A group of American diplomats in Havana, Cuba have suffered severe and unexplained hearing loss over the past year, which U.S. officials believe was caused by a covert and advanced sonic device. Something’s afoot in Havana. Reports are coming down the grapevine claiming that five US diplomats and at least one Canadian envoy have fallen ill, all suffering from acute hearing loss, headaches, and nausea. The cause? A covert sonic device – an acoustic weapon – that’s being reportedly used to terrorize the diplomatic staff.
The severity of some of the diplomats’ symptoms has forced them to cancel their Cuba tours early and return to the U.S. for treatment, the Associated Press reports. But what exactly is a sonic device, how common are they, and how much damage can they actually cause? Here’s what to know so far.
Months of investigation revealed several facts about the onset of the symptoms. They always appeared suddenly, not gradually, and only took place inside Cuban government-owned properties – normally the residences of the diplomats themselves.
The specificity of the targets and the hearing loss associated with the illness has led both the FBI and the Diplomatic Security Service to conclude that a powerful acoustic device was the trigger.
However, U.S. officials who spoke anonymously to the AP said that the hearing loss was caused by a device deployed either inside or near the diplomats’ residences. The devices emitted a sound that was not audible to human ears, they added.
So what exactly is an acoustic weapon? There’s been no documented use of such a device for the purposes of attacking diplomatic personnel, so if the American investigators are right, then this would be the very first deployment of one.
That would indicate it was most likely an infrasonic or ultrasonic weapon. Infrasonic weapons can cause physical pain without detection, though they usually target the entire body rather than just the eardrums. The damage caused by acoustic weapons can vary from minor irritation to death, theoretically speaking. The effect can depend on the type of weapon and the range involved. Ryan Littlefield, who published a paper with the University of Portsmouth on the topic, says the fatality of such a device is unproven.
Police have used infrasound for riot control around the world, using it trigger vertigo, imbalance and other medical disruptions, according to Littlefield. In other cases, it’s been shown to cause vomiting and defecation. In still others, the technology has been used to disrupt targets’ hearing.
At this stage, it’s deeply unclear which is more plausible – but the point is that “silent” acoustic weapons do exist, and they certainly could have been deployed in Havana.