The commission of a crime, the formula goes, starts with three things: a weapon, a motive and an opportunity. There’s every indication, a newly released report by a committee from the National Academies of Science concluded, what happened to up to 40 American diplomats and staff in Cuba, China, and Russia between late 2016 and mid-2018 was a crime.
The Americans in Havana, Guangzhou and Moscow suffered, with many individual variations, the same set of symptoms, which almost always started with a sharp sound “accompanied by pain in one or both ears or across a broad region of the head,” the NAS report says, continuing with “in some cases, a sensation of head pressure or vibration, dizziness,” followed by problems hearing, seeing, maintaining balance, and thinking clearly. Here’s where things get scary. “This constellation of clinical features is unlike any disorder in the neurological or general medical literature,” says David Relman, the Stanford microbiologist who chaired the NAS study.
Working backward from the unique effects, the scientists have deduced two important things about their most probable cause: it’s a weapon using “directed pulsed RF energy,” and it’s something we’ve never seen before. In other words, there is probably not a “natural cause.”
The phrase used in the NAS report strongly suggests what they are talking about a weapon and a crime — “directed pulsed RF energy” means electromagnetic energy targeted and released to do damage.
The weapon itself remains unseen and unknown, and could be used again, which Dr. Relman wrote in concluding the NAS report: “raises grave concerns about a world with disinhibited malevolent actors and new tools for causing harm.”
Just as scientific deduction led to Dr. Relman’s theoretical RF weapon, a lot of people in the diplomatic and intelligence communities say they can deduce who one “disinhibited malevolent actor” might be – Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin did have disruptive motives in both Cuba and China and, say CIA sources, elsewhere. And as in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, Putin, like the legendary Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, “saw his opportunities and he took ‘em.”
The NAS report was sent to the State Department in August.
It was finally made public in December. Among the factors that forced Secretary of State Pompeo to release the study was investigative reporting by GQ, NBC News, and our guest today Ana Swanson and her colleagues at the NY Times.
Ana Swanson writes about trade and international economics for the New York Times. She previously covered the economy, trade and the Federal Reserve for The Washington Post. Before that, Ana was an editor of Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel and the editor-in-chief of China Economic Review magazine in Shanghai.
She has a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s in international relations with a focus in China and international economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Before moving to Washington, D.C., she lived and worked in China for eight years.