With insane tweets and comments erupting from President Donald Trump at a dizzying speed even by his standards, it would be easy to miss a brief story on the “sonic attack” on U.S diplomats in Cuba that appeared in the New York Times on Friday, October 6.
More than twenty U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba claim to have suffered from a variety of symptoms ranging from mild concussion to hearing loss, according to the State Department.
But the Times article makes it clear that there is a total lack of scientific evidence that a sonic attack even took place. In fact, the science indicates that it probably could not have taken place.
Why not? Zimmer interviewed several scientific experts in the field of acoustics who scoffed at the possibility of a sonic attack that could produce the symptoms reported. Sonic attacks using loud, strident noises can produce physical and psychological harm. Just as Noriega, or the suspected terrorists tortured by the U.S. using the technique. But, evidently, this did not happen in Cuba.
The other possibilities are sound waves that cannot be heard by humans, infrasound and ultrasound. But, as Zimmer discovered, a report by “The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military tried to weaponize infrasound but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths.”
Ultrasound can hurt people if enough power is applied. Intensely powerful ultrasound can kill a mouse at close range. However, ultrasound “cannot travel a long distance,” Jun Kin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University (SIU) explained, to Zimmer. In addition, ultrasound mostly bounces off walls and building facades, and what gets through is of a low, harmless frequency.
The conclusion of the researchers consulted by The Times: “the laws of physics make it unlikely that the device could harm diplomats from afar. “
It is also evident from Zimmer’s reporting that the U.S. government has made little or no effort to get to the bottom of the causes of the alleged attack. The reporter discovered that there is no medical report on the subject. In similar circumstances, the U.S. government might have convened a panel of scientists and government experts to delve into the issue, or at least consult with the experts. But none of the scientists interviewed by Zimmer reported being contacted by the government.
Moreover, a sonic attack cannot cause a concussion resulting in even a mild brain injury, one of the ailments reported. Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany, an acoustics expert said: “I know of no acoustics effect that can cause concussion symptoms…Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.”
Given the above, why and how did the theory of a sonic attack emerge and then accepted by almost the entire media as a fact? What accounts for the U.S. government’s seeming lack of interest in determining the actual causes? Short answer: It is an instance of what Noam Chomsky calls “the manufacture of consent.”
Quin, the SIU expert, said that something had hurt those people “but it could be something in the environment,” like toxins, bacteria, or viruses can damage hearing. It could also be a case of collective hysteria. Timothy Leighton, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at Southampton University suggested the possibility of psychological factors: “If you make people anxious that they are under attack by an ultrasonic weapon, those [the kind alleged] are the symptoms you’ll get.”
As for the U.S. government’s indifference regarding rooting out the causes, the comments of Stephen L. Garret, a retired professor of acoustics at Penn State, offer a clue. He noted that if such an attack had taken place, it would have been easy to detect while it was going on. “I think they missed their chance…It should be a piece of cake.”
There is a more likely scenario than sheer incompetence for the lack of a real answer, one rooted in politics. Trump promised an important if dwindling part of his base—hardline Cuban exiles in the key state of Florida—to reverse most of Obama’s opening to Cuba. The non-existent sonic attack offered a plausible pretext for a partial return to an irrational policy that, until Obama, had stayed in place for almost six decades—and a fresh excuse to spite Obama yet again.
That the “sonic attack” was a convenient excuse is obvious from the fact that the U.S. started to tighten the screws by throwing out Cuban diplomats from the U.S. wholesale and withdrawing U.S. diplomats from Havana before even trying to establish what really happened. The Bush administration “fixed the intelligence (on weapons of mass destruction) around the policy” of invading Iraq to achieve regime change. The Trump administration is not even bothering fix the intelligence. It is not seeking any because that might reveal inconvenient truths that might get in the way of a policy preconceived for domestic political reasons.
The latest news about the sonic attack consists of a recording of the alleged sound obtained by the AP. Social media types listened to the sound over and over and died—laughing. One said it sounded like his new ring tone. Other comments were similarly derisory and dismissive.
The United States government had no comment on the authenticity of the recording. The highest official quoted on the matter, Chief of Staff General John Kelly, said he thinks the Cuban government could have stopped it. But, the fact is that the U.S., with all its technical prowess, has no idea of what really happened down there, if anything. So how could the Cuban government stop a phantom?
It is coincidental but not insignificant that this is happening around the same time Trump refused to certify that Iran is observing the nuclear agreement. Even the president’s top foreign policy and military advisers told Trump the Iranians were observing the agreement. Despite their advice and devoid of a pretext, Trump did not certify anyway. Who cares about facts and truth? Not Trump.
The phantom sonic attack at least gave Trump an excuse to look tough on Cuba; the Iran action, a more momentous and disastrous decision, was based on sheer chutzpah. Both were rooted in Trump’s need to feed raw meat to a restless base and hope this will raise his subterranean poll numbers.