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Chapter 2: The Immaculate Concussion

Cue, Nicky: How debilitating for you both has, has this been in terms of what you can and can’t do?
Cue, Doug: for me, the results have been relatively mild, I would say, compared to what a lot of my colleagues have gone through. I am more prone to headaches. I am more easily tired by conversations, that kind of thing. Sometimes I have trouble finding a word, but it’s not incredibly severe.

Cue, Doug: …for Kate, it’s been a more difficult path.

This is Doug Ferguson. He’s describing what life is like today for him and his wife Kate.

Like Kevin and Karen from the last episode, Doug and Kate were a tandem. They moved to Cuba together to work at the embassy.

She – and Doug – were some of the first victims of what would later become known as “Havana Syndrome.” In early 2017, they were among the first patients to be medevaced out to Miami.

Cue, Doug: She had more problems with balance issues, um, the ways that her eyes move … She had to get, uh, a lot of rehabilitation in, in that regard.
Did a lot of exercises. Um, she was in rehab for, for months in Philadelphia and at the National Rehab Hospital.

Listen… there’s something I need to address here. You may have noticed that we heard Karen’s story from Kevin last episode. And now we’re hearing Kate’s story from Doug.

There’s a reason for that. Both Karen and Kate told us they haven’t yet felt able to sit for an interview. The prospect of speaking for an extended period, surrounded by electronic devices, is really painful. And they both struggle with words and stringing thoughts together, which makes them wary of long interviews.

We may hear from them later in the series, but in the meantime they each asked Doug or Kevin to speak for them. That’s the case as I write this, almost six years since Havana.

Cue, Doug: her balance issues are significantly better. She still has some issues that come up now and then with that, but her cognitive issues, they really weren’t able to help with a ton.

Cue, Doug: She’s still really prone to headaches and, um, mental fatigue given certain situations … the process of doing the rehabilitation is very arduous and painful.
So, you know, it’s like when you’re learning to walk again…
learning to use your brain again in certain ways, it’s, it’s painful. It causes headaches and that kind of thing. So it’s kind of traumatic to go through that.

What is clear is this: something powerful enough happened in Cuba to remain devastating to Kate and Karen to this day.

Cue, Doug: And at a certain point, uh, the doctors just said, you’ve reached your maximum medical improvement …
… that’s their way of saying, the way you are now is your new normal…


Cue, Doug: …This is how things are gonna be for you for the rest of your life.


From Project Brazen and PRX, this is THE SOUND.

I’m Nicky Woolf.


This is Chapter Two.

The Immaculate Concussion.


Cue, Max: Could you do me a favor, just say what you had for breakfast this morning?
Giordino: Sure. For breakfast this morning, I had eleven cups of coffee and a dose of amphetamine [laughter]
Nicky: Nice, breakfast of champions.
Max: All right. We’re good on mic placement. So whenever you’re ready.
Nicky: So I wonder if we could just do the kind of classic podcast sort of intro thing, if you could just say hi, my name is Dr. James Giordano. I am…
Giordano: Hi, I’m Dr. James Giordano. I’m a professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. I’m also a senior bioethicist for the Defense Medical Ethics Center and executive director of the Institute for Biodefense Research, a federally funded think-tank here in the Washington DC area.

An advisor to the CIA, State, and the Pentagon, Giordano has been at the heart of this story from the very beginning. He is one of the government’s first phone calls.

Giordano: I was contacted by colleagues from the Department of State … who informed me that they had a situation that they felt fell into my gambit of expertise … I’d been known in the field for a couple of decades with regard to my work in what is now being referred to as neuroweapons.

That’s why they need his help understanding what the hell the doctors are seeing in these patients.

Cue, Giordano: And they provided a brief explanation to me as to what they had about two dozen individuals who were presenting with a series of subjective symptoms and objective signs that were puzzling …

The symptoms, as well as the results from the initial Miami study, all point to traumatic brain injury. You know, the kind you’d get in a bike or car accident, or from, say, playing in the NFL.

But the problem was, almost none of the patients had anything like that in their medical history.

Cue, Giordano: these patients were originally described as having… the immaculate concussion…

[BEAT musical sting]

Giordano was brought on as a consulting forensic brain scientist. The question he faced is the one I’ve become obsessed with. The one this show is, ultimately, about…

Cue, Giordano: …what happened here?


