In 2016, American diplomats in Cuba began complaining of strange symptoms: severe headaches, piercing sounds, extreme fatigue. Investigators determined that the mystery illness was the result of some sort of attack, but they couldn’t say for certain what kind. Doctors blamed everything from sound waves to a virus to mass hysteria. The United States, insisting that the Cuban government was either behind the attack or knew who was, withdrew most of its embassy staff from Havana, leading to a diplomatic rift. This year, diplomats at the US consulate in Guangzhou, China, reported similar symptoms. Eventually more than three dozen US diplomats and their family members would be afflicted.
So what happened? New York Times science writer William J. Broad’s new investigation offers a plausible answer: microwave weapons. Microwaves are short radio waves that do many mundane things, like link cellphones to antenna towers, relay messages, and, yes, cook your food. Theoretically, they can also be beamed at your head to cause pain and damage your nervous system. In fact, various governments have tried to develop microwave weapons that do just that, and even zap spoken words into people’s brains.
For more on the science and spy craft of microwave weapons, see Broad’s story. Also check out the 14-minute embedded video documentary by Times journalists, which delves into the initial investigation of the medical mystery. Still want more? Perry World House experts Nicholas G. Evans and Jonathan D. Moreno wrote on the latest research into neuroweapons—weapons that target the brain and nervous system—for the Bulletin in 2016.