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The U.S. is spending millions to solve mystery sonic attacks on diplomats

The U.S. is spending millions to solve mystery sonic attacks on diplomats
The Embassy of the United State of America in Cuba, Havana. [Photo: Yander Zamora/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

The U.S. is taking a multi-pronged approach in an effort to get to the bottom of a string of mysterious illnesses that sickened diplomats at embassies in Cuba and China. The investigation now involves medical experts in four states and officials from seven federal agencies—including the State Department, the CIA, the Navy, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—as costs for research and treatment have run into “the tens of millions of dollars,” reports NBC News.

In late August 2017, State Department officials reported that 16 Americans were injured in what appeared to be a “sonic attack” targeting diplomats in Cuba. In early September, the State Department upped the number of victims to 19, after a new attack occurred in August. Symptoms included mild traumatic brain injury, concussion, nerve damage, and hearing loss from the mysterious “sonic harassment.” Canada reported that five of their diplomats and their family members reported experiencing symptoms consistent with the attacks. The attacks led to the U.S. secretly shutting down its CIA outpost in Havana, and the State Department withdrawing most of its diplomats from Cuba.

As the U.S. government tried to figure out what was going on in Cuba came reports that at least two employees of the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, were evacuated after falling ill after hearing strange noises, and other staffers were tested by a State Department medical team. Since then, 370 U.S. diplomats and their families serving in China have undergone testing over concerns that they could have been affected by health attacks, too.

While Cuba has denied being behind the attacks, rumors persist. Others think Russia is the culprit, and computer scientists at the University of Michigan reported that the “sonic attacks” could have been an accidental side effect from two eavesdropping devices operating near each other at the same time. According to a September 1 report by the New York Times, microwave weapons are now a prime suspect in the investigations.

In August, neurologists confirmed to the State Department that the damage to the U.S. workers’ brains is real. Still, there are no definitive answers about the culprit. The U.S. intelligence community and FBI investigators are still trying to solve the mystery alongside researchers and other governments.

The efforts, as NBC News describes them, are a bit of a spaghetti-at-the-wall attempt to figure out what’s going on and how to prevent it in the future. Among them:

  • The Defense Department is trying to re-create the technology that was used in the attacks.
  • The Office of Naval Research’s “Code 34” Warfighter Performance Department is researching how different energy sources like the ones used in the attacks affect the human body, and specifically the head.
  • At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, doctors and scientists are developing an in-depth clinical research study “to try to understand what’s happened to the diplomats’ bodies and how long the symptoms will last.”
  • Doctors at the Center for Disease Control are looking at the incidents as a public health risk and are devising a formal “case definition” for the illness, including risk factors and a full list of common symptoms, to help track its spread.
  • Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, where the U.S. is sending its patients for treatment, have proposed to create a Comprehensive Brain Injury Clinic to serve as a rapid triage center in the event of a major attack.
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