The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A literal secret weapon is hurting U.S. diplomats abroad. What is it?

A classic car passes in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana on June 16, 2017. (Alejandro Ernesto/European Pressphoto Agency)

A DISTURBING new possibility has emerged to explain the injuries suffered by 26 U.S. diplomats serving in Cuba in recent years, and one in China. The diplomats reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, and cognitive, balance and sleeping difficulties. The New York Times, quoting medical experts, suggested in an article last Sunday that the illnesses could have been caused by the use of invisible microwave beams aimed at the diplomats.

Previously, there had been speculation about the use of some kind of “sonic” or acoustic weapon — those affected recalled hearing noises, such as a chirping. But the Times quoted experts as suggesting the sounds could have been caused by a phenomenon in which microwaves can delude the human brain into hearing sounds. This is not confirmed; other experts say microwaves could not be the case. Either way, the impact has been health damage in the form of brain injury.

Who did this? Cuba has denied involvement and says it does not know who is responsible. A Cuban scientist has claimed it might be “psychological contagion” among the U.S. diplomats. The FBI has investigated, but the U.S. government has not officially accused anyone. It seems improbable that Cuba, with its extensive police-state surveillance, could fail to know what is going on.

What would be the motive? The attacks occurred after the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in 2015 and could have been an attempt to disrupt that rapprochement. To some extent, it did cause a setback, with the United States pulling back nonessential personnel and family members, about 60 percent of the U.S. Embassy staff. Raúl Castro, then president and still a powerful figure, carried out the normalization, so presumably he did not condone this. But is there a rogue faction in Cuba trying to harm Americans? Or could a third party be staging the attacks?

In Moscow during the Cold War, the Soviet Union bombarded the U.S. Embassy with microwave beams, perhaps for espionage. From 1953 to May 1975, the beams were emitted from a source in an apartment building some 330 feet west of the embassy, with highest intensities between the third and eighth floors. A second source from the south was detected after that, and in February 1976, screens were put on the windows to reduce the exposure of people inside.

Russia might have a motive in the latest Cuba attacks: to spoil the rapprochement with Washington and thus open the way to closer ties with Moscow. But such a microwave weapon would require a bulky apparatus and relatively close proximity to the targets, who were in different locations. Could that be done clandestinely? And the motive in China is certainly not clear.

Still, 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.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba

The Post’s View: Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats

Letters to the Editor: The concept of a Cuban attack on U.S. diplomats makes no sense

The Post’s View: Something is making Americans sick in Cuba and China

Christian Caryl: A diplomat’s mysterious illness could jeopardize China’s relationship with the U.S.