manipulation. On Monday, CNN reported that Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a neurologist investigating on behalf of the Cuban government, also dismissed this theory.

The strangest reaction to the microwave theory came in  a Washington Post editorial. After reviewing the pros and cons of the theory, it concluded, “the microwave explanation has again raised a question about whether the United States has discovered more than is being said about the perpetrators. If there are known culprits, they should be identified and held to account.”

Neuro-Weapon Theory[7]

A team put together by the State Department to investigate this problem consisted of Dr. Michael Hoffer of the University of Miami and an expert in brain trauma and otolaryngology; Dr. Carey Balaban, professor of otolaryngology, bioengineering and neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh; and Dr. James Giordano, professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert in “neurotechnology” and its use in the military.

This team independently studied the first tests taken of  those affected. And  this team believes that the patients likely were hit by  a weapon that uses directed energy and is capable of causing a “cavitation” effect or air pockets, in fluids near the inner ear. The bubbles can travel quickly through two pathways that carry blood to the brain from the inner ear — the cochlear and the vestibular — and “function as a stroke,” Giordano said.

Such “neuro-weapons” can be biological, chemical, or in the case of the incidents in Havana, “directed energy weapons.”  The team was unable to conclude exactly what method the perpetrators of the attacks used but reduced it to the following possibilities:

▪ Ultrasonic (acoustic) exposures were considered “very possible and probable.”

▪ Electromagnetic pulsing was also described as “very possible and probable.”

▪ The team reported that the use of microwave energy was possible, but “unlikely.”

Conclusion

I am not a scientist or medical doctor and am unable to evaluate the merits and demerits of the above theories. I, therefore, specifically invite comments with additional information or thoughts.

But I also confess that I am amazed that after nearly two years the official U.S. public position is an inability to identify the cause or perpetrator.

===========================================

[1]  Previous posts about these issues are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of Lists of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] U.S. House Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Affairs Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba  (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[3] Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2018), Cuba Still Baffled by Illness of U.S. Diplomats, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2018).

[4] Swanson, et al., Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel  Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba, JAMA (Mar. 20, 2018); Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2018); What affected the US diplomats in Cuba? Ten scientists question the ‘attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 15, 2018); Gianoli, et al., Neurological Symptoms in US  Government Personnel in Cuba, JAMA (Aug. 14, 2018); Mojena, The truth is that they do not want to listen, Granma (Aug. 17, 2018); Do ‘Sonic Weapons’ Adequately Explain ‘Health Attacks’ on Diplomats in Cuba?  Snopes (updated Sept. 4, 2018); Rasenick, et al., Letter: Cuba ‘sonic attack’ conspiracy theories and flawed science, Guardian (June 1, 2018); Sample, Cuban ‘acoustic attack’ report on US diplomats flawed, say neurologists, Guardian (Aug. 14, 2018).

[5] Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 4, 2018).

[6] Broad, Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2018); Kaplan & Achenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuba diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018); Could ‘Microwave Weapon Really Have Caused US Embassy Workers’ ‘Bizarre Symptoms? LiveScience (Sept/ 5, 2018); Foster, Cuba’s “Sonic Attack” on the U.S. Embassy Could Have Been Merely Sounds Emitted by a Listening Device, Scientific American (Sept. 7, 2018); Editorial, A literal secret weapon is hurting U.S. diplomats abroad. What is it? Wash. Post (Sept. 7, 2018).

[7] Gámez, Doctors reveal possible ‘neuro-weapon’ used in alleged attacks in Cuba, Miami Herald (Sept. 7, 2018).

 

U.S. House Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Cuba  

On September 6, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy on Cuba.[1]

The subcommittee heard from the  following five witnesses, the first four of whom were from the  State Department and the last (Mr. Mazanec) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: (1) Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; (2) Peter Bodde, Coordinator, Health Incidents Response Task Force; (3) Charles Rosenfarb, M.D., Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services; (4) Todd Brown, Assistant Director for Countermeasures, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and (5) Brian M. Mazanec, Ph. D.

Since the audio recording of the hearing is virtually impossible to hear, the following are the highlights of the prepared and printed statements of two of the witnesses and the brief comments from the Washington Post article.

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Merten

Human Rights. The Department continues to monitor “human rights developments in Cuba and actively engages with members of Cuban civil society. . . . The Department and USAID also continue to administer U.S. government funded programs to promote democracy and support the critical work of human rights defenders on the island. . . . we regularly speak out against the regime for repression and abuse and raise these concerns directly with the Cuban government.

Cuban Economy. The State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List . . . identifies entities and subentities with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise. . . . [It seeks to ] redirect economic activity that once supported the Cuban military toward the Cuban private sector and Cuban people.”

The Department’s Cuba Internet Task force. It is charged to “develop recommendations on 1) the role of media and unregulated flow of information to Cuba and 2) expanding internet access in Cuba” and is scheduled to complete its work by June 2019.

Promoting Stability and Prosperity. The Department has “1) reviewed democracy programs in Cuba to ensure they align with the criteria set forth in the LIBERTAD Act; 2) provided a report to the President detailing the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses against the Cuban people and its lack of progress towards a “transition government” as described in the LIBERTAD Act; 3) provided a report to the President on bilateral engagement with Cuba to ensure it advances U.S. interests; 4) took a stand at the UN against Cuban anti-embargo propaganda; and 5) continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security to discourage dangerous, unlawful migration that puts Cuban and American lives at risk.”

“Health Attacks” on U.S. Personnel.  Merten reminded the subcommittee that “the Department first became aware of these health complaints and an increase in Cuban harassment in late December 2016, [bit] it was not until months later, after highly specialized medical testing was performed and analyzed by experts, that we began to understand the spectrum of severity and confirm the extent of the health effects. That confirmation indicated that these incidents went beyond routine harassment previously experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana.”

He then stressed that  the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” (Emphasis added.)

He also emphasized that the U.S. Government was committed to long-term support for the affected personnel.

He mentioned that Secretary of State Pompeo has established an Accountability Review Board that had submitted its report on June 7 and that the Secretary has accepted all of its recommendations.

 Dr. Rosenfarb

“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause,” testified Dr. Rosenfarb.

 Dr. Mazane

His prepared statement summarized the GAO’s July 30, 2018 report (released on September 6) that reviewed the State Department’s management of these health incidents and made recommendations for improvements in same.

Conclusion

 This blog previously has criticized the U.S. so-called democracy promotion activities in Cuba and the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force because they are unilateral attempts to impose U.S. values on Cuba. Instead, this blog has advocated for the U.S. attempting to develop such programs with the cooperation of the Cuban government. This blog also has also called for the U.S. to ends its embargo of Cuba.[2]

A future post will discuss the latest developments regarding U.S. diplomats who have had medical problems arising from their being stationed in Havana.

================================

[1] U.S. House Rep., Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Hemisphere Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[2] See the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA: U.S. Embargo of Cuba, Cuban Human Rights, Cuban Economy, U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba and U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force.