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American diplomats in Cuba were likely targeted by microwave energy, study finds

Are U.S. diplomats being targeted abroad?
Brain trauma suffered by U.S. diplomats abroad could be work of hostile foreign government 14:13

A new government study has concluded that a form of targeted microwave energy is the most likely explanation for a series of mysterious hearing and neurological symptoms experienced by American diplomats working in Cuba and China.  

In 2016 and 2017, 25 Americans, including CIA agents, who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Cuba suffered serious brain injuries causing impaired vision and memory loss among other persistent problems. Soon after, 15 American officials in China suffered similar symptoms and unexplained brain trauma. 

"Overall, directed pulsed RF energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases," reads a report issued by a committee advising the State Department on the "unexplained health effects" that befell U.S. government employees and their families at the embassies.

RF stands for radio frequency, and its radiation is a "nonionizing electromagnetic energy characterized by relatively long wavelength, low frequency, and low photon energy," according to the division of Environment, Health and Safety at Berkeley Lab. Different RF bands are used in "aeronautical radio, navigation, broadcasting, and personal wireless communication services," according to EHS, while "specific frequencies are designated for industrial, scientific, and medical uses." Microwave radiation is considered a subset of RF radiation. 

Mark Lenzi, a State Department security officer who worked in the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, told "60 Minutes" last year that he and his wife began experiencing symptoms in 2017 after hearing strange sounds in their apartment.

"I believe it's RF, radio frequency energy, in the microwave range," Lenzi told Scott Pelley.

His suspicion appears consistent with the committee's conclusions. "The committee found the unusual presentation of acute, directional or location-specific early phase signs, symptoms and observations reported by DOS employees to be consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy," reads the report. "Many of the chronic, nonspecific symptoms are also consistent with known RF effects, such as dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, cognitive deficits, and memory loss."

The RF theory was also supported by a 2014 National Security Agency statement, disclosed in a worker's compensation case, that described such a weapon as a "high-powered microwave system weapon that may have the ability to weaken, intimidate, or kill an enemy over time without leaving evidence." The statement goes on to say "…this weapon is designed to bathe a target's living quarters in microwaves."

According to the study, the committee also looked into the theory that the symptoms were caused by "exposure to organophosphates (OP) and/or pyrethroids from insecticide spraying in Havana."

"The committee concluded that this mechanism was not likely because there was no convincing evidence of acute high-level exposures and the clinical histories of affected U.S. Embassy personnel were not consistent with acute OP poisoning," the study reads. "However, as insecticides can increase the risk or severity of adverse outcomes after exposure to a wide variety of physical or psychosocial stressors, the committee cannot rule out subacute or chronic OP and/or pyrethroid exposures as a possible contributing factor to nonspecific chronic symptoms."  

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba is all but closed as a result of the illnesses, while diplomats experiencing similar symptoms stationed in China have had a hard time finding validation from the U.S. government.  

In 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed one case in China, but the State Department raised doubt about another 14 cases in the country, including Lenzi's. The State Department's medical office told him that his symptoms did not "correlate with the Havana cohort."

The committee's report, however, noted that "affected individuals could report different sensations in response to the same external stimulus; thus, immediate reports of affected individuals may not be veridical and sensations may vary from one individual to another." 

"They tried to deny it. They tried to cover it up. They tried to minimize it," Lenzi alleged regarding the State Department's response. He attributed their position to the United State's economic relationship with China. 

"Because it's China, because we have such a large trade relationship with them," Lenzi said. "You can push around Cuba. Their trade, you know, relations are minimal. With China, that's a different beast."

If microwaves were used, the technology is not rare, and more than one country could be using it. Intelligence sources told "60 Minutes" that in addition to Cuba and China, Russia is a suspect.

In its report, the committee wrote that "studies published in the open literature more than a half century ago and over the subsequent decades by Western and Soviet sources provide circumstantial support for" directed, pulsed RF energy as a possible source, and said it was left with "a number of concerns."

"The mere consideration of such a scenario raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm to others, as if the U.S. government does not have its hands full already with naturally occurring threats," reads the report.

According to the committee, because it was not able to "assess specific scenarios involving malevolent actors," it strongly suggested that follow-up studies "be undertaken by subject-matter experts with proper clearance, including those who work outside the U.S. government, with full access to all relevant information."

It warned of "future new cases among DOS or other U.S. government employees working overseas," saying it was concerned about the U.S. government's ability to "recognize and respond to these cases in a coordinated and effective manner." Adding, "the next event may be even more dispersed in time and place, and even more difficult to recognize quickly."

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