Saturday, July 07, 2018

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack and the Weaponization of Noise; From the Front Lines in China, Cuba, the United States and Elsewhere

A police officer with a Long Range Acoustic Device at a protest in Times Square. The use of such devices against protesters in 2014 is at issue in a federal lawsuit accusing the Police Department of excessive force.Credit John Minchillo/Associated Press; From "Noise as a Weapon? Police Use of Sound Cannons Questioned", New York Times 1 June 2017).

I have noted in recent posts that the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack--once consigned to the periphery of U.S.-Cuban relations, has now moved center stage to the relations among the United States, China, Russia, and their surrogates around the world.  That makes the Affair both more interesting, and its consequences more potent. It also suggests  that the Affair is playing some sort of part in the "great game" of power realignments among the powerful states with an appetite for this sort of adventurism. At the same time, that great game appears to have generated a carefully controlled set of disclosures to the masses int he affected states.  One gets the disquieting sense that there is far more here than meets the eye--and that it is to every state's advantage to ensure a very carefully controlled exposure to "news" of these events to suit the interests of the combatants without giving too much away.  

While these musing must remain mere conjecture, the chronicling of the drip, drip, drip of information (and its sometimes inadvertent exposure of something useful) need not be.  It does not appear that any of the major actors appears close to any resolution.  The science is unclear, the technology is shrouded in ambiguity, and the motives and techniques beyond the reach of the reporters, whose coverage of the events have assumed a rhythmic and repetitive character, with each new discovery of injury producing a similar wave of reportage, of accusation and denial, and of medical and scientific experts running off in search of something. All of this misses the point, of course--and the point is in the rhythmic ululations of attack and response within the wider context of the interactions among these actors to advance their strategic interests.

This post provides a short update of developments in the now global Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack, that draw in not just China and Cuba, but the United States as well. 

On 13 June 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that"purposefully using a LRAD [long‐range acoustic device] in a manner capable of causing serious injury to move non‐violent protesters to the sidewalks violates the Fourteenth Amendment under clearly established law." Edrei v. Maguire, No. 17-2065 (2018) 
Six journalists, photographers and activists brought the lawsuit at issue after suffering injuries from an acoustic weapon known as an LRAD that NYPD officers deployed in December 2014 at a Black Lives Matter protest.  Writing for a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit, Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann noted Wednesday that “the disparity between the threat posed by the protest and the degree of force is stark.” For all the plaintiffs, the 48-page ruling states, their proximity to the LRAD led to “auditory pain, migraines, tinnitus, and hearing loss, of varying degrees and duration.” (here).
The Court noted that "LRADs are acoustic weapons developed for the U.S. military in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000." Edrei v. Maguire, No. 17-2065 (2018), p. 4. But LRADs are not meant to hide sound, but rather to project sound in concentrated cones to cause injury sufficient to ensure that the target ceases their activity.   "They also reshape acoustic energy to produce flatter sound waves that (1) reduce dampening as the wave travels and (2) interact with the air to create additional frequencies within the wave." (Ibid., p. 5). They thus work by producing piercing sound that cannot be ignored. These were then used at a 2014 protest resulting in the injury that served as the basis for the complaint. The court was careful, however, to note that its holding did not bar law enforcement from using LRADs under appropriate circumstances (Ibid., p. 43). "We also think that, under certain conditions, an LRAD that is properly calibrated might be a lawful means of ordering (or perhaps even compelling) protesters to disperse." (Ibid., p. 44).

The issues in Edrei v. Maguire were, of course, quite different from those at the center of the Sonic Weapons Attack against U.S. personnel in Cuba, China and elsewhere.  But it does suggest that sonic weaponry has become common place enough for use by municipal police forces. Such sonic weaponry appears to be part of the arsenals of police now and are part of police arsenals that serve multiple purposes. But these are noisy rather than stealthy weapons.  Still, they appear to be able to cause injury in some respects similar to those complained of by U.S. personnel abroad. In that context, of course, denials grounded in notions that such injuries are impossible, or that there are no tools at the disposal of states that might produce the sort of injury seem to ring false.  But beyond that, there is little.

It is not for nothing, then, that the Trump Administration takes reports of injury seriously. Anxiety increased with reports of injury in China.  That has prompted additional reports in other places, including Singapore and Uzbekistan, which for the moment appear to be unconnected to sonic weaponry (26 Americans in 7 Cities Have Now Been Hurt by Unusual Sounds). And then there are the Canadians, reluctant players in the unfolding course of these actions (Ottawa defends response to mystery attacks on Canadian diplomats in Cuba) whose diplomats and citizens appear to have also suffered injury. 

But the press also reports opinion that such symptoms are merely expressions of mass hysteria (see here)--a charge that was first made by Cuban authorities last year. Things are made more difficult as authorities across the world have substantially reduced communication about thes eincidents except in carefully controlled bursts.
Since reporters first blindsided spokesperson Heather Nauert with questions about the incidents last August, the State Department has been reluctant to give on-the-record details about its investigation. It still refers to these cases as “specific attacks” without saying what is specifically happening. We’ve seen numerous theories for what could cause these kinds of symptoms floated over the last year, including weaponized microwaves or radio waves and malfunctioning surveillance gear. The fact that they don’t know how the attacks occur tends to obscure the fact that we don’t know why they’re occurring in the first place. (here)
That wariness might be heightened as the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack plays out against an intense political battle for control of the apparatus of government between multiple factions of the American elite.
Even under the best of circumstances governments may manipulate public perceptions of threats. But in the current political environment, with an administration that has shown disdain for science and the scientific method, leaving key science adviserpositions unfilled – and a president who once described climate change as a Chinese hoax and vaccination as causing autism – the American public should be wary of what this administration says about these incidents, who perpetrated them, and why. (here).
In the meantime, the reports generated within the State Department remain difficult to get, even by members of Congress.
Members of Congress are demanding more answers on how the State Department is responding to mysterious health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats in China that are medically consistent with those that took place against more than two dozen American workers in Cuba.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, has asked Secretary of State Pompeo for a State Department report that includes the U.S. government's current and planned efforts to address and combat the "assessed causes" of the recent spate of "sonic" attacks on Americans in China and Cuba. (here).
And there is where one must leave things for the moment--the likelihood of more symptoms reporting, and the expectation of ambiguity in whatever report the State Departments eventually circulates to the public.  It is the story that is untold that will eventually produce action--the shadows of which will be our only clue about its scope and effect. 

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