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Chapter 1: Jericho


Jericho music rises. Very low horn theme rises from underneath it

It started… in Cuba.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down!

The US Embassy in Havana is a brutalist seven-storey edifice of concrete and glass. Ringed by rusty security fences, it squats like a tombstone on the edge of Havana Bay.

For the backdrop to a spy thriller, it certainly looks the part.

At the end of 2016, something… weird started to happen to people working here.

It was the beginning of something. Something seemingly inexplicable – something that snowballed into a huge, global, history-changing event.

Something that destroyed lives. And crippled a nation.

And it started… with a sound.

…Right up to the walls of Jericho
They marched with spear in hand;
“Go blow them ram horns,” Joshua cried,
“Cause the battle is in my hand.”


There’s an Old Testament Story. The battle of Jericho. The Israelites – besieging an impregnable fortress city – are commanded by God to blast the walls with mighty trumpets.

…Then the lamb, ram, Sheep horns began to blow,
And the trumpets began to sound,
Joshua told the children to shout that morning
And the walls came tumbling down!

Horn sound rises to a crescendo, then fades. Song instrumental remains, low

Our relationship with sound is both aural and physical. Think of the Inception BWAAAAAP that skips the ears and cuts right through to our hind-brain. The deep, enveloping, thumping bass at a club or concert.

A sound wave is a moving wall of compressed air. You don’t just hear it – you *feel* it in your whole body. That’s what makes it intoxicating. It envelops you. Shakes you. You vibrate with the music. Become one with it.

But it can also be destructive. An explosion is the same wall of air as thumping bass, but much stronger. A powerful enough soundwave is a shockwave. A powerful enough shockwave destroys everything in its path.

That’s the duality of sound. It can create beauty… or pandemonium.

There is no actual historical evidence for the battle of Jericho. It’s a story, one that sticks in the mind because it’s such a potent evocation of that duality. Of sound… as a weapon.

[rising to a crescendo]
And the walls came tumbling down!
And the walls came tumbling down!
And the walls came tumbling down!



From Project Brazen and PRX, this is THE SOUND. An investigative podcast.

I’m Nicky Woolf.



This is Chapter One.


I’ve spent my career covering stories at the murky intersection of our technology and politics. And I’ve seen some really, really weird stuff.

But I’ve never seen a story like what happened in Havana.

It’s not just a story about national security. Cold War geopolitics. Spycraft. Classified weapons programs and black ops contractors.

It’s also a story about chaos.

State department says one thing, then walks it back. CIA says something different. The FBI says it’s crap. Then they walk that back too. Politicians join sides, pushing their own agendas. Doctors and scientists tear at each other’s throats over wildly divergent theories.

No-one can agree… on pretty much anything. Not on what’s happening. Not even if it’s real. Or, if it is real… on who could be behind it. And everyone is *so sure* they’re right.

Reporting this has been like running through an endless maze. Full of dead ends. Blind alleys. And traps.

Not gonna lie. It’s quite a ride.


Cue, Kevin: she was at the filing cabinet in front of the windows when she experienced the sound

Cue, Doug: it was so loud that we couldn’t talk.

Cue, Johana: this is has been one of the most dark operation in foreign policy of American history

Cue, Linda: by the time we were asked to investigate, it was way too late.


Kyle: We might have to build something a little bigger.

Cue, Frank: …I mean, is, you know, it’s an act of war.

Kyle: We’re gonna need to build something bigger… Okay, I’m ready. 3, 2, 1.


From Project Brazen and PRX, this is THE SOUND. An investigative podcast.

I’m Nicky Woolf.



First, we’re gonna look at how all this started.

This is Chapter One.



Kevin Coats met his wife Karen while serving in the navy. They started a family. He served in the Gulf War. After the kids grew up and Kevin left active duty, they wanted a new adventure.

Cue, Kevin: Kind of a silly story, I actually learned about the process of becoming a, a US diplomat from a car salesman.

The salesman was changing careers. He told Kevin – offhand – that he was planning to take the foreign service officer test.

Cue, Kevin: and I was like, foreign service, what’s that? … I went home and told my wife, I was like, ‘Hey, I think I know what we should try to do next…

In 2013, they were hired by the State Department. They were what’s called a ‘tandem’… a husband and wife who travel to postings together.

Their first assignment was Australia. But when they thought about where to go next, Cuba was top of the list.

