US still hasn’t said who was behind ‘microwave’ attacks on its diplomats

A clandestine attempt to harm US diplomats that was reported in Cuba and China in the last several years has led the US to conclude that harm done to the diplomats was “consistent with the use of directed microwave energy,” reports indicated. The National Academy of Sciences report was included in CNN coverage of the issue this week.  “Overall, directed pulsed RF (radio frequency) energy, especially in those with the distinct early manifestations, appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered,” the report said. The August 2017 reports were followed by more incidents the US reported from China. They may have been more widespread than that and a mystery surrounds the incidents. According to the report the US thought Russia might be one of many countries that could be a culprit. US tensions with Russia rose during the 2016 election. “Russia [is] of one of the few countries that have used microwave technology before, and a theory among investigators was that some rogue Cuban intelligence officials worked with Russia because they were unhappy with the détente between the US and Cuba,” the CNN report notes, relying on a senior US administration official.  Something appears to be missing here though. How was a third country, perhaps Russia, able to penetrate Cuba or even China? Is it reasonable to conclude that “rogue” elements did this on Cuban soil?  In September 2019 an Associated Press report noted that “a string of bizarre injuries to US diplomats and their families in Cuba has left at least 21 people with a variety of ills including permanent hearing loss, fatigue, dizziness, visual and balance problems and sleeping difficulties, and is now being called an ‘attack’ by the US government. It’s unclear who is behind all of this.” Canadian diplomats were also affected, and in June 2019 a Washington Post piece called for accountability.  The story is made more complex by the fact that the US appears to have taken from 2016 to 2019 to conclude that these incidents were linked to a hostile foreign government. Why did it take so long? Overall this paints a problematic picture of America’s ability to both protect its diplomats and hold anyone accountable. It’s not clear why that is the case, whether parts of the US government do not coordinate well, or if the technology was not available to detect and find the source of the attacks.  The larger ramifications have less to do with just Cuba but rather with global targeting of diplomats and also the ability to use high-level sensors to detect threats. The issue of using sensors and new technology – such as lasers, microwave weapons and other means in conflict – are increasingly an issue that hi-tech governments from modern countries need to be aware of. The US experience over the past several years indicates that much work needs to be done by the US and allies, including Israel, to be able to detect and defend against these types of incidents, whether on the battlefield or directed at diplomats. The report at CNN is not promising, because it illustrates that senior officials still seem perplexed by what happened. 

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