Sunday, September 02, 2018

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: Management, Containment and Control--Microwave Weapons and the State Department Cuba Accountability Review Board Report

(Pix credit "Microwave Weapons" (11 Sept. 2015), Weapons and Warfare)

From the start, the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has amounted to a series of curious turns. Each of these twists and turns has provided a measure if illumination in a small but significant corner of the world of contemporary conflict at the state to state and institution to institution level.  What had started as a well managed and quite genteel set of partial disclosures about the state of diplomat safety in Cuba has morphed into a story the limits of the ramifications of which remain largely unknown. Those ramifications touch on the state of modern warfare, perhaps in its 6th generation--the development of a set of weapons that can affect specific high value targets (an advance of the utility of drone killings but augmenting the spectrum of weaponry that can be used against specific targets), the erosion of the classical protections of diplomats, the increased blurring of the line between the techniques of war, those of business and those of statecraft.  Most importantly, perhaps, the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attacks has substantially diffused the access of individuals and non state actors to the means and methods of warfare--nonlethal, technologically accessible and able to be used against individuals.

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has been used in the context of the substantial reshaping of normalization between the U.S. and Cuba.  It has seen some use in the quite aggressive battles between the U.S. and China over the shape of global trade going forward (a work still in progress).  it has helped shape, though on the periphery, the relations between the U.S., Russia and some of the former Central Asian Soviet satellites. And it has shaped a very new and different sensibility about the nature of risk and injury in conflicts that are yet to be defined, much less named. In the process it has exposed the use of a variety of techniques and technologies both within the United States and abroad by others. The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has moved from the "he said-she said" stage through the reaction and grand gesture stage, through the solicitude for injury stages, through the scientific investigation and data gathering/analysis stage, to a new stage that may suggest the future course of events.   

Two recent events suggest the current contours of those efforts to manage, contain, and control information, and thus to shape the public environment within which pressure can be exerted to some ends or other. The first is the rather laconic report of the results of the State Department's Cuba Accountability Review Board Report made available on 30 August 2018. The second is the reporting of an interview given by the lead investigator  of the medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March, that microwave weaponry remains the chief suspect in the attacks widely reported on 1 September 2018 (here and here). This post includes brief commentary around those reports and suggestions, as well as an analysis of both.  

In July 2018 I noted "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" (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack and the Weaponization of Noise; From the Front Lines in China, Cuba, the United States and Elsewhere). I suspected that all of the principal stakeholders have something to hide.  Yet I also suspected that the short term advantages for managing public opinion--especially with respect to important objectives collateral to the Sonic Attacks themselves--were too tempting to push the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack to news oblivion with the complicity of the great establishment news sources.

The issue for states already committed to this public drama about microwave weaponry and its obvious and hidden agendas, is one of management, containment and control. That has proven difficult,although in the absence of a sure knowledge of the agendas of each of the stakeholders, it is hard to gauge winners and losers just yet, much less the effects on national objectives with respect to the nonviolent conflict they are each now furiously engaged.

As a result, establishment news sources, governmental information leakages, and the usual deployment of experts (in this case medical, technological, with the usual academic policy types around the periphery serving the interests of the institutions to which they are tied) have been in the unusual position of supplying hints around activity related to what I continue to call the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack.  Hints are hard to come by, though, as states continue both to veil the actual events with a substantial degree of secrecy (and that itself may be a hint about both the capacity of all sides to weaponize sound or microwaves, and the advances by all sides in the technology for effective use in specific contexts). It is in this context that the expected sets of denials by all sides ring hollow and the controversies over the science of the attacks suggest deliberate efforts to muddy waters sufficiently for states to continue to take advantage of technology development projects in this field while exploiting the events politically. And yet the persistence of denial may also provide a hint about the context in which the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack is playing out.  

For the U.S. the advantageous are substantial--politically.  They can be used to move public opinion behind continuing efforts to isolate Cuba and to paint it as a "bad guy." But it is even more useful now against China in the midst of the critical negotiations to remake global trade. Russia, though heavily involved, remains at the periphery with media focus on Cuba and China for the most part.  But there are risks for the U.S. as well. I have noted already that the U.S.'s microwave projects (in this case for crowd control and anti-terrorism measures domestically) has been dangerously exposed through litigation in New York (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack and the Weaponization of Noise). More dangerous still would be the exposure of any American programs for the weaponization of microwaves (likely already in an advanced stage of development) while the U.S. goes partially public on the competitor's efforts (which, as far as we know still appear crude). But that may be the gamble--by focusing on foreign weaponization projects while they are still in an early stage,  the U.S. might force the shut down or the slowing up of development of those projects even as their own projects are set for accelerated development. For China and Cuba, the disadvantage has been to be placed on the defensive (with potentially great effects on their international relations) at just the time they thought they could exploit the civil war among American intellectuals and elites over the person of the U.S. president, as the administration engaged in high stakes projects around trade and the shape of the world order. 

