It resembles a scene from a James Bond film. Between November 2016 and October 2017, twenty-four staff members at the American embassy in Havana, Cuba, were reportedly sickened after being the target of a mysterious “sonic attack.” Several Canadian embassy personnel also became ill with symptoms ranging from “mild brain trauma” to changes in the white matter tracks of the brain. The Associated Press even obtained an audio recording of a high-pitched whine that several diplomats identified as coinciding with the attacks they experienced. Most staff members were “targeted” in their homes and while staying at one of two nearby hotels.
Whatever happened in Cuba, it is almost certainly not the result of a sonic attack. Sonic weapons are bulky, impractical, and inefficient. Attempts to weaponize infrasound—acoustical waves at the low range of human hearing (twenty hertz and below)—have been challenging due to difficulties in focusing the wavelengths. Efforts to develop an ultrasonic weapon—at the upper limits of human hearing (20,000 hertz and above)—have been equally unsuccessful, as the sound waves dissipate rapidly with distance. Most of the waves would simply bounce off the walls of any building.
There is also the problem of explaining the range of symptoms. While claims of concussions and changes in white matter get much of the media attention, most symptoms were relatively mundane and included headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue, tinnitus, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, confusion, insomnia, hearing loss, vertigo, and nosebleeds.
Most of these complaints have no association with acoustical waves; indeed, I experience a third of them on a weekly basis! As for claims of concussion-like symptoms and white matter anomalies, there is no known association between these conditions and sound waves. Cranial ultrasounds are performed all the time without any white matter tract issues. Furthermore, from basic physics we know that an acoustical wave cannot give you a concussion, as nearly all of the energy would bounce off the body.
We still do not have any specifics in terms of the number of people supposedly affected by the white matter changes. Whatever the number, the sample size is so small that no clear cause-and-effect relationship can be established. Brain scans are not always definitive and are open to interpretation. White matter changes in the brain are common as one ages and are associated with many conditions. Physicians treating some of the patients have told journalists that they plan to publish their findings of brain anomalies in a major medical journal. Until their findings can be scrutinized by the scientific community, we have every reason to be skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, doctors and patients should release the scans and redacted medical reports so they can be examined. Whatever is going on, it is almost certainly not a sonic attack. Given the facts as we know them, and the Trump administration’s penchant for embracing conspiracy theories, my money is on mass suggestion.
Postscript: On January 9, 2018, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened public hearings on the “tracks” amid controversy with Senator Jeff Flake (Republican, Arizona) noting that according to an FBI briefing, there is no evidence of a sonic attack. The latest development in this saga is from the FBI, which reported at press time that after months of on-the-scene investigation in Cuba, there is still no evidence of a sonic attack.