Cue, Kevin: … It was before diplomatic relationship had been restored. And so it was still a very mysterious kind of place, especially for Americans.

So when an opening came up, they leapt at the chance.

Cue, Kevin: …flying over the country and looking down and, you know, it was pretty, pretty exciting really, just because of the mystique. This is Cuba, going into Havana.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba had been tense for decades. Extremely tense.

The Cold War never really ended there. The US embargo was enacted under JFK, and Cuba has been a pariah ever since.

[Cue, Bolton: “… The government in Cuba, I think it’s still repressing it’s citizens, I think it’s still a threat to the United States…”

Cue, Sosa: “… so many years of hostility… of strained relationships…”]

Cue, Bush: “… a tyrant … who has turned a beautiful island into a prison…”

But in 2015, soon after the Coats’ arrived, the political winds started to shift. The Obama administration re-established diplomatic ties with the Castro regime.

Cue, ARCHIVAL: It is history in the making. President Obama is about to land… the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.

Tourism and trade opened up. Families were reunited. Money flooded in. It was an exciting time.

For the Americans… life in Havana was truly idyllic.

Cue, Kevin: every weekend we’d get in the car and we would just drive
… it was all just, you know, interesting, exciting

They’d fall asleep to the chirping of cicadas – an ever-present feature of life in the Caribbean. They’d wake to the sound of rooster crows.

Cue, Kevin: We’d go out to the Havana Club …
The Malecon of course,
You know, there’s just so many interesting things. A person sitting on the Malecon on the wall playing a guitar, kids kicking a ball around …

Singers, old guys with cigars, guys sitting around playing chess

They’d drive out to the tobacco farms.

Cue, Kevin: when you get an actual Cuban cigar, it was almost like smoking a chocolate bar. It was so smooth. Truly amazing…


Cue, Kevin: But yeah, no, um, I, I always, you know, said to everybody afterwards, I mean, Cuba was fantastic

until it wasn’t.



January. 2017.

Embassy life isn’t always romantic. A lot of it is pretty standard office work.

There’s civil servants. There’s Consular Officers. That’s what Kevin was doing. There’s IT people. Security Staff. healthcare providers. HR – that’s where Karen worked. She managed the embassy’s local hires. Drivers, assistants, interpreters and translators – that sort of thing.

But there were spies too. There was a CIA station within the embassy. These officers operate in a grey, secret world. Gathering intel. Developing sources. It’s highly classified stuff. The FBI, responsible for counterintelligence, had a desk there, too.

All these people come and go… it’s a big ecosystem.

Cue, Kevin: when people started disappearing, it wasn’t really noticeable at first…

Kevin says it’s common for Embassy officials to go back to the States for a visit, or get reassigned at short notice.

But this feels different.

Cue, Kevin: … I remember asking somebody that was working in the consular section, I was like, ‘Hey, what happened to this person?’
And they’re like, ‘oh yeah, they’ve left, they got medevaced. I’m not sure if they’re coming back.’
I was like, ‘wow, what?’

March. 2017.

The embassy holds an all-hands briefing about what’s going on. It is considered classified.

Kevin and Karen go. But they aren’t really told much at all.

Cue, Kevin: …It was very vague at that point in time. It’s like ‘something’s been going on … but we don’t think it’s gonna be significant. We don’t think it’s gonna affect any of you. So we just wanted you to know, because there are some people that are gone’

Cue, Kevin: Um, it was actually in this, uh, this time when my wife had her first event


Karen works on an upper floor of the Embassy. There’s a bathroom down the hall. To get there, she has to walk past a big window on the front of the building.

She stands up. Walks into the hall.

Cue, Kevin: … but as she turned a corner … she heard this very high pitched noise…

The sound is piercing.

Cue, Kevin: the way that she’s always described it is like a tea kettle, like on steroids… that high pitched whistle.

Cue, Kevin: and when she went back around the corner, She didn’t hear anything else.

Karen is confused.

Cue, Kevin: … so she starts around again and it’s still there… it was a super, super high pitched kind of sound.

She doesn’t know what to do. So she calls Kevin. Then embassy security, who send an officer upstairs to investigate.

Cue, Kevin: There was no sound by the time he got there and he had kind of no idea what it was. And we were, suspecting, thinking, ‘well, maybe is this what everybody else has been experiencing?’ But it was very unclear to us…

That evening, she starts having symptoms.

