The story of the mystery illness that began to affect U.S. embassy personnel in Havana, Cuba in late 2016 has stirred a media frenzy unlike any seen since the UFO hysteria of the 1950s. The overriding suspicion is that the diplomats were attacked with a stealth “energy beam” that inflicted concussion-like brain symptoms. But the specific nature of the beam, the perpetrators who fired it, and their motives for doing so remain elusive.
In my opinion, that’s because the true culprit of the embassy attack is journalism. Unanchored by fact-based reporting, the public has been swept adrift in hysteria — and, quite possibly, whisked away into the authoritarian currents of propaganda.
Many theories for the alleged attack have been advanced, with each new explanation spawning a new wave of hysteria and speculation, only to crash under the weight of scientific scrutiny. First it was a sonic weapon, one that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio described as a “very sophisticated technology that does not exist in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.” Then it was a psychological weapon of mass hysteria. Then a biological weapon or neurotoxin.
Earlier this month, The New York Times cooked up a microwave-weapon theory, but that collapsed like a half-baked soufflé. Now, the explanation du jour is that the diplomats were attacked with a “neuroweapon” — a neurological weapon that works by, well, being a neurological weapon.
And just who committed this heinous act? The instigators are said to be Cuban intelligence operatives. But it could have been an antigovernment rogue faction in Cuba. Or the Russians. Or possibly the Chinese!
All those theories are discredited by the scientific facts, as I have previously reported based on my on-location interviews with primary sources, examinations of the sites of the alleged attacks, and readings of the publicly available data. There is no need to debunk them again here.
Rather, the point here is to state plainly that the stealth-attack terror campaign has been sustained by a press who pretend to be champions sleuthing out a great mystery, but who are really doing something far less noble: spreading rumor. The few articles that have reported on the affair responsibly and scientifically have been swamped out in a sea of sensational coverage, because “nothing happened,” is not a news story.
Of course, something happened. It just wasn’t an energy beam that blasted people’s brains; it was journalism that did the blasting. In its coverage of the Havana ordeal, the press has failed to adhere to fundamental tenets of sourcing, verification, and fact-based reporting. It has failed to obtain authoritative and independent viewpoints. And it has neglected its most important function in a democratic society: questioning government authority.
Part of the problem is that the reporters covering this story generally aren’t the types who eagerly dissected frogs and pored over chemistry books in their youth. Rather, they are experts in international affairs, and although they are outstanding in their field, they’ve found themselves outside their element covering a complicated science story. It’s not surprising, then, that they could be suckered into reporting that the mysterious attack damaged white matter in the diplomats brains (it didn’t) or that the high-pitched din that was recorded and later posited to be a cricket chirping, was evidence of a sonic weapon. And so we were treated to the hysterical spectacle of the Associated Press broadcasting a supposedly crippling audio over the internet and becoming unwitting co-conspirators in a plot to maim millions. You have to credit the news editors for applying the scientific method to get to the truth.
The media’s coverage of the Embassy ordeal has been shoddy in part because reporters have so little to go on. None of the initial clinical tests of the ailing diplomats were provided to the public. Most of the reporting appears to be based on confidential information leaked by anonymous sources, many of them at the U.S. State Department. And reporters have leaned heavily on a clinical study published last March by University of Pennsylvania researchers, which was roundly criticized by the scientific community as unsound. The embassy workers may have had various medical complaints, but the available data do not support a diagnosis of a coherent syndrome or traumatic injury — nor do they provide evidence of an attack. Yet reporters continue to restate as fact the premise that the diplomats were attacked and suffered traumatic brain injury.
Now that the stealth attacks have spread to an embassy in China, it’s even harder to come up with a plausible suspect and motive. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center and one of the Cuban scientists investigating the purported attack, revealed to me his prime suspect: “I think it is people that the U.S. government listens to, who want to roll back Obama’s work with Cuba, and they are taking advantage of this.” A similar political motive could also apply to China: Advancing a secret-weapon narrative could serve as a way to preserve the U.S.’s adversarial relationship with the country.
That’s a sentiment I encountered often when I spoke with people on the street in Cuba. “This is what the U.S. always does,” a man in the small village of Viñales told me as his friends all nodded. “It’s weapons of mass destruction again,” he said, referring to the United Nations speech in which then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell waved a bottle of mock anthrax in the air to rouse support for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Powell later said he regretted giving the American public misleading information about weapons of mass destruction, and many media outlets criticized their own willingness to pass on the government propaganda without adequate scrutiny.
Whether the confusion over what happened in Havana is the result of a propaganda play or just the fog of “sonic” war, it’s clear that the press hasn’t taken seriously enough its charge to disseminate clear and accurate information to the public. Journalists cannot and must not be judge and jury, but neither should they allow their reporting to degenerate into “he said, she said” transcription. Every interviewee is selling something. The vital safeguard against being played is to adhere to facts and to follow solid journalistic principles and practices.
The government may be correct that diplomats in Havana were victims of a mysterious brain scrambling energy beam. The government may also be covering up the crash of an alien space craft in Nevada’s Area 51. “Better to print nothing than to print falsehoods,” must be for journalists what the Hippocratic Oath is for doctors.
R. Douglas Fields is a neuroscientist and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of two books, “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain” and “The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science.”