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.

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[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).

 

The Antiquated Constitutional Structure of the U.S. Senate 

This year’s U.S. election re-emphasizes, for this blogger, the antiquated nature of the U.S. Constitution, especially the U.S. Senate.

Alec MacGillis, a government and politics reporter for ProPublica and the author of “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” points out that Democratic voters are increasingly concentrated in certain cities and urban areas while the Constitution allocates two Senate seats to each state regardless of population. The juxtaposition of these phenomena “helps explain why the Democrats are perpetually struggling to hold a majority. The Democrats have long been at a disadvantage in the Senate, where the populous, urbanized states where Democrats prevail get the same two seats as the rural states where Republicans are stronger. The 20 states where Republicans hold both Senate seats have, on average, 5.2 million people each; the 16 states where the Democrats hold both seats average 7.9 million people. Put another way, winning Senate elections in states with a total of 126 million people has netted the Democrats eight fewer seats than the Republicans get from winning states with 104 million people.”[1]

Nevertheless, Democrats are seeing signs that they may gain control of the Senate this election.

However, Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, points out that this control may last only two years. The reason? In the next election in 2018, 25 of the 33 Senate seats up for election are currently held by Democrats, and five of these Democratic seats are in states that then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012 (and even Trump is likely to carry on this year’s election): Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia. Three other Democratic seats are far from “safe” seats:  Sen. Bill Nelson (Florida) Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin). The Republican seats up for election in 2018, on the other hand, look like difficult challenges for the Democrats.[2]

These consequences of the current constitutional structure of the U.S. Senate suggest, as argued in a prior post, “that the U.S. Senate in particular needs radical reform if we are to retain a bicameral national legislature. To require 60% of the Senators to agree in order to do almost anything [due to the filibuster rule,] for me, is outrageous. It should only be 51% for most issues. This deficiency is exacerbated by the fact that each state has two and only two Senators regardless of the state’s population. Yes, this was part of the original grand and anti-democratic compromise in the late 18th century when there were 13 states. But the expansion of the union to 50 states has made the Senate even more anti-democratic.” [3]

Since “I believe that it would not be wise to increase the size of the Senate to reflect the population of the states (like the allocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives) and that each state should continue to have two Senators in a bicameral upper house, I suggest for discussion that there be weighted voting in the Senate. Each Senator from Wyoming (the least populous state in 2010 with 564,000) would have 1 vote, for example, but each Senator from California (the most populous state in 2010 with 37,254,000) would have 66 votes (37254/564 = 66.05). This approach would produce a total Senate vote of 1,094 (total U.S. population in 2010 of 308,746,000 divided by 564,000 (population of Wyoming) = 547 x 2 = 1094). The weightings would be changed every 10 years with the new census population figures.”

Such changes would aid the U.S. government in addressing the many problems facing the nation, instead of the continuation of the gridlock that has helped to prevent progress on these many problems.

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[1] MacGillis, Go Midwest, Young Hipster, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2016).

[2] Cillizza, Even if Democrats Win the Senate in 2016, their majority is unlikely to endure, Wash. Post (Oct. 23, 2016).

[3] The Antiquated U.S. Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 28, 2012).