Cue, Kevin: …she started seeing … some black spots in her vision …
It… started off being very small, by the next day it was growing … We started becoming more and more concerned because the spot in her eye was getting larger.

She goes to a doctor the next day.

Cue, Kevin: the ophthalmologist is like… ‘well your retina’s definitely bleeding.’ And he said ‘I’ve only ever seen this when somebody has a trauma to their head, like a car accident or something…’

This is really strange. Because she has never gone through anything even remotely like that.

She gets flown to Miami, where a team is evaluating a rising number of similar cases.

Cue, Kevin: they didn’t know what was going on. They weren’t sure what to do, is what it felt like. There was nothing that they could tell us.


April. 2017.

Karen gets treated for her eyes, and is sent back to Havana.

But then… it happens again.

Cue, Kevin: And she was at the file and cabinet in front of the windows when she experienced the sound.

Once again, her head starts to ring. She ducks behind a pillar. It goes away. She leans her head out – it comes back.

It isn’t just a sound this time. There’s pain.

Cue, Kevin: in this case, she had very intense pressure in her head…
She said it felt like her face was gonna just blow off.

July. 2017.

It happens a third time. And this time Kevin gets hit too.

Cue, Kevin: My wife and I were together. We were actually just outside the embassy coming back from lunch … and we started hearing the sound again.

He can feel the pressure in his head.

Cue, Kevin: We started walking across the street and

… the sound stopped …

Kevin says he didn’t feel any effects… until later.

But Karen is getting worse by the day.

Cue, Kevin: She’d lose her balance and she’d start to fall … she was not able to remember things, she’s starting to write post-it notes to remember what she’s doing, she’s leaving them around her office.

She started having sleep issues … and vision, the sensitivity to light … I’d go up there and she’d have the light off in her office because the light was bothering her eyes.

August. 2017.

Karen is medevaced out again.

By this point, cases in Havana number around two dozen. Like Karen, they report things like nausea. Dizziness. Vertigo. Insomnia. Debilitating headaches. Cognitive issues.

And all of them say they heard… a sound.


OK. How did we get here?

After the break – we’ll go all the way back. To Patient Zero.



We’re back.




February, 2017

One month before Karen’s first event. At the University of Miami, in the office of a doctor named Michael Hoffer… the phone rings.

Cue, Hoffer: the phone call was, ‘This is the state department. We have a problem.’

Hoffer had worked with the government before looking at traumatic brain injuries in the military.

We’re listening to him tell the story at a conference. It’s how he came to lead the first medical investigation into the Havana outbreak.

Cue, Hoffer: …And the individual on the phone told me about an individual in Havana who had heard odd noises, had felt some pain in his ear and had ringing in his ear and the next morning was dizzy and confused.

He’s describing patient zero. The first person to report the strange sound, and these even stranger symptoms.

As one case turns into two, then three, then four, the government flies them in for Hoffer and his team to examine. This is where Karen was sent in March.

Even early on, it’s clear a concrete diagnosis is going to be tough.

Cue, Hoffer: we had to work within the timeframe they were given to us … we sometimes only had the individual for a day. We couldn’t get every test in a day. We sometimes, you know, only had the individual for half a day.
So yeah, there are holes because that’s what happens when you see patients for medical care.

But he sees enough to be convinced these people have been impacted by *something*. And when he takes MRI scans, what he sees really disturbs him.

Cue, Hoffer: We have objective evidence

…that they had an abnormality …

That leads, as you can imagine, to some pretty uncomfortable questions.

Cue, Hoffer: what caused it, who did it, why it was done?

We don’t know any of those things.


Cue, Patrick: So yeah, patient zero. We don’t know a lot about that person.

This is Patrick Oppmann.

Cue, Patrick: Patrick Oppman. I live and work in Havana, Cuba, and I’m the CNN International Correspondent and Havana Bureau Chief.

He’s lived in Havana for eleven years. His connection with this country runs deep. His grandfather was in Cuba the night of the revolution – and, according to family lore, met Che Guevara a couple of days after.

Patrick himself first came to Cuba in 1994, aged 17, and immediately fell in love with the place.

Cue, Patrick: It just gets in your blood. So it’s a place like nowhere else.

Patrick’s been into this story as long as any journalist has – anyone outside the classified or diplomatic world. Even early on, he starts picking up on some odd vibes.

