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A Declassified State Department Report Says Microwaves Didn’t Cause “Havana Syndrome”

A declassified State Department report obtained by BuzzFeed News dismissed the theory that microwave weapons are behind the mysterious neurological injuries in diplomats worldwide.

Last updated on September 30, 2021, at 5:24 p.m. ET

Posted on September 30, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Noises linked to mysterious injuries among US diplomats in Cuba were most likely caused by crickets — not microwave weapons — according to a declassified scientific review commissioned by the US State Department and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The State Department report was written by the JASON advisory group, an elite scientific board that has reviewed US national security concerns since the Cold War. It was completed in November of 2018, two years after dozens of US diplomats in Cuba and their families reported hearing buzzing noises and then experiencing puzzling neurological injuries, including pain, vertigo, and difficulty concentrating.

The report, obtained by BuzzFeed News via a Freedom of Information Act request, was originally classified as “secret.” It concluded that the sounds accompanying at least eight of the original 21 Havana syndrome incidents were “most likely” caused by insects. That same scientific review also judged it “highly unlikely” that microwaves or ultrasound beams — now widely proposed by US government officials to explain the injuries — were involved in the incidents. And though the report didn’t definitively conclude what caused the injuries themselves, it found that “psychogenic” mass psychology effects may have played a role.

State Department

The executive summary finding of the scientific analysis.

“No plausible single source of energy (neither radio/microwaves nor sonic) can produce both the recorded audio/video signals and the reported medical effects,” the JASON report concluded. “We believe the recorded sounds are mechanical or biological in origin, rather than electronic. The most likely source is the Indies short-tailed cricket.”

The report’s findings fly in the face of a medical report commissioned by the State Department and published by a National Academies of Sciences panel last year, which found that microwaves were the “most plausible” cause of the symptoms. That panel was not provided with the JASON report as part of its assessment, the NAS told BuzzFeed News.

“We are grateful to the JASON Group for their insight, which while coming to no firm conclusions, has assisted us in our ongoing investigation of these incidents,” a State Department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. The spokesperson declined to answer questions about why the panel’s findings were never made public or provided to the NAS.

"The 2018 JASON report, which was commissioned during the last administration, is not aligned with the Biden-Harris administration’s understanding of AHI [anomalous health incidents] and it has not informed our response," said a senior administration official, in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News.

"Because of the acknowledged shortcomings of previous studies, this administration has purposefully established a new panel of experts from across the Intelligence Community, academia, and the private sector with access to the full range of information available to the government to help us determine the cause of these incidents and generate new insights that can help protect our personnel.”

Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The American flag flies over the Embassy of the United States of America for the first time since 1961 in Havana, Cuba on August 14, 2015.

From China to Washington, DC, around 200 possible Havana syndrome incidents have been reported worldwide since the initial cases described in the JASON report. More cases have surfaced since US intelligence agencies began conducting a review of what are now called “anomalous health incidents” and after the Defense Department asked its personnel worldwide to report suspected cases in September. In recent weeks, cases have reportedly struck an intelligence officer traveling with CIA director William Burns in India, led Vice President Kamala Harris to delay a trip to Vietnam, and triggered the recall of a CIA station chief in Vienna.

On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives voted 427–0 to pass a “Havana Act” bill compensating CIA and State Department personnel affected by such incidents. News reports have widely blamed Russian spies randomly targeting CIA and State Department personnel with microwave weapons — and attributed this view to senior US officials.

State Department

The cover of the JASON report, titled “Acoustic Signals and Physiological Effect on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba.”

The JASON report provided a far less elaborate explanation. The team was given eight recordings of incidents linked to injuries and performed an extensive analysis of two cellphone video recordings from one patient. After extensive comparison with recordings of various insect species, they concluded with “high confidence” that the sounds in that case came from a particularly loud species of cricket, Anurogryllis celerinictus. (Two academic researchers who ran a similar analysis in 2019 using a recording provided by the Associated Press also concluded that the sound was caused by crickets.) The JASON scientists offered another “low confidence” theory that the sounds could have been caused by a nearby concrete vibrating machine with worn bearings.

The review ruled out pulsed microwaves and ultrasound as culprits, in part because the Wi-Fi and other electronics in the house where the noises were first recorded worked fine during the incident. And by calculating the power required for such attacks, they concluded that the noises didn’t correspond to ones generated by microwave or ultrasound frequencies.

But the JASON scientists left open the possibility of some other nefarious attack. “It cannot be ruled out that while the perceived sounds, while not harmful, are introduced by an adversary as deception so as to mask an entirely unrelated mode of causing illness,” the report concludes in its executive summary.

“JASON puts to rest the ‘microwave attack’ theory,” University of Pennsylvania biomedical engineer Kenneth Foster told BuzzFeed News. “While we can’t rule out the idea that somebody might have been trying to harass the US officers, the idea that these were attacks intended to cause injury is supported neither by a smoking gun nor by clearly identified victims.”

The NAS report from last year argued that since microwaves can trigger a painless inner ear noise called the Frey effect, they were the “most plausible” explanation for the illnesses. The JASON report analyzed the same phenomenon, but dismissed microwaves as an option. “We judge as highly unlikely the notion that pulsed RF [radiofrequency] mimics acoustic signals in both the brain (via the Frey effect) and in electronics,” the report concludes.

NAS panel report chairman David Relman of the Stanford University School of Medicine did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the JASON report from BuzzFeed News.

James Lin, a University of Illinois biomedical engineer who has argued that the microwave explanation for the injuries is very likely, told BuzzFeed News that the recordings of incidents analyzed in the JASON report provided by at least eight victims could not have come from real cases of Havana Syndrome. “A typical sound recorder would not be able to record the ‘microwave sound’, period,” he said by email, after reviewing the JASON report’s findings.

A mainstay of the national security arena for decades, JASON contains the nation’s brightest technical minds. “This is a high powered group of expert scientists examining this question,” said former Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist Cheryl Rofer. “This appears to be a very thorough scientific analysis, the kind which wasn’t done in the National Academies of Sciences report.”

Similar to a previously undisclosed 2019 CDC report on Havana syndrome, which was first reported this year by BuzzFeed News, the JASON report notes that without baseline medical data on the diplomats prior to the injuries, determining their actual cause is unlikely.

The scientists also noted that, while “the suffering reported by the affected individuals is real,” mass psychology can also trigger neurological injuries in people. “JASON believes such psychogenic effects may serve to explain important components of the reported injuries.”

Stigma and international politics play a role in why the mass psychology theory hasn’t been taken more seriously in the US. Meanwhile, just this month, the Cuban Academy of Sciences published a report concluding that mass psychology is the best explanation for the incidents.

While much of the released report is redacted, perhaps due to the reported involvement of CIA agents in some cases, the conclusions are clear, Rofer said.

“What is available in the report is pretty dubious about directed energy weapons,” she said, “and pretty positive about crickets.” ●

UPDATE

This story has been updated with a statement from a senior administration official.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.