My sense, though, is that the opposite has occurred--everyone is now accelerating their projects.  But that acceleration might well have resulted from a confluence of events that might have produced the injury from the use of microwaves when the intent was merely to spy.  That is the most intriguing possibility--that an accident opened the possibility to the weaponization of microwaves in ways that had not considered before. If that is the case then the possibilities would be highly valued to the extent it overcomes a technological hurdle to capacity to weaponize microwaves to specific ends. This is especially useful in an era where targeted objectives have become more valuable than mass casualties.

 A possible reason for this is straightforward:  states have backed themselves into a corner on armed conflict.  Even nationalistic populations eager for aggressive advancements of national interests have been trained to view causalities (their own of course) as disproportionately calamitous. Certainly since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s the effort has been (with the potential aberrations of the Afghan and Iraq wars from the U.S. side) there has been an effort to minimize casualties while expanding the incapacitating effects of weaponry. In effect states continue to like their wars, they just prefer them to result in little civilian (and lower military) deaths or permanent injury. We are in an age of video game warfare (though increasing effective all the same), and at the same time reverting back to the idea that the object of war should be victory but not the destruction of the assets (people and productive forces) over which wars are fought (see my "The Führer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment"). There is no point in fighting over things one winds up destroying.

And, indeed, the saga of the Sonic Weapons Attack provided a quite useful focus for these sorts of programs at just the moment they might have appeared to become operational at a close quarter tactical level.  Perhaps, having gotten ahead of the U.S., it was necessary to expose those programs to provide the Americans some time to catch up. Or perhaps, government being large and diffuse institutions, it might have been serendipity.  The administrators who decided to go public with this Sonic Weapons Attack and exploit it in public forums may not have bothered to consult administrators in other institutional sectors for whom that sort of tactic might have been viewed as unhelpful. That would be my guess.  But having opened this event to the theatre of public opinion, the issue then became how to manage the affair.  All sides, as I have suggested in a number of prior posts, took the necessary and classically appropriate responsive measures (see, e.g., Cuba Sonic Weapons Affair(33)).

All of these vectors of activity were in evidence in the latest two events that mark the continuing course of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack.  The first is  a fairly bare bones report of highlights from the State Department's Accountability Review Board Report.  These highlights--styled a "Fact Sheet"-- are worth contemplating in full:

Cuba Accountability Review Board

Fact Sheet

Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
August 30, 2018

On January 12, 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convened an independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) to review the circumstances surrounding unexplained medical conditions affecting Embassy Havana diplomatic community members. The ARB’s mandate was not to determine the cause of the unexplained health incidents, but to examine the Department of State’s response, including the adequacy of security and other related procedures. The ARB first met February 9, and interviewed more than 116 individuals over the course of four months. On June 7, the ARB submitted a report of its findings and recommendations to Secretary Pompeo. Pursuant to law, the Secretary submitted a report to Congress on August 30, 2018 outlining the ARB’s recommendations and actions taken in response.

The ARB found the Department’s security systems and procedures were overall adequate and properly implemented, though there were significant vacancies in security staffing and some challenges with information sharing and communication. The ARB did not find any U.S. government employee engaged in misconduct or performed unsatisfactorily in a way that contributed to these incidents.