Cue, Patrick: talking to some of the diplomats here, I could, I could sense a change had taken place.

This is early 2017. Patrick is asking his sources at the embassy about all the new changes. About how the US and Cuba are adjusting to the new diplomatic situation.

Cue, Patrick: I could just tell that the relationship was souring. And I’d even asked some of the diplomats, ‘are you guys being harassed? oh, we can’t talk about it.’

Cue, Patrick: some diplomats one time, kind of tell me, ‘oh, you know, sometimes we hear the loud sounds
and did I ever hear any weird sounds at night?’

We now know that the first reported cases of this thing are actually highly concentrated.

Cue, Patrick: Initially, all the people, or most of the people, who were impacted as described to me were CIA intelligence officers

That’s important to remember. It’s only later that staff in the rest of the embassy, like Karen and Kevin, start getting hit too.

The symptoms, though, are the same.

Cue, Patrick: and they would feel a general sense of discomfort, sometimes even kinda excruciating pain, sometimes that sense of pain with a change in pressure. They could sometimes hear the sound that sounded like metal grating, you know, sort of metal, being dragged across the ground.

As we’ve heard… when they move away, it stops. And if they go back to where it’s happening…

Cue, Patrick: It started again.They could have kind of walked in and out of what they described as a beam of energy hitting them. And so they clearly felt, whether they were right or wrong, that this was something targeted, something being done to them, and that
someone was essentially telling the CIA in Cuba, it’s time to pack up and leave.

At the beginning, though, it’s a very tightly guarded secret.

Cue, Patrick: it was considered classified. And a lot of diplomats were even told they weren’t able to tell, uh, their husbands or wives, because they didn’t have, that kind of classification.

That’s what happened with Kevin and his wife Karen.

Cue, Kevin: she was told, ‘you cannot talk about any of the things that are going on here. You cannot tell the doctors about any of this stuff. This is all still sensitive and you can’t talk about it.’

But everything… was about to change.


[briefing room noise]

Reporter: Cuba?
Nauert: Okay. Let’s go to Cuba. Okay. Go right ahead. Hi. How are you?

August. 2017.

A few days after Karen Coats is medevaced from Cuba for the second time, the story breaks in the press.

It becomes official when reporters ask State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert about it in a press conference.

Reporter: So do you have any update – I know it’s just recent – on the diplomats and the hearing loss issue?

Nauert: … We will not confirm the health status of any Americans, whether they’re in Cuba, back here at home, or elsewhere. What I can tell you… We consider these to be incidents because we still are trying to work – determine the actual cause of their situation. They have had a variety of physical symptoms. That’s as far as I can go in describing that. We just don’t have the definitive answers yet. This is an active investigation and that investigation is ongoing at this time.

Nauert – who is brand new in the job – goes back and forth with reporters for a bit.

Cue, Nauert: We’re done with this now…
Cue, Reporter: Has the harassment stopped? Has this acoustic harassment stopped?
Cue, Nauert: Look, I’m not gonna confirm or deny what you’re saying – we get a lot of leading questions here today – This remains an ongoing investigation and concern, and I’m not gonna get into that any further. I’m done with Cuba…

Things get a little testy.

Cue, Reporter: Why are we learning about this? This has been going on at least eight or nine months. And now we’re just learning about this. Why?

Cue, Nauert: As a reporter you’re going to ask me that question? I mean, goodness, you could have been down there reporting on this … look… people started experiencing ailments in late 2016, okay? And think about it. When you have an ailment, you don’t always know exactly what’s causing it, okay? Some of these things take time to investigate, in particular ones that are people aren’t certain what has caused them …

Cue, Nauert: We don’t have all the answers yet. So I appreciate that you wanna try to push me to say something. I’m not gonna create storylines for you that don’t match up with the facts as we know them right now.

But here’s the thing about storylines.

Humans don’t understand the world as a collection of random facts. We need to put them together. Create a narrative to understand them.

And then… we want to give that narrative a name.


At first, nobody knew what to call whatever was happening in Havana. Early on, embassy staff called it “the thing.” Some of the media referred to them as “attacks” or “getting hit.” Others referred to it as a “phenomenon.”

Giving something a name is a powerful thing. A name defines its subject. In some ways, creates it. Codifies it. When you give something like this a name, it turns it from a collection of events… into the storyline we crave.