Attempting to answer that, it turns out, was and still is a fiendishly difficult undertaking.

Cue, Nicky: And talk me through that Occam’s razor process. What got cut out, what got left in?
Giordano: … the idea is to try to shave as closely as you can with Ockham’s razor … I mean, the problem was you had a very, very fuzzy beard to shave through.

He starts looking for patterns.

Cue, Giordano: Interestingly, one of the first things that we considered is these individuals may have been exposed to something from the environment, and there are plenty of things that could do this, a variety of industrial agents, environmental agents, pesticides, commercial solvents, each and all that are not only possible in terms of doing this, but we know that there have been records of these things doing so in the toxicological literature.

Immediately, to Giordano, that doesn’t fit. If there’s some kind of toxin or pesticide in the air or water, why is it just affecting these US officials? And even then, it’s happening to a small group around the embassy… not everyone.

Cue, Giordano: The next thing we thought could be a possibility is what about drug? Now, there are a number of drugs that are widely used in clinical medicine that could produce these types of effects.

But the patients were all tested for that stuff.

Cue, Giordano: In other words, there would have been not only some biomarker, some chemical residue in the individuals who were affected, but the effects wouldn’t have just been limited to what we saw …

He’s baffled.

Cue, Giordino: …basically in very simple terms that there was no proverbial smoking gun. There was no entrance wound per se. There was no exit wound. But there seemed to be something there happening in between, in each and all of these patients.

Part of the pattern is… the sound. Does that point to anything?

Cue, Giordano: … Well, another viability was the potential for certain devices…

And although that sounds like ray gun, mumbo jumbo scientific fiction sort of stuff, it’s really not at all. I mean we’ve known since at least the late 1980s and early 1990s of the viability of developing systems and tools that are capable of emitting sound, and even ultrasound that can be disruptive to a variety of different substances, including biological tissues. Number two, we recognize that there were a series of patents that were filed here in the United States for what’s called long range, acoustic devices…”

The technology exists. Various commercial sonic devices are already commonplace, used for anything from – at the small end – repelling rodents and insects, to – at the large end – mass crowd control.

Cue, Giordano: … because really all these, these sound stimuli are nothing more than displacements of air. Those hose displacements of air then cause expansions and contractions … in some cases, substances inclusive of biological tissues are really vulnerable to that …

So the investigators start to rally around this idea… that some sort of device could be creating this sound. Meanwhile… more and more Americans in Havana are actually hearing it…

People like Doug Ferguson…


Cue, Nicky: What sort of drew you to, to, um, the sort of diplomatic life?
Cue, Doug: So, at a fundamental level, I just really believe in diplomacy … I, it’s what keeps us out of wars. It’s what generates prosperity for people around the world.

Doug and his wife Kate arrived in Havana in 2016. He’s an IT manager.

Cue, Doug: … So as an IT manager I take care of every mode of communication in an embassy, be it computers, telephones, radios, down to the mail … that’s what I have been doing in my whole career with the state department, and that’s what I was doing in Havana.


Cue, Nicky: and then as you say, something weird happened, like, could you tell us about what started to happen?
Cue, Doug: Well … we started hearing this sound at our house

Actually, at first, they don’t think there’s anything odd about it at all.

Cue, Doug: I thought, honestly, it was an insect because, you know, when you live around the world, you meet a lot of strange, wonderful insects that do all kinds of things.
So it wasn’t a surprise to me to hear something new and different…

It starts out more of an annoyance than anything else.

Cue, Doug: we didn’t associate the sound with any kind of attack or with any health effects, that kind of thing. But at the same time, you know, we were starting to experience things like headaches and that kind of thing…

One night, Kate wakes up suddenly to find the room spinning. She has horrible nausea. She can’t find her balance.

Cue, Doug: … later she just wrote that off as we’re living in a new country. We’re eating new, wonderful, strange foods. And who knows? It could be anything that causes that kind of response. All these symptoms you can just write off to other things…

Cue, Nicky: can you sort of give a, like, just describe the sound in, in detail … what did it sound like in, and, uh, you know, was it kind of clicking or hissing?

Cue, Doug: I mean, if you’ve ever heard a cicada in a tree on a summer night, it sounded a lot like that.

