The Strange Case of the “Sonic Attack” in Havana: Cuban Scientists Narrow in on Suspect

HAVANA–The US State Department warns US citizens not to travel to Cuba because numerous US Embassy employees in Havana have been targeted in specific attacks that have caused hearing loss and serious central nervous system injury, but the culprit, means, and motive for the international crime remain a mystery despite a year of reporting.  Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) describes the incidents as “brazen and vicious attacks,” on our diplomats.  Between November 2016 and August, 2017, victims complained of hearing strange sounds that targeted specific individuals in hotel rooms and residences.  24 of 80 embassy employees examined were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, likely caused by “trauma due to a non-natural source.”   Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who chaired a January 9, 2018 US Senate Hearing on the attacks, describes the weapon used as “very sophisticated technology that does not exist in the US or anywhere else in the world.”  Without knowing who did it and how, Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security Assistant Director at the US Department of State, testified that he cannot assure the safety of diplomats coming to Cuba.

This intriguing intersection between science and politics has all the elements of the best mystery stories—facts do not add up; there are dogs not barking; actions do not fit presumed motives, and possibly there are still pieces missing.  The answer, as in the best fictional sleuthing, will come from science.  I have come to Cuba to get the Cuban perspective and to meet with Cuban scientists who have investigated the incident.  What I learned from experts and heard from citizens I interviewed on the streets could be summarized by Sherlock Holmes, who said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The battered 1942 Ford Fleetwood jostles its rickety way through the streets of Havana in the predawn rain, the darkness pierced by one working headlight as the taxi driver squints through a streaky windshield scraped by a spasmodic wiper blade squeaking feebly.  Like the dead wiper on the passenger side, needles on all the gauges in the instrument panel are lifeless, pegged at zero.  The Spanish Barreiros motor grafted under the Ford’s rattling hood screams in whining waves of protest, like a marooned tractor, as the driver grinds through gears to swerve around deadly potholes.  The nauseating stench of diesel twists stomachs.  On the dashboard a cell phone glows with the colorful image of a two-year-old girl hugging her young father.  The device communicating via satellite is a technological anachronism, as if the object were beamed in by time-travelers from the future.

“Story is false,” the driver answers in broken English when asked about the sonic attack on workers at the US embassy.

“Who is responsible, then?” I ask.

“Donald Trump,” he replies.

This is the driver’s way of transcending the language barrier to say that the US Government is responsible for the sonic attack story.  Cuba lacks the technology and the facts do not support an attack of any kind, he says.  When pressed for evidence he cites the analysis by Cuban scientists who investigated the alarming incident, which has gripped US citizens in fear, and essentially shut down the US Embassy in Havana.

“But why?” I ask.

Twisting his two extended fists as if breaking a branch he says, “to break the cuerda [rope]” tying the US and Cuba together.

At the Cuban Neuroscience Center, a towering concrete building situated near Castro’s heavily guarded estate well outside the tourist area, Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a neuroscientist and Director of the Institute, reads through the report.  Point-by-point he lays out the evidence methodically.  Valdés-Sosa is a member of the committee of Cuban scientists who conducted the scientific investigation into the reported attack, and he is an expert in auditory physiology, which makes him especially well qualified.  Going through the report he explains why the committee’s findings eliminate every one of the wide-ranging hypotheses that have been put forward for the alleged attacks…

You can read about it in my article in Scientific American.  In it I’ve tried to bring together all relevant information on this intriguing mystery, and by going to Cuba myself,  bring back something that I think has been missing:  the Cuban perspective.

What I found upended my thinking about this strange international event.  The view on the street in Cuba also could be summed up by another quote from Sherlock Holmes.  “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence.  The question is, what can you make people believe you have done.”

My report on the “sonic weapon attack” in Scientific American.




  1. Jerome CRONK on March 24, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Is not empathy also an evolutionarily induced human genetic trait? Is it not a trait developed from Human group living that naturally arises from in unarticulated thought process that says that if you help me I will help you? Why do we feel sad when others we do not know suffer harm or die especially when one dies an early undeserved death? That is a built-in human emotion which counters the emotion to snap in violent rage.
    Another troubling question about the human tendency to snap in violent rage is that so many of the mass murderers we have seen deliberated, planned and contemplated their massacres over a long period of time. How does that fit into the characteristic of suddenly snapping into a fit fit of rage?
    See my essay on Cronktalk.Org entitled “Insult Without Injury”

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