In August 2017, reports surfaced that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had suffered a variety of health problems, dating back to late 2016, and accusations were made that these were a result of an attack by someone using unspecified sonic technology. The Cuban government was at first exonerated by the U.S. government, but then in a reversal, Cuba was accused of perpetrating unspecified attacks causing these symptoms.
The U.S. reduced staff at their embassy to a minimum, and U.S. President Trump declared in October 2017 that he believed Cuba was responsible for the attacks, but offered no evidence for his claim. Others expressed doubts, including scientific skeptics such as Brian Dunning, at least one U.S. senator, the director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, and mass psychogenic illness expert Robert Bartholomew.
In August 2017, reports began surfacing that American and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba had experienced unusual, unexplained health problems dating back to late 2016. The number claiming symptoms was 26 as of June 2018.
The health problems typically had a sudden onset: the victim would suddenly begin hearing strange grating noises that they perceived as coming from a specific direction. Some of them experienced it as a pressure or a vibration; or as a sensation comparable to driving a car with the window partly rolled down. The duration of these attacks ranged from 20 seconds to 30 minutes, and always happened while the diplomats were either at home or in hotel rooms. Other people nearby, family members and guests in neighboring rooms, did not report hearing anything. The Associated Press has released what it said was a recording of the sound some embassy workers heard while in Cuba; Cuban scientists have concluded that this sound was the stridulation of Jamaican field crickets, a loud species native to Cuba.
Some U.S. embassy individuals have reportedly experienced lasting health effects, including one unidentified U.S. diplomat who is said to now need a hearing aid. The State Department declared that the health problems were either the result of an attack, or due to exposure to an as-yet-unknown device, and declared that they were not blaming the Cuban government, but would not say who was to blame. Affected individuals described symptoms such as hearing loss, memory loss, and nausea. Speculation centered around a sonic weapon, with some researchers pointing to infrasound as a possible cause.
In August 2017, the United States expelled two Cuban diplomats in response to the illnesses. In September, the U.S. State Department stated that it was removing non-emergency staff from the U.S. embassy, and warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba. In October 2017, U.S. President Trump said that "I do believe Cuba's responsible. I do believe that", going on to say "And it's a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible."
On March 2, 2018, The U.S. State Department announced it would continue to staff its embassy in Havana at the minimum level required to perform "core diplomatic and consular functions" due to concerns about "health attacks" on staff. The embassy had been operating under "ordered departure status" since September, but the status was set to expire. This announcement served to extend the staff reductions indefinitely.
Cuban citizens have expressed skepticism regarding the allegations that the Cuban government orchestrated the attacks. The Cuban Foreign Minister subsequently accused the U.S. of lying about the incident, saying "There is no evidence, there is no evidence whatsoever, of the occurrence of the alleged incidents or the cause or origin of these ailments reported by US diplomats," adding, "Neither is there any evidence suggesting that these health problems have been caused by an attack of any sort during their stay in Cuba."
The Cuban government offered to cooperate with the U.S. in an investigation of the incidents. It employed about 2000 scientists and law enforcement officers who interviewed 300 neighbors of diplomats, examined two hotels, and also medically examined non-diplomats who could have been exposed. NBC reported that Cuban officials stated that they analyzed air and soil samples, and considered a range of toxic chemicals. They also examined the possibility that electromagnetic waves were to blame, and even looked into whether insects could be the culprit, but found nothing they could link to the claimed medical symptoms. The American government reportedly did not cooperate with the Cuban investigation.
Senior neurologists consulted by The Guardian suggested that the health incidents were probably psychosomatic complaints, of the kind commonly known as mass psychogenic illness. The author of Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, and an expert in field of mass hysteria and mass psychogenic illness, Robert Bartholomew, believes the Cuban incidents are an example of mass hysteria. As reported in Newsweek on October 13, 2017, he said:
I am convinced that we are dealing with an episode of mass psychogenic illness and mass suggestion. If these same symptoms were reported among a group of factory workers in New York or London, I think you would get a very different diagnosis, and there would be no consideration to a sonic weapon hypothesis.
In the December 26, 2017, Skeptoid podcast episode "Sonic Weapons in Cuba", science journalist Brian Dunning examined the evidence and determined that the incident had all the hallmarks of a psychogenic event. He concluded:
It's a solid explanation with numerous precedents from recent history. It fits nicely with Occam's Razor, in that it's an ordinary explanation that does not require us to make any changes to our understanding of physics or biology. Of course we don't know that this is in fact what happened, but unless some evidence emerges showing a physical cause, it's the best supported explanation.
On January 9, 2018, an anonymous senior United States Department of State official said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to convene a special-panel Accountability Review Board to further investigate the "attacks". On January 10, two State officials said that retired United States Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde was tapped to lead the board.
On January 9, 2018, U.S. State Department medical director Dr. Charles Rosenfarb testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had "all but ruled out 'mass hysteria' as a cause of the strange illness that has sickened 24 U.S. Embassy staff." The next day, Psychology Today published an article by Robert Bartholomew disputing these findings. Bartholomew said "As a specialist on mass psychogenic illness who has spent the last 25 years studying this topic, the head physician for the U.S. State Department has gotten it wrong—very wrong." Bartholomew said that "Rosenfarb made several assertions which exhibit an alarming lack of familiarity with the basics of psychosomatic medicine." Bartholomew concluded by stating that "Science has a long history of people seeing what they expect or want to see in order to support their initial suspicions. This is just the latest example."