Doug says it wasn’t all the time. Just a couple of nights a week.

Cue, Doug: but we were hanging out with our neighbors one evening and we were out on that back patio and it was so loud that we couldn’t talk.
So naturally we were talking about what was this thing? And I said, ah, that’s just a crazy loud cicada, isn’t it? And they’re like, no way is that a cicada cuz it is too loud and like mechanical sounding, it’s like a steady tone that just didn’t let up.

He reports it to the embassy, who send out a maintenance crew to see if there’s some kind of motor or air conditioner somewhere nearby that could be causing it.

Cue, Doug: …something that’s about to go up in smoke cause there’s gears grinding or whatever. They never found anything, but that’s the kind of thinking that we were having at that time.

They shrug it off, until they hear from a friend of theirs. The friend’s already gone to Miami for medical care. This is spring 2017 when cone of secrecy is starting to lift a bit.

Cue, Doug: … he was agitated. He had suffered some pretty serious problems, which I won’t go into cause that’s his story … but he told me that it was related to a sound that he heard at his house and he had a recording of the sound and he offered to play it for me.

So when I listened to it, I realized that was the exact same sound that we were hearing at our house …

Cue, Doug: So it was later that night or later that week, when the next time we heard that sound, I went out on the back patio and made a recording of it with my phone.

We’ll come back to that recording later on. It’s an important piece of evidence.

Cue, Doug: … even then, I didn’t really think this was any big deal. I talked myself out of it, you know, and it took me a few days to even turn in the recording to have them analyze it … and they came back and they said, yes, this is the same sound …

So they start to wonder… could something be wrong?
They’re still experiencing symptoms. One day Doug gets a nasty pain in his ear.

So Doug and Kate figure they should get checked out, just to be on the safe side. But even when the embassy immediately medevacs them to the States they still aren’t particularly worried.

Cue, Doug: So even when we went to Miami, we really didn’t feel like we had any issues. You know, like I said, all the symptoms that we’d experienced, you know, some balance issues and, and headaches, that kind of thing. Nausea, easily written off to other things.
So it wasn’t until the doctors there put us in, certain equipment and certain situations where you could tease out the symptoms…

One of the tests they perform in Miami is a device that tracks eye-movement. It basically moves a dot back and forth in front of you. In a healthy patient, your eyes follow it smoothly.

Cue, Doug: … what we saw in the recording of our eyes was that tracking that dot across our field of vision was jerky.

Cue, Doug: It didn’t feel abnormal when I was doing it, but the doctor explained it to me. He said, look, here’s a recording of what normal eyes look like, and then here’s a recording of what your eyes look like.
And you know, it was at that moment when I go, ‘oh yeah, I can see that it’s messed up’…

it begins to dawn on Doug and Kate that something might be seriously wrong.

Cue, Doug: It really became apparent that we had some more serious impairment then you could just write off to, to something … And the doctor diagnosed us at that time with, uh, mild traumatic brain injuries.


This episode so far has been about doctors like Giordano… and patients like Doug and Kate looking for answers.

Next, let’s zoom out to the macro scale. To the bureaucrats. The politicians. What do they do now?

We’ll be back after the break


We’re back.

So, the US is investigating what’s going on in Havana.

But… when did the Cubans first learn something was up?


Johana Tablada is Deputy Director General for the United States at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Cue, Johana: I just wanna make a statement from the beginning and then I’ll go to the chronology of events.
This has been one of the most dark operation in foreign policy of American history

Important to remember, this is a potential attack… on Cuban soil. This would be massive anywhere in the world… but especially here with the history of these two countries.

Cue, Johana: … I have no doubt today that at some point the people will know what happened, or to be more clear, what did not happen, … because it is a lie so big that there’s too many people who knows it.

Johana is one of the highest-ranking Cubans when it comes to the relationship with the US. She’s worked on it for three decades.

Cue, Johana: …so we heard about this issue for the first time in February, 2017 … the charge of affairs of the American embassy is the one that asked for a meeting with the foreign affair ministry. To present a complaint and said that they think that they’ve been attacked.

The charge d’affaires is the acting ambassador, who’d overseen the reopening of the embassy under Obama. America’s senior diplomat on the ground.

So it’s a really big deal when he comes to the Cuban government with… if not an accusation exactly, something uncomfortably close to one.