The ARB issued 30 recommendations, and the Department accepted all of them. The ARB’s recommendations fall in six areas: accountability, interagency coordination, medical issues, communication and information sharing, risk/benefit analysis, and diplomatic security.
  • Accountability: The ARB found the lack of a single designated senior-level Department official with responsibility for responding to the attacks resulted in insufficient communications with employees and impeded coordination within the Department and with other agencies. The ARB recommended elevating the overall responsibility for the Cuba response to the Deputy Secretary of State. In May, the Deputy Secretary – at the Secretary’s request – established the interagency Health Incidents Response Task Force to direct a multi-agency response to the unexplained health incidents that have affected U.S. government personnel and family members stationed overseas. The Department has committed to reviewing – and revising when necessary – procedures for ensuring continued senior-level leadership at all times, as well as validating and strengthening guidance for Chiefs of Mission (including Chargés), emphasizing their responsibility for the safety and security of personnel abroad. The Department is establishing a new position solely responsible for longer-term outreach and assistance to personnel affected by these incidents.
  • Interagency Coordination: The ARB found that interagency information sharing should be enhanced to improve understanding of the problem and more coordinated initial responses. The ARB noted the Department’s well-established and successful procedures for dealing with crisis situations and highlighted the benefit of reviewing its processes for communication and coordination with interagency partners, as well as reminding leaders of these processes. The Department agrees with these recommendations and will re-issue guidance outlining the various tools and processes Washington and posts abroad have available to prepare for and respond to crisis situations. The Department will reinforce the importance of proper and timely implementation of these procedures, and is committed to working with interagency partners to ensure coordination of efforts on the response to the incidents.
  • Medical Issues: The ARB found the Department’s Bureau of Medical Services provided competent and professional response to an unprecedented situation, but they had insufficient resources to support the long-term care and follow-up needed for these types of incidents. To address the ARB’s recommendations, the Department, in coordination with other appropriate U.S. government agencies, is identifying and reviewing applicable legal authorities and resources for long-term medical follow-up and treatment for U.S government personnel and families impacted by the incidents in Cuba, and will seek legislative remedies where necessary. The Department is also working closely with the Department of Labor to allow for the proper adjudication of workers’ compensation claims from Department personnel. Additionally, the ARB recommended the Department make pre-departure and post-assignment medical screening a mandatory condition for assignment to, or temporary duty in, Havana. The Department is in the process of developing policy modifications to make such screenings mandatory. The ARB also recommended the Department engage the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to undertake a comprehensive medical and epidemiologic study of the symptoms and clinical findings related to the incidents in Cuba. The Department is working with the CDC to support such an analysis.
  • Internal Communication and Information Sharing: The ARB made several recommendations to facilitate communication and information sharing in the case of any future incidents. The Department is implementing the ARB’s recommendations, with the goal of: clarifying responsibilities, providing centralized points of contact to coordinate efforts, establishing clear notification protocols, and ensuring as much transparency as possible to those affected, taking into account the privacy of the individuals involved as well as sensitive law enforcement and national security information.
  • Risk/Benefit Analysis: The ARB made several recommendations to ensure the Department enacts its already established processes to conduct formal risk/benefit analyses and ensure any actions balance Department priorities with risk management. The Department is implementing these recommendations, and taking steps to enhance broader awareness of these processes throughout the Department. For example, the Department has processes to conduct an analysis at least once annually of mitigation measures and residual risks associated with operating at high threat, high risk posts and at those posts on Authorized or Ordered Departure for 90 days or more due to security reasons. The Department will continue to implement this approach.
  • Diplomatic Security: The ARB found individual offices within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) responded to the Cuba incidents reports based on their respective areas of expertise, but that the overall response would have benefitted from the formulation and resourcing of a formal DS multi-disciplinary working group. The Department agreed, and DS formed a Health Incidents Response Working Group with members from all relevant DS offices reporting to the DS Assistant Secretary. This working group has increased communication among the various interagency investigative representatives, and ensured action items are addressed quickly and comprehensively. Additionally, to address future potential unexplained health-security incidents, the Department developed standardized formal guidance, leveraging existing crisis response processes, designed to ensure a consistent response from all agencies at post. All posts are reviewing and updating their emergency action plans to incorporate this guidance. The ARB also suggested the Department review its training programs for security personnel. DS is in the process of reviewing its training and briefing programs to ensure security officers have adequate knowledge of these types of incidents prior to going to post.
The Department has already implemented half of the ARB’s 30 recommendations and is actively working to complete the rest. Due to the nature of the recommendations, some may take longer than others to implement. Some recommendations will not be able to be fully closed until such time as the cause behind the incidents has been determined. Others may require seeking legislative remedies. The Department is committed to working with its interagency partners and Congress, as appropriate, on resolving ongoing issues related to the unexplained health incidents in Cuba.
The highlights of the CARB Report are interesting for a number of reasons:

1. The decision to make only a summary available in this case, one already substantially well milked for its value in mass political discourse, was curious. It also leads inevitably to the opinion that perhaps what was omitted was far more telling than what was disclosed. That also runs true to form in the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack where both the U.S. and Cuba have been more than willing to disclose statements most notable for their political or rhetorical flourishes, but which were uniform uninformative. That course of action practically begs the student of these events to infer that the reader (and the public) are being managed in very crude (but for most perhaps effective) ways.  Yet if that is the case, then the information provided would be most helpful not for what it contained but for what one could infer through it or from a guess about what was omitted.  That also served as an invitation to try to put a series of otherwise unconnected pieces together. This is now much easier to do than in the past, especially since institutions and the officials who enjoy the privileges of office therein tend to find it very very hard to stay silent. 

