Friday, November 08, 2019

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: The Mystery that is at its Most Useful When it Remains Unresolved

(Pix Credit HERE))
It has been some time since I posted an update on the Affair of the Sonic Weans Attack.  It was not that there was little activity--quite the reverse it seems.  The reason for the silence was that the tickle of thrust and counter thrust merely layered the positions already well established within a year of the start of the Sonic Weapons Attack Affair. (A shout out here to Jonathan Meyer, Vice Chair, Committee On Export Controls and Economic Sanctions for remaining on top of all developments). As a consequence, while the additional layers were interesting in and of themselves--they tended to be interesting in the way that close play is in a football match. I was more interested in the larger macro significance of aggregations of micro moves and what it suggested for the state of technology, the state of 5th general warfare, and the state of relations among competitors and adversaries in what has quickly become the borderlands of two distinct trade and operational theaters. 

(Pix Daily Mail))
A few days ago, the Guardian reported on its analysis of documents produced by UK diplomats in Cuba about the time of the start of the Sonic Weapons Attack Affair. The reporting by Ian Sample, the Guardian's science editor (UK diplomatic cables shed light on Cuba 'sonic attacks' scare: FoI release shows how embassy and FCO staff sought to make sense of mystery illnesses) follows.  

The discussion, brief as it is merits a read.  It suggests a mystery wrapped around what everyone is sniffing around--that the protagonists in this Affair appear to be beyond the reach, including the reach of the state security services--of key actors at the center of the action.  It is quite likely that the usual suspects are not worthy of much attention, and everyone else is beyond reach.  So one might be left with the contemplation of a black box, the contours of which can only be discerned by the effects it has when it projects activity outward. We are likely to see that in the future, but connecting the dots may be harder. This is not to pander to conspiracy theories, but rather to acknowledge that that institutionalization of power may not be as transparent or exercised from places that one might expect.

Yet what appears to be far more important is the way that the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has served to test the ability of certain states to penetrate western mass mobilization sites (the press, social media, and the like) to project outward control of the narrative beyond their borders. The techniques and approaches to this sort of penetration will be as useful as any sonic weapon in the contests for control between states and the systems they seek to advance. Narrative control (not spin--but control of the way in which people approach meaning and interpretation of the words and symbols projects towards them), indeed, will likely be among the most potent weapons of the next several decades.  That is the real space for warfare in the 21st century within liberal democratic states.  While people pander to conspiracy theories about the interference with Western elections, the real action may be in the interference with national narratives that do not appear to be pointed in any direction, but which may change the way in which its recipients may be prepared to hear, and interpret narratives. UK diplomatic cables shed light on Cuba 'sonic attacks' scare: FoI release shows how embassy and FCO staff sought to make sense of mystery illnesses).  In the case of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Affair, it has become clear that the Cubans, rather than the Americans, are better at managing the narrative within which American political discourse is operationalized and structured. 

"The update, copied to Anthony Stokes, the British ambassador to Cuba, noted that the press “broadly buy the veracity” of a Cuban statement that declared it had no involvement in the affair, and were now asking: “If it wasn’t the Cubans who did it, who did?”" (Ian Sample, UK diplomatic cables shed light on Cuba 'sonic attacks' scare).
(Pix Credit HERE)

UK diplomatic cables shed light on Cuba 'sonic attacks' scare: FoI release shows how embassy and FCO staff sought to make sense of mystery illnesses
Ian Sample, Science Editor

Official emails and diplomatic telegrams marked as sensitive reveal for the first time how the British government scrambled to understand a series of alleged “sonic attacks” on US diplomats who became ill in mysterious circumstances while on duty in Cuba.

The US government ordered all non-essential staff at its embassy in Havana to return home after dozens of diplomats and family members developed headaches, dizziness and problems with balance, concentration and sleeping in a wave of illness that struck between 2016 and 2018.

Many reported falling ill in their homes or hotels after hearing penetrating sounds, described variously as grinding, buffeting or cicada-like chirps. The case reports fuelled speculation that the diplomats had been targeted with an acoustic weapon or some other novel device. No evidence of any such attack has been found.

The events prompted a dramatic breakdown in relations between the US and Cuba less than two years after Barack Obama had sought to reestablish normal diplomatic ties between the nations.

Documents released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act shed light on how the British embassy in Havana and senior Foreign Office staff in London desperately sought to make sense of the unfolding events.

Though most are heavily redacted on grounds of national security and international relations, they show how staff pored over press reports, official statements and other communications to understand a situation that one overnight update from August 2017 said was being presented by the media as “a bizarre cold war-style confrontation”.

The update, copied to Anthony Stokes, the British ambassador to Cuba, noted that the press “broadly buy the veracity” of a Cuban statement that declared it had no involvement in the affair, and were now asking: “If it wasn’t the Cubans who did it, who did?”

On the same day the update was sent, a brief for Alan Duncan, then minister of state for Europe and the Americas, described the continued “fallout from the apparent sonic attacks”. In response to the then US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, declaring he might close the embassy in Havana, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, called Tillerson directly to state he had no knowledge of the source and express his determination to protect diplomats.

Two months later a diplomatic telegram sent from Havana to London, marked as sensitive, described the expulsion of nearly all Cuban diplomats from the US and the withdrawal of roughly two-thirds of US diplomats from Havana.

“Both the US and the Cuban embassies will now be neutered, just two years after reopening,” the telegram pointed out. The same telegram described Rodriguez as “combative in tone and delivery” during a press conference held within hours of the US announcement to expel the Cuban diplomats, and said he stopped “just short of accusing the US of making it all up”.

Further correspondence between British officials in London and Cuba suggests they had no fresh insight into what happened to the diplomats. Over a number of months they shared media reports that the strange sounds were caused by crickets, and that the wave of illness might be psychosomatic and triggered by the stressful conditions under which the diplomats operated.

The FCO released the emails and telegrams, spanning from June 2016 to June 2018, after the Information Commissioner’s Office said the department may be held in contempt of court if it failed to comply with the Guardian’s request. Some of the documents were completely blacked out.

More than two years after the diplomats fell ill, doctors are still no clearer about what happened. Two US medical studies that assessed some of thse affected found they had concussion-like symptoms and possible brain abnormalities, but independent medical specialists have criticised both studies. In a recent report that has not yet been peer-reviewed, Canadian scientists suggest excessive fumigation with pesticides to keep mosquitoes under control may be to blame.

Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, the director of the Cuban Centre for Neurosciences, who was part of a Cuban investigation into the incidents, said that without more data it was difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

“But I am very sure what did not happen,” he said. “There is absolutely no evidence for a mysterious weapon causing a new syndrome characterised by brain damage and much less inner ear damage.

“Some diplomats may be ill due to natural causes, and we have not yet tested the idea of insecticides causing intoxication in some cases, but the results of what has been published tells us that there is no homogenous set of symptoms or lab findings.

“And whatever has been found overlaps very much with several frequent medical conditions. The only common factor in most cases is a government telling employees they were attacked, and a media barrage that has largely reinforced this idea.”

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