EXCLUSIVE: Doctors Reveal Details of Neuro-Weapon Attacks in Havana
Directed energy weapons intended to disrupt or damage their victims’ brains were the most likely source of a series of mysterious attacks singling out U.S. personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba in 2017, three doctors involved in the investigation have told National Defense in exclusive interviews.
The three experts were contacted by the State Department to investigate 25 cases of government employees working in Cuba who complained of suddenly hearing noises, pressure in their ears, followed by symptoms such as headaches, vertigo, dizziness and loss of cognitive functions.
The team of three experts concluded that incident was a widescale use of electronics to carry out a so-called neuro-weapon attack. Neuro-weapons are an emerging, but little understood threat that is compounded by the ease in which they can be purchased on the internet.
“I think we are turning a page,” said Dr. James Giordano, a professor at the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics. The Pentagon has taken notice of the event and Giordano and the two other team members will be briefing the J3, joint chiefs of staff, on Sept. 7.
Neuro-weapons can take the form of biological agents, chemical weapons — and in the Havana case — directed energy, and possibly a combination of different methods, Giordano said. The effects can be latent, durable, highly disruptive and attribution is difficult. They are not “weapons of mass destruction,” but they have the potential to disrupt everything from individual cells in a body, to societies and geopolitics, said Giordano, who authored a 2014 book, Neurotechnology in National Security and Defense: Practical Considerations, Neuroethical Concerns.
The attacks occurred at the victims’ homes, with the exception of two cases that took place in a hotel known to accommodate diplomats and other U.S. personnel, said Dr. Michael Hoffer, director of the Vestibular and Balance Program at the University of Miami’s Department of Otolaryngology. Hoffer was the first physician to examine the victims on site in Cuba, and later in Miami.
“I thought they were being targeted. I still believe they were being targeted,” he said. Those he examined said they were sitting in their homes, or the hotel, when they suddenly felt the symptoms: a loud noise exposure, a pressure sensation, ear pain, then ringing in the ears and dizziness. A day later there were some cognitive deficits reported.
“They would actually say that if they moved in their domicile, the beam — as it were — would follow them. Except the minute they opened the front door, it went off,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer carried out a series of preliminary tests on 100 personnel assigned to the embassy last summer, as well as 10 people who were in the same residences of the victims at the time of the attack, but in other rooms. No symptoms were found in the 100 other employees.
Being in Havana shortly after the attacks and before news had reached the media was important because it gave Hoffer valuable insights, he said. Other than speaking to one another about the symptoms, the victims were not influenced by newspaper accounts. In addition, he arrived relatively soon after the attacks when their memories of what happened were fresh, and none of them had received any medical treatment.
He also had the opportunity to see where the incidents occurred. “I literally looked and walked at the places that were hit,” he said.
Most of the victims also worked in a particular part of the embassy, he added. “They were really good at targeting,” he said of those who carried out the attacks. The homes were clustered in certain neighborhoods where diplomats reside, he added.
“People were hit from all branches of the State Department, but certain branches were hit more than others,” he said.
Thirty-five potential victims — the 25 who reported symptoms plus the 10 who were in the residences at the same time — were flown to Miami where an interdisciplinary team of experts from the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine carried out a battery of more detailed tests.
Hoffer was able to quickly rule out the possibility that they had experienced a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. As a retired Navy captain and doctor, he had examined more than 3,000 service members who had experienced TBI and that was not it. Plus, none of the victims had reported injuring their head.
The team recorded “objective findings of balance disorders” on 100 percent of the 25 victims, who had reported the symptoms. Everyone was abnormal in at least one balance test. “We made sure they were ‘super’ abnormal not just ‘barely’ abnormal, Hoffer said. The 10 people who were in the same buildings at the time of the attacks showed no symptoms.
The 25 victims also had a unique pattern of cognitive disorders that the co-lead of the team, the university’s director of neuropsychology Dr. Bonnie Levin, picked up, he said.
