National Security

Mystery of Cuban harassment case: Why did device deafen but not bring on nausea?

A member of the Cuban honor guard stands next to a new plaque at the front door of the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington in 2015. The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms.
A member of the Cuban honor guard stands next to a new plaque at the front door of the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington in 2015. The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms. AP

The U.S. military deploys nonlethal noise and radiation weapons to incapacitate aggressors, but mystery surrounds the sonic device allegedly used against U.S. and Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba.

Suppliers of military gear have experimented with sound waves to incapacitate aggressors in recent decades, and some of the technology has been deployed aboard freighters traversing the pirate-infested waters off of Somalia.

“I can hit you with sound that will make you not be able to stand up,” said Vahan Simidian, chief executive of HPV Technologies Inc., a Santa Ana, California, firm that makes long-range speakers that can send sound as far as two miles.

Simidian said other companies make high-powered radiation devices that can disperse clumps of attackers with jolts that literally heat up water molecules under the skin’s surface.

“If you get shot by it, you think bees are stinging your body,” he said.

Researchers have also experimented with ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies above and below the level at which humans can hear. In some cases, those frequencies can cause physical discomfort at high intensity.

“They call them brown tones – very, very low frequency. If the power is huge, it can make you sick to your stomach a bit,” Simidian said.

But the device used in Havana, which led to the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington, appears nothing like American weapons employing noise or radiation that U.S. soldiers use to quell unrest abroad or that law enforcement agencies can deploy during disturbances at home.

Loss of hearing is a different symptom, and how someone in cash-strapped Cuba might have obtained and deployed a device with that effect is unknown.

A historian of intelligence efforts, Vince Houghton, said a team in Havana may have obtained the technology on the cheap and were beta testing it to see its effects.

“The most likely scenario to me is this was used to harass, to annoy, to kind of goof off and be, like, ‘Ha ha! Let’s make them sick to their stomach. Let’s make them dizzy.’ And then, ‘Oh crap, it went too far,’” said Houghton, who is employed by the International Spy Museum in Washington.

What is puzzling, Houghton said, is that Cuba would spend the money to develop the technology when it already had mastered basic time-tested methods of harassment.

“This kind of technology would be so resource intensive that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Cubans to develop it by themselves,” Houghton said.

In addition to the U.S. diplomats affected, Canada on Thursday confirmed that at least one of its diplomats in Cuba suffered headaches and hearing loss, forcing hospitalization.

“We are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with U.S. and Cuban authorities — to ascertain the cause,” Brianne Maxwell, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson, told the state-run CBC network.

Maxwell did not identify the Canadian diplomat or say when he or she was hospitalized.

Also puzzling is why harassment would have begun in 2016, while President Barack Obama, the architect of a renewal of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations, remained in office.

“This is a period of thawing,” Houghton said, noting that the two countries still have many differences.

“We’re not the best of friends. We’re not skipping down the street holding hands,” Houghton said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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