One possible clue could come from the work of an American company, WaveBand Corporation, which in 2006 developed a prototype weapon for the US Marine Corps that used microwaves, familiar to everyone as the heating element of ovens common in many homes.
London: Life as a diplomat was always challenging, especially during the Cold War. In Moscow you simply had to get used to private conversations being overheard in your bugged apartment; used to your maid or driver reporting on your habits and behaviour; used to being followed everywhere by the KGB; and used to meeting people who were seldom who they said they were. That was just normal diplomatic life. But now some diplomats, mostly American, are facing a new threat. Their brains are being “cooked”, and the chefs appear to be Russian and Chinese.
Last week, the Austrian authorities said they were investigating reports that US diplomats in Vienna have experienced a varying range of symptoms and physical sensations, including nausea, sudden vertigo, headaches and head pressure, sometimes accompanied by a “piercing directional noise”. Some victims said they were able to “step in” and “step out” of these sensations, rather like moving in and out of a beam. This is not the first occasion when these phenomena have been described. It was in late 2016 that American and Canadian diplomats in the Cuban capital, Havana, first reported hearing strange grating noises lasting up to 30 minutes, always when they were at home or in hotel rooms. Other family members in adjacent rooms heard nothing. More than two dozen people were identified at the time as victims of this weird phenomenon, now commonly known as the Havana Syndrome. In recent months there has been a rising number of cases of these mysterious symptoms reported by diplomats in Russia, China and elsewhere across the globe, and US federal investigators are struggling to determine what, or who, is causing this strange outbreak.
One possible clue could come from the work of an American company, WaveBand Corporation, which in 2006 developed a prototype weapon for the US Marine Corps that used microwaves, familiar to everyone as the heating element of ovens common in many homes. This weapon was given the codename Medusa and was small enough to fit in a car. The purpose of Medusa was to cause a temporary incapacitating effect in the target, although there was a low probability of fatality or permanent injury. The weapon works by sending microwave pulses to heat the soft tissues in the brain, causing shockwaves inside the skull. One victim of the test weapon said that he suddenly fell to the floor, became unable to speak and thought he was going to die.
There’s no available evidence that this research was developed beyond the prototype phase in the US and it’s believed that ethical considerations led to the project being shelved for non-battlefield use. However, Chinese and Russian governments have no problems with “ethical norms” and Medusa, probably obtained by industrial espionage, will have given them unique opportunities to advance bioscientific and technological developments in ways that would be unacceptable to America and its allies. Neither Russia nor China will have been bothered by ethical considerations in taking over from where America left off.
A second major wave of brain injuries among US diplomats and intelligence officers happened in China in June 2018. At the time, US State Department officials said that “a number of individuals” (they refused to say how many, but it’s believed to be about twelve) from its consulate in Guangzhou had been sent back to the US for “further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms” after reporting “abnormal sensations of sound and pressure” resulting in traumatic brain injury. Last month, the New York Times said that since December, three CIA officers had reported similar symptoms following overseas assignments, all requiring treatment at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington.
All together there have been more than 130 incidents of unexplained brain injury among US diplomats, spies and defence officials since 2016. “It’s an act of war”, cried Stephen Miller, former President Donald Trump’s last acting Secretary of Defence, when accusing China and Russia a year ago of the use of microwave directed-energy weapons.
Both Russia and China, of course, deny using any microwave direct energy weapons, claiming that the reported injuries are most likely due to viruses, chemical pollutants or even infectious agents. But the US State Department is reminding the Russian government of what happened back in 1965, when diplomats in the US embassy in Moscow discovered that the Soviets were bombarding the building with low-level microwaves. At the time, the intelligence community was worried that the Soviets were trying to influence the behaviour or mental state of American diplomats. This led to Project Pandora, an exploration of the behavioural effects of microwaves on humans and one of the more bizarre episodes of the Cold War.
Not surprisingly, the Pentagon worries that a directed energy weapon used against embassies could also be used against soldiers. One of the problems of defending troops against microwave weapons is that they may not even be aware that they are under attack by a beam that is invisible to the eye, but painfully apparent to the brain. There are reports that China may have used microwaves against Indian troops in 2020, but these soldiers may not have even been aware that they were under attack. Without known patterns of microwave injury to guide diagnosis, it would have been difficult to differentiate microwave injury from other common sources of injury.
When asked by the Guardian in June, James Giordano, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University and also senior fellow in biotechnology, biosecurity and ethics at the US Naval War College, said that these new weapons, using microwave frequencies to interrupt brain functions, are “important and rather frightening”. He said that while the US focuses on expensive weapons for traditional warfare, Russia and China are “very interested in, and dedicated to, developing non-kinetic tools that can be leveraged below the threshold of what would formally be considered as acts of war, so as to engage in processes of mass destruction”.
So, perhaps Havana, Guangzhou, Vienna and many other places where there have been reported incidents of possible microwave attacks, are the onset of a new type of warfare, one for which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to claim attribution. Scary!
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.