Giordano said directed energy weapons can cause these injuries by creating “cavitation,” or air pockets, in fluids near the inner ear. The shape of the inner ear amplifies sounds and waveforms to cause the effect. The process creates air bubbles, or cavities, that eventually burst.
Near the inner ear are two pathways carrying blood to the brain — the cochlear aqueduct and the vestibular aqueduct. The bubbles can travel rapidly up the aqueducts into the brain where they can “function as a stroke,” Giordano said.
There were 19 complete sets of data derived from the 25 victims after the University of Miami team completed the tests. The State Department put Hoffer together in a team with Giordano and Dr. Carey Balaban, a professor of otolaryngology, bioengineering, neurobiology and communication and science disorders, at the University of Pittsburgh.
The three independently examined all the data using different approaches, but came to the same conclusions. They ruled out TBI because the damage was not consistent with such injuries. Toxins such as heavy metals or high doses of certain medications that cause similar inner ear problems were not present, and the damage not consistent.
Balaban, who works with the Office of Naval Research, was familiar with a body of scientific research, mostly conducted by ONR from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, on directed energy weapons and their effects on the inner ear. The research sought to identify the human head’s susceptibility to directed energy exposures. The papers helped form part of his conclusions.
“The likelihood of multiple sources of energy of acoustic and radio frequencies … is there, we just don’t know what it was,” he said.
The team could not conclude exactly what method the perpetrators used on the victims, but narrowed it down to several possibilities: drugs alone was deemed “unlikely.” Ultrasonic (acoustic) exposures they judged “very possible and likely.” Electromagnetic pulsing was also rated “very possible and probable.” Microwave energy was deemed possible, but “unlikely.”
There was another possibility — but more information was needed to know — that the attackers used a combination of a drug that was activated by the directed energy weapon.
Balaban said there was another possible method: pulsed lasers. “Near infrared lasers penetrate pretty far into the head,” he said. “All of these weapons can produce cavitation in fluids and can produce these effects,” he added. The three team members agreed that “saying [the Cuba attacks] are one thing or another is foolhardy,” Balaban said.
“Can we know who did it? I’m not quite sure. Do we know what they were exposed to? Hard to tell. But it points out this [knowledge] gap that we need to fill,” Balaban said.
The case has drawn a great deal of attention within the Pentagon and at Special Operations Command, he said. The information was recently declassified and the three have given briefings to SOCOM and to the Air Force’s AFWERX. Balaban is working on a grant with ONR to reproduce the attack in a laboratory setting so it can be better understood.
The trio plans to publish a paper as soon as possible with the results for all to see. One theory is that the victims were being used as a test — basically human guinea pigs — and the perpetrators are hoping the U.S. publishes test results that can help them fine-tune or better understand how to use these weapons. Balaban said that kind of data will not be made public.
Meanwhile, “Pandora’s box is open as far as making these kinds of things,” Balaban said. Devices that can be used in ultrasonic attacks, for example, are readily available on the internet for less than $300. The off-the-shelf devices are intended to repulse vermin such as rats and insects and have a range of about 30 to 40 feet, he said.
“We are facing a threat. And an important thing is to figure out the battlespace we are dealing with here and make some solutions,” Balaban said. “It’s the perfect kind of gray warfare. It’s a very good way to degrade your opponent’s capabilities so you can exploit it with conventional means.”
Such weapons could be used clandestinely against a political leader, for example, to ultimately destabilize a society, Giordano said. “I think what you are beginning to see is a greater likelihood for targeting the brain in these ways — both in regard to its structure and its functions, which includes cognitions, emotions and behaviors — in ways that are going to be disruptive on a variety of scales from systems in the individual to systems in the social and political” realm, he said.
Balaban added: “We have a plausible set of vulnerabilities — areas we know nothing about, neuro-weapons, that have been used asymmetrically. We have to figure out what the heck this is.”
For more on the potential of neuro-weapons, see the article by James Giordano, “Weaponizing The Brain: Neuroscience Advancements Spark Debate” in the May 2017 issue of National Defense