2. The mandate of the CARB was quite limited.  They were charged with little more than to figure out new institutional responses to a new class of threats. This is no surprise.  
The State Department’s new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein did a press gaggle on January 9 and was asked about the convening of an Accountability Review Board for the attacks against American diplomats in Havana. He said that he expects announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week. He also told the press “We believe that the Cuban Government knows what occurred, and so what we’d like them to do is to tell us what occurred so we can ensure this doesn’t happen again.”(Coming Soon – Accountability Review Board Havana For Mysterious Attacks in Cuba)
3. The findings were even more constrained.  First the CARB determined that security systems and procedures were overall adequate, and that there were no individual failures giving rise to disciplinary proceedings. But that might not have been viewed as particularly helpful in the face of the reality that adequate systems failed to protect.  Initially one might have at this point justifiably wondered whether the conclusion was the there was nothing anyone could do.  However, in the face of this conclusion of adequacy the CARB managed to make 30 recommendations in six areas: accountability, interagency coordination, medical issues, communication and information sharing, risk/benefit analysis, and diplomatic security.

4. The character of the recommendations revealed much more a fidelity to the logic of institutional management than perhaps to the need for creative responsiveness to situations that might change the rules under which the institution responds to "stimulus."  Accountability was reduced to the need to create institutional mechanisms to ensure that the "big wigs" appeared to be in charge. That certainly served the interests of hierarchically arranged institutions.  But it is not clear how much that added to responsiveness--other than optics and a clear line of responsibility if things went badly. In any case this is the sort of response one would have expected as a metter of course in any report of this type--the need for better and more effective communication to and leadership from the top (however that is defined).

5. The interagency coordination recommendations appear to be a species of "keep doing what you are doing just do it better and here are the guidelines in case you forgot."  That is also to be expected.  One says this without in any way denigrating the already well established and usually well working systems that the State Department has developed over the course of many years.  Indeed, those procedures no doubt mitigated whatever injury to individuals and harm to U.S. interests might have flowed form the Sonic Weapons Affair.  Yet it is not clear the extent to which there was a conclusion that this was a set of circumstances of a different order or kind that might require (or recommend to State Department elders) some additional thinking about adapting past procedures to new classes of circumstances.

6. The medical issues review  appears form the summary be be institutionally motivated. The focus appears to be on the benefits plan for injured state department officials.  Of course, the role of human resources and the benefits packages available are bit critically necessary and not particularly newsworthy. Someone has to make this happen.  And yet, focusing on the bureaucratic elements of the medical issues skewed focus from the medical issues and the preparedness of the state department for more of similar such attacks int he future to a bureaucratic worry about the processing of claims through the federal bureaucracy. It might have been more interesting perhaps to focus less on medical testing for baseline health conditions (which sounds too much like claims reduction strategies of a bureaucrat) to thinking about creating medical procedure for alerts and triggers on site to anticipate and mitigate damage form attacks.  But that would have required some connection between the work of the CARB and the science community that the State Department already hired to investigate causes.  Ironically this speaks to interagency (or perhaps in this case intra-agency) incoherence and a missed opportunity.

7.  The internal communications and risk management recommendations also have a very strong odor of the bureaucratic. The recommendations for international communications and information sharing sound like the sort of responses that one would expect from any a report prepared for any large bureaucracy--whether the State Department or a large university. Worthy goals all, but the product of months of interviews?  Perhaps much of the value is in the detail that is not revealed.  Still. More interesting are the summaries of risk management.  Here one arrives at the heart of the modern American bureaucracy--governance, risk management, and mitigation.  None of this goes to meeting the threat, or anticipating future threats.  Rather these go to managing risk and mitigating harm in ways that might also harm U.S: interests.  Again, the specific recommendations might shed more light.

8. The last of the recommendations naturally follows form the other five.  It posits the need to create another intra-institutional group to ensure coordinate action in the event of threat.  Not a bad idea. But is that all there is? One wonders. Still, the determination to update emergency responses is sound. 

Perhaps more interesting still, is the decision of the New York Times to publish an article that was in cast in a remarkably provocative way, but also in a way that appeared to run counter to the political interests of the owners and supporters of this media enterprise within the context of its business operations (William J. Broad, "Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers" New York Times 1 Sept. 2018). As expected, the reporting from the New York Times was widely circulated by second order news outlets and thus broadly seeded throughout a larger number of sectors of mass opinion. These were then individually summarized in the remainder of summary.