On January 16, 2018, Bartholomew published an article "Sonic Attack Claims Are Unjustified: Just Follow the Facts" in the Skeptical Inquirer in which he concluded that "the key question is not whether or not a sonic attack took place, but why American officials would assume that an attack took place in the wake of overwhelming evidence to the contrary." Bartholomew also reported on this issue for Skeptic Magazine titled "The 'Sonic Attack' on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Why the State Department’s Claims Don’t Add Up", where he examined the claims from a scientific perspective and concluded that:
The "sonic attack" on embassy staff in Cuba appears to be a case of old wine in new skins. It is the ... Sick Building Syndrome dressed up in a different social and cultural garb. These scares may resonate because they reflect prevailing fears such as the distrust of foreign and domestic governments.
On February 1, 2018, Slate reported in "Cuba’s Sonic Attacks Show Us Just How Susceptible Our Brains Are to Mass Hysteria" that the FBI had investigated and found there had been no such attack. It also interviewed Keith Petrie, a research psychologist at the University of Auckland's School of Medicine, who said that it is simple to manipulate people's well-being using expectations about sound. When Petrie's team exposed test subjects to either infrasound or sham-infrasound (silence), they learned it wasn't the presence or absence of sound itself, but people's expectations, that determined the outcome.
On February 24, 2018, The Guardian reported that a study of the "health attacks" had been conducted and had ignited controversy, "with some experts claiming situation is being spun for political gain." The article said that the U.S. government asked University of Pennsylvania doctors to examine 21 affected diplomats. The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and "found no evidence of white matter tract abnormalities." Douglas Smith, director of the Centre for Brain Injury and Repair, who led the medical assessments said that "They were similar to what you might see in the same age control group." However, the study describes "a new syndrome in the diplomats that resembles persistent concussion." While some of those affected recovered swiftly, others have had symptoms last for months. The study concluded that "the diplomats appear to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks."
Regarding the JAMA report, Bartholomew was quoted as saying he was "floored by the study" and claimed that it "reads like US government propaganda." He pointed out that "there is no proof that any kind of energy source affected the diplomats, or even that an attack took place." Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center said he believes that there were a small number of diplomats who experienced real medical problems due to unknown causes, and when they were linked to unusual noises, fears over attacks arose. Then, "as concern spread through the diplomatic community, others experienced similar symptoms, developing MPI [mass psychogenic illness]." Valdés-Sosa also says that:
There is no evidence of any kind of attack... It would take a stretch of the imagination to explain the findings with this kind of, let's say, novel technology. There are other explanations that have to be explored first.
On March 2, 2018, reports surfaced that a team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan may have solved the mystery behind the sounds reported as "attacks". They reported in a study that malfunctioning or improperly placed Cuban surveillance equipment could have been the origin of the reported sounds.
On September 1, 2018, The New York Times reported about updates in relation to the investigations. An electromagnetic weapon using technology exploiting the microwave auditory effect, also called Frey effect and radio-frequency hearing, is considered plausible by some, including Frey, Zaid, Lin and Tillerson. The weapon, "designed to bathe a target's living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system", "could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury". ProPublica reported that "The wife of a member of the embassy staff, it reported, had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and seen a van speeding away". The March JAMA study's medical team said that some personnel still loudly heard noises despite covering their ears. Goulomb said that symptoms could be that of radio-frequency sickness. Smith said that "microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury". According to the State Department, "the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks". Frey speculated, as summarized by the Times, that a faction of "Cubans aligned with Russia, the nation’s longtime ally, might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States."
In early 2018, accusations similar to those reported by diplomats in Cuba began to be made by US diplomats in China.
The first incident reported by an American diplomat in China was in April 2018 at Consulate General of the United States, Guangzhou, the largest US consulate in China. The employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Several individuals were taken to the United States for medical examination. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the attacks were consistent with those reported in Cuba. The State Department assembled a task force to investigate the reports and expanded their health warning to all of mainland China amid reports some U.S. diplomats outside of Guangzhou had experienced the same symptoms resembling a brain injury. The warning tells anyone who experiences "any unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena accompanied by unusual sounds or piercing noises, do not attempt to locate their source."
Another incident had previously been reported in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but was subsequently discounted by the U.S. State Department.
Answering questions at the U.S. Congress on May 23, 2018, former CIA director Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that there have been reports from Guanzhou, China, where U.S. diplomatic corps staff have recorded symptoms identical to those reported from Cuba.
On June 6, 2018, The New York Times reported that U.S. Diplomats had been evacuated from China, and reported that "it remains unclear whether the illnesses are the result of attacks at all. Other theories have included toxins, listening devices that accidentally emitted harmful sounds or even mass hysteria." On June 8, Vox followed up with a report which included speculation that mass hysteria could be to blame: "And for mass hysteria, it would mean other US diplomats in China feared so much about what happened to their colleagues that they've effectively worried themselves sick. It's unclear if victims told each other what they were experiencing, and if that made others feel that they had similar symptoms."