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Sickening noises

In December 2016, a CIA officer checked in to the American Embassy’s health office in Havana suffering from nausea, headache, and dizziness. Days later, two more CIA officers reported similar ailments. By late 2018, the number grew to 26 Americans and 13 Canadians experiencing nausea, hearing loss, vertigo, nosebleeds, and focusing issues. In all the cases, victims claimed that the symptoms were triggered by a strange noise they’d heard at their homes or hotel rooms. One person said the noise was high-pitched. Another described “a beam of sound, pointed into their rooms.” Some insisted that the noise more closely resembled marbles rolling along the floor.

The illnesses confounded medical experts. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania who examined some of the victims diagnosed concussion-like symptoms but found no signs they’d suffered concussions.

We know what you must be thinking: The Cuban government is up to something, right? The Cubans vehemently deny they’re responsible, and many American investigators believe them. That’s because they still don’t know who or what made the victims sick. Was it a new type of weapon? The CIA claims it doesn’t know of any weaponry that could cause these symptoms. What about ultrasound? One theory holds that a pair of covert eavesdropping devices placed too close to each other by Cuban agents may have inadvertently produced such a reaction, like the kind of feedback you hear when someone stands too close to a microphone. But the FBI has found no evidence to substantiate that argument. In fact, ultrasound is above the range of human hearing.

Recordings of the sounds from some of the victims only added to the confusion. Two scientists who studied the recordings believe they captured the sound of lovelorn male crickets. One of the scientists, Alex­ander Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley, says the insects are incredibly loud. “You can hear them from inside a diesel truck going 40 miles an hour on the highway.” Still, the scientists had no idea why the sounds might lead to illness in humans.

Maybe it was just nerves. “Cuba is a high-threat, high-stress post,” a former embassy official told propublica.org. Diplomats are warned that “there will be surveillance. There will be listening devices in your house, probably in your car. For some people, that puts them in a high-stress mentality, in a threat-anticipation mode.”

True—but then how to explain what happened in China? In May 2018, an American posted in the consulate in Guangzhou was diagnosed with the very same mystery illness. Ultimately, 15 Americans were evacuated.

While the seemingly airborne cause of these brain injuries is still a mystery, the fallout is clear. The Americans removed 60 percent of their diplomats from Cuba and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The mysterious sounds may well be the opening shots in a new kind of cold war.

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