The principal story was particularly curious because it amplified, by selective highlighting, an opinion of investigators, mocked (especially by scientists and those who hold the current administration in low repute, including most likely a number of elements within the New York Times establishment) when it was released in March 2018 (See Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba (JAMA March 2018) ("The unique circumstances of these patients and the consistency of the clinical manifestations raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology.")). Those criticisms were widely circulated (here, here, and here). Now these are now transformed into something far more menacing.
Douglas Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect, and the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury. (William J. Broad, "Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers" New York Times 1 Sept. 2018).
That was curious indeed. Consider an earlier interview of one of the Report's co-authors on 22 June 2018:
 “A malfunctioning device that was supposed to inaudibly steal information or eavesdrop on conversation with ultrasonic transmission seems more plausible than a sonic weapon,” said Kevin Fu, a co-author of the report. “That said, our results do not rule out other potential causes.” (A mystery illness is still affecting diplomats in Cuba and China).
But the New York Times now report that the scientific community might be coming around to the weapons conclusion.
“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion. Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety. (William J. Broad, "Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers" New York Times 1 Sept. 2018).
This might have built on earlier reporting from the UK (Sonic weapons are real ("SONIC weapons capable of carrying out attacks on strategic targets can be created today a leading academic has said – raising the future prospect of a terrifying type of invisible warfare. Dr Ian McLoughlin, Professor of Computing at the University of Kent, made his remarks in the wake of suggestions that a member of staff at the US embassy in China may have been the victim of a sonic attack. ")). But the conclusion also contradicts some earlier writing that this was a case of accidental weaponization-- intermodulation distortion (e.g., How We Reverse Engineered the Cuban “Sonic Weapon” Attack; and more formally here).

But accidentally created or deliberately deployed, the reporting then connected the dots--not to U.S. efforts at weaponization (which remains completely opaque--but to the Cubans and the Russians.  That was done indirectly by quoting the speculations of a famous scientist, Alan Frey, whose work on the acoustic effect of microwaves in the 1960s now known as known as the Frey effect
He speculated that Cubans aligned with Russia, the nation’s longtime ally, might have launched microwave strikes in attempts to undermine developing ties between Cuba and the United States. “It’s a possibility,” he said at his kitchen table. “In dictatorships, you often have factions that think nothing of going against the general policy if it suits their needs. I think that’s a perfectly viable explanation.” (Ibid.).
This is a curious turn. And more curious still is the timing, coming within a day of the public release of the State Department's CARB Report as one could get. One might be excused the surmise (in the absence of any evidence) that perhaps the conclusions mentioned in an interview months after the JAMA article's publication, given wide circulation (including the musing about the role of Russia and Cuba) the day after the CARB Report, might have been meant to suggest things forbidden the Report. And again, it turns the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack back to the advantage of the United States.  And a last speculation--the New York Times has long been known to be focused on reporting about Russia and its aggressive projections of power within the United States.  That has served the purposes of the NYT and aligns with the political tastes and agendas of many of its most influential consumers.  This reporting amplifies that longer term project and will be welcome by those influential people who have been seeking to strengthen a case against Russia and its officials.

But more importantly, if only briefly, the report also exposes the extent that Russia, China, European States and the United States have all significantly advanced their research and development of sonic or microwave weaponry.  The efforts in those directions have been public knowledge for a long time.  As early as 2000 it was noted that 

The development of microwave weapons will lead to new employment methods and tactics for all of the military services, including the Air Force. The ability to integrate microwave technologies into the weapons and doctrines of the U.S. military will lead to the development of innovative solutions to the problems and missions faced by the operational community. The revolutionary aspect of microwave technologies is that these weapons will be the first directed energy systems that have both offensive and defensive capabilities. (High Power Microwaves: Strategic and Operational Implications for Warfare, p. 26).
 The state of that development remains mercifully locked tightly within  the walls of the military and security establishments. But it may well be that what has caught everyone by surprise was not the well planned efforts at development, but what might well have been an accidental and serendipitous discovery during the course of routine spying. If that is the case, then all of the reporting is true (to the extent of the knowledge, sometimes quite limited, of those quoted). That is what tends to make sense (given public information now available). But it also explains the bad strategy of  aiming the weapon at the United States, it equally bad timing (during sensitive points in Cuban normalization and Chinese trade talks), the reasons for that timing (an increased need to spy on the American position), and what appears to be the mad efforts of every nation with the capability to try to figure this thing out. At the end of the day, though, it does appear that there might well have been an interesting breakthrough in microwave weaponry and the the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack might serve as a chronicle of that accidental advance and its consequences. This is what might be read into the statements, public pronouncements and reporting to date, especially those of the last several months. And with respect to the implications of that reporting one can, at the moment, only contemplate in silence. 

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