A long-awaited report commissioned by the State Department offers the most authoritative and exhaustive explanation to date for the mysterious ailment that has befallen dozens of U.S. diplomats in China and Cuba, and CIA officers in Russia, in recent years.
Since 2016, different groups of American officials have described an eerie phenomenon in which they’ve heard a high-pitched, cicada-like sound while serving abroad and then experienced a bevy of disorienting symptoms like hearing loss, nausea, headaches, and difficulties with memory and balance. The resulting affliction even forced some of these officials to retire. A number of theories have been posited for these bizarre incidents, such as a viral infection, sonic weapons, or the aftereffects of a past trauma.
On Thursday and Friday, the State Department began distributing a study it had commissioned from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on what has come to be known as the “Havana Syndrome” to congressional officials. NBC News and the New York Times obtained copies and reported on its findings on Saturday. The most likely culprit is microwave radiation.
The study involved a committee of 19 experts on medicine and related disciplines, who concluded that microwaves were the “most plausible mechanism.” The experts also considered explanations like an infection, chemical exposure, and psychological and social factors. According to the Times, the study also found compelling evidence that the ordeal was the result of a purposeful attack, rather than a faulty device. Indeed, the radiation was not “continuous,” but rather “directed” and “pulsed.” The victims’ reports of sound being emitted from a certain direction or area in a room are also more consistent with an attack.
There has been much speculation as to whether someone might be behind the phenomenon, and who that might be. The U.S. government has declined to officially place the blame on anyone, though CIA analysts have argued that Russia is the most likely malefactor given the country’s long history of experimenting with pulsed radiofrequency technology and some evidence that Moscow has previously used a microwave weapon.
Many have long argued that microwaves are a strong contender for explaining what befell these U.S. officials. A medical team examined the afflicted diplomats in Cuba and published a report of its observations in JAMA in March 2018, which did not mention microwaves. However, the study’s lead author Douglas H. Smith, chair of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview later that year that microwaves were a main suspect. However, scientists at the time strongly disputed the theory, with some arguing that microwaves emitted from such a distance would be too weak to cause harm or make a noise.
“We are pleased this report is now out and can add to the data and analyses that may help us come to an eventual conclusion as to what transpired,” the State Department said in a statement on the report. The department also cautioned that the causes are speculative and that those involved in the study did not have access to certain information due to national security concerns, which “limit[s] the scope of the report.” Nevertheless, the department asserted that these constraints on the report do not “lessen its value.”