That Summer… a tiny intel blog gave this phenomenon – the attacks, the thing, whatever you want to call it – a supremely catchy name. A name that would be splattered on headlines around the world.

[Cue, Montage of sources saying “Havana Syndrome.” … fade into thunderstorm SFX]


September. 2017.

Back in Cuba, Kevin has just started a new job as deputy head of the consular section. Karen is still in the US getting treatment.

Cue, Kevin: once she was there, there’s a little bit of relief cuz I felt like, ‘okay, now she’s there with somebody who can, can help her, and help take care of her.’
Yeah, it was hard and it’s continued to be hard, quite frankly.

But now – though not nearly as bad – he’s started to struggle too.

He’ll lose his train of thought in meetings, or stumble over words he’s used a million times.

Cue, Kevin: people are still having to tell me the same thing over and over again.
And I’m like, this is really embarrassing. This is not how I normally am. It was concerning me.


There’s also a literal storm coming.

The category 5 Hurricane Irma has formed in the Atlantic and is baring down on Cuba – and Florida. Kevin flies back to the states to batten down the hatches at their family home in Key West.

Cue, Kevin: … and I left thinking I was gonna be gone for like a week and then I’d be back.

He never gets to go back.

Cue, anchor: The Trump administration announced Friday, that it is pulling more than half of its staff out of the American embassy in Havana. This comes after diplomats and staff suffered mysterious health attacks that caused minor brain injuries.

Cue, Kevin: They made the decision to … they put it on what’s called ‘ordered departure.’ And everybody who was non-essential, got sent out, including the entire consular section… so I never went back.

The atmosphere in Cuba changes completely. The skeleton staff that remain at the embassy are tense. Paranoid. Jumping at every sound.

Hoffer, and other medical teams now treating Havana patients are writing up their findings for publication. The media are hungry for answers.

Investigations start to crank up. The State Department is desperately trying to figure out what’s going on. So is the Cuban government. The FBI has sent in a team of agents. And the CIA has started a top secret inquiry.

The story… is just beginning.


This season on THE SOUND.

Cue, Mark: …there are other incidents that do involve dozens of people that just haven’t been made public yet…

Cue, Relman: …these were cases that simply defied an easy explanation.

Cue, Max/Nicky: That’s the sound.

Cue, Robert: … My specialty area is mass psychogenic illness and social panics, which is exactly what is going on here…

Cue, Linda: We felt that it was likely that it was some kind of microwave type radiation event…

Cue, Ken: …a lot of these people were having suspected radio frequency attacks… and I had a known RF attack.

Cue, Jim: I’ve had some friends who have died from some very strange diseases out of Moscow.

Kyle: So first off under absolutely no circumstances. Am I building you a weapon. Because people have died.


Kyle: …but we could make a device of some kind.

Cue, Max/Nicky: That’s the sound.


The Sound is a production of Project Brazen in partnership w/ PRX. You can follow the show on Apple, Spotify wherever you get your podcasts to stay up to date on new episodes.

Do leave us a rating and review… it really does help people find the show.

The SOUND was produced by Goat Rodeo.

The lead producer is Max Johnston.

The show was reported and written by me – Nicky Woolf – and Max Johnston.

Executive producers for Project Brazen are Bradley Hope, Tom Wright and Nicholas Brennan.

Senior Producers for Goat Rodeo are Ian Enright & Megan Nadolski.

Mixing and engineering by Rebecca Seidel.

Additional production by Rebecca Seidel, Jonathan O’Sullivan, Emilio Polo and Javier Labrador.

Original score by the fabulous Attacca Quartet.

Additional music from Max Johnston, Ian Enright, Rebecca Seidel and Blue Dot Sessions.

Editorial and Production assistance at Goat Rodeo from Isabelle Kerby-McGowan, Cara Shillenn, Jay Venables and Megan Nadolski.

At Project Brazen, Mariangel Gonzales (Mah-ree-un-hell), Megan Dean, Susie Armitage (Arm-eh-tedge), Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio, Salber Lee, Lucy Woods, Siddhartha Mahanta, and Neha Wadekar.

Our producer in Havana is Boris Crespo.

Ryan Ho is series creative director. Cover art designed by Julien Pradier (Pra-dee-yay).

Series video production by Javier Labrador, Andrija Klaric (An-dri-ya Klarr-itch), Giulia Franchi (Fran-key), Emily Chao and Nicholas Brennan.