When the team of US doctors and scientists who examined the nearly three dozen US
"diplomats" spies targeted by mysterious sonic attacks in Cuba and China published a largely inconclusive paper about their findings back in March, one of the most intriguing geopolitical mysteries in recent memory appeared to hit a dead end.
But more than six months later - and with barely more than two months to go until the midterm elections - the New York Times has clearly spotted an opportunity to revive the story (anything to sell a few newspapers, right?), but this time, with an irresistible, and extremely topical, twist.
According to what the NYT describes as a "secretive group of elite scientists" whom the federal government consults on matters of security, what were initially believed to be sonic attacks actually weren't that at all. In fact, these scientists (and, as per the implication, the intelligence community) now believe the symptoms suffered by the victims are consistent with concentrated microwave attacks.
And guess which world leader has worked hard to bolster his country's relationships with both Cuba and China while pouring resources into research on exactly these types of psychoactive weapons?
The answer? Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Before the birth of modern Russia, the Soviet Union (where Putin honed his spycraft chops as a KGB agent) was believed to have developed microwave weapons, which the superpower's military hoped to use as a covert weapon (and also as a tool for mind control).
Decades ago, American scientist Allan Frey discovered that concentrated microwaves could, when directed at the human head, create psychic sounds and sensations - a phenomenon that was later named the Frey effect. When precisely manipulated, the waves could produce the illusion of loud noises (ringing, buzzing, grinding) similar to the symptoms described by the American diplomats.
But while Frey's research was largely ignored in the US, the Soviet Union took a keen interest, as the NYT recounts.
The Soviets took notice. Not long after his initial discoveries, Mr. Frey said, he was invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences to visit and lecture. Toward the end, in a surprise, he was taken outside Moscow to a military base surrounded by armed guards and barbed-wire fences.
"They had me visiting the various labs and discussing the problems," including the neural impacts of microwaves, Mr. Frey recalled. "I got an inside look at their classified program."
Moscow was so intrigued by the prospect of mind control that it adopted a special terminology for the overall class of envisioned arms, calling them psychophysical and psychotronic.
Soviet research on microwaves for "internal sound perception," the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in 1976, showed great promise for "disrupting the behavior patterns of military or diplomatic personnel."
Furtively, globally, the threat grew.
The National Security Agency gave Mark S. Zaid, a Washington lawyer who routinely gets security clearances to discuss classified matters, a statement on how a foreign power built a weapon "designed to bathe a target’s living quarters in microwaves, causing numerous physical effects, including a damaged nervous system."
Mr. Zaid said a N.S.A. client of his who traveled there watched in disbelief as his nervous system later unraveled, starting with control of his fingers.
And just in case you had any lingering doubts, here's a photo of Putin with Cuban leader Raul Castro.
With the arms race in full swing, the US military eventually took an interest in the Frey effect as it sought to match the Soviets in the development of psychological methods and mind control.
The lead inventor said the research team had "experimentally demonstrated” that the “signal is intelligible.” As for the invention’s uses, an Air Force disclosure form listed the first application as “Psychological Warfare.”
The Navy sought to paralyze. The Frey effect was to induce sounds powerful enough to cause painful discomfort and, if needed, leave targets unable to move. The weapon, the Navy noted, would have a "low probability of fatalities or permanent injuries."
In a twist, the 2003 contract was awarded to microwave experts who had emigrated to the United States from Russia and Ukraine.
Here's some more background on Frey's research that explores in greater detail how he discovered what's become known as the "microwave auditory effect:"
Mr. Frey, a biologist, said he stumbled on the acoustic effect in 1960 while working for General Electric’s Advanced Electronics Center at Cornell University. A man who measured radar signals at a nearby G.E. facility came up to him at a meeting and confided that he could hear the beam’s pulses - zip, zip, zip.
Intrigued, Mr. Frey traveled to the man’s workplace in Syracuse and positioned himself in a radar beam. "Lo," he recalled, "I could hear it, too."
Mr. Frey’s resulting papers - reporting that even deaf people could hear the false sounds - founded a new field of study on radiation’s neural impacts. Mr. Frey’s first paper, in 1961, reported that power densities 160 times lower than "the standard maximum safe level for continuous exposure" could induce the sonic delusions.
His second paper, in 1962, pinpointed the brain’s receptor site as the temporal lobes, which extend beneath the temples. Each lobe bears a small region - the auditory cortex - that processes nerve signals from the outer and inner ears.
Investigators raced to confirm and extend Mr. Frey’s findings. At first they named the phenomenon after him, but eventually called it the microwave auditory effect and, in time, more generally, radio-frequency hearing.
The exact mechanics of the phenomenon remain unexplained, but scientists believe it has something to do with the temporal lobe.
Of course, as the NYT readily admits, the Russia connection is pure conjecture. The State Department said it hasn't identified a culprit. But the case is full of unanswered questions - and, for what it's worth, Frey, now an octogenarian, told the NYT that Russian involvement is certainly possible. Russia, Frey says, may have been deliberately trying to undermine the blossoming detente between the US and Cuba (though that wouldn't explain the attacks on the US consulate in China).
At his home outside Washington, Mr. Frey, the scientist who uncovered the neural phenomenon, said federal investigators have questioned him on the diplomatic riddle and that microwave radiation is considered a possible cause.
Mr. Frey, now 83, has traveled widely and long served as a contractor and a consultant to a number of federal agencies. 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."
And that may be - but it's certainly a pretty thin peg to hang a 3,000-word feature on.
But that obvious fact apparently didn't faze the editors at the NYT. After all - as we've learned time and time again in recent years - Russia is the primary suspect by default.
Indeed, as the NYT has so eloquently explained, this too is Putin's fault.