Cue, Johana: and said that they have some cases and they think that they’ve been attacked by … an acoustic weapon or some acoustic device.

According to Johana, the Cuban authorities are gobsmacked.

Cue, Johana: …the Cuban government. told them we are gonna investigate.

Cue, Johana: immediately, as I say, the, the Cuba government tell him, we don’t do these things. We have no interest whatsoever in doing it…

So they open their doors to US investigators. Which is pretty unprecedented – this is Cuba. Castro’s Cuba. Actively inviting their number one enemy… the fucking CIA.

But out of all the US investigations, Johana says only the FBI ever came to Havana and took them up on it.

This is playing out against the backdrop of the early months of the Trump administration. Everything’s pretty chaotic. It’s not long before that first hypothesis – the sonic weapon theory – gets leaked to the press.

And that’s when things really start to snowball.

CNN Blitzer: Tonight new developments in the deepening mystery surrounding a suspected sonic weapon attack on Americans in Cuba…

Michael Weissenstein (on NPR): …These diplomats were either attacked deliberately with a sound device or were somehow exposed in a way that caused them to suffer these very severe symptoms.

But there’s a problem. A weapon like this – something capable of causing the symptoms in Cuba… would be far from covert.

The most powerful commercial sonic device available – at the moment – is called a ‘Long Range Acoustic Device’ or LRAD. They are loud. Some get up to 160 decibels, which is about the same level as a gun going off – only it’s continuous.

Here’s what an LRAD sounds like.

[Cue, LRAD]

These are devices used for crowd control. They’re designed to be literally so unbearable to hear that riots will disperse, or attackers turn and run.

That’s not at all what was reported in Havana. What the embassy staff said they heard was precisely located. Some of them said they could leave the spot they were standing in and the sound would go away. Then, when they walked back to that spot… the sound comes back.

If it were an LRAD – it would’ve woken the whole neighborhood.


When the Cuban government launches their investigation into what’s going on… they tap up Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience, to run it.

He’s on a research trip to Mexico when he first hears about what’s going on in Havana.

Mitchell: The cases were growing in number … the first news was that there were some sort of sonic weapon involved, which didn’t make much sense from a scientific point of view…

Mitchell is brought on to get to the bottom of what’s happening. The Cubans are worried.

A few years earlier, the Obama administration had finally taken steps to normalize the relationship between the US and Cuba.

Then comes Trump… and these mysterious health incidents.

Mitchell: Of course there was a great concern that this would somehow damage the relationships between Cuba and the US …

So there was a lot of concern with everyone.

They are right to be concerned. Because in the States, as soon as the story goes public… politicians start to point the finger at the Cuban government.

Here’s Senator Marco Rubio.

Cue, Rubio: That whoever did this, did this because they wanted there to be friction between the United States and the Cuban government … this suggests to me that potentially Castro is aware of rogue elements within his own government that may have been behind this…

Cue, Mitchell: I think this has been politicized from the very first moment.

Mitchell Valdes-Sosa again.

Cue, Mitchell: … we must remember that it was President Trump’s intention to roll back everything that Obama had achieved in bringing the two countries closer together.

I think everybody in Cuba was very excited … about the fact that after so many years of hostility, of strained relationships, the two countries were coming closer together.

… And as soon as these incidents started turning up … many people felt terribly frustrated and angry and puzzled…

Just think about what people were calling this thing.

Cue, Mitchell: I really don’t like the term Havana syndrome for several reasons…
The first, it’s not standard medical practice to name a syndrome for a country …
I mean, nobody would accept calling COVID-19 the Chinese flu.

Cue, Giordano: this quote Havana syndrome. And I have to tell you break, break. I hate that title. I don’t like that title.

Most of the American Investigators we’ve talked to don’t like it either. Here’s James Giordano again.

Cue, Giordano: I kind of thumbed my nose a bit at the idea Havana syndrome only because it also implies some at least complicity, if not culpability, of ourculpability of our colleagues in Havana. And IAnd I, I truly do not believe that they were involved. I truly do not believe that

But the US administration is in turmoil. There’s brand new leadership across the federal government. And politicians need a culprit. Someone to blame.

So Trump follows the path of least resistance.

Reporter: General Kelly said just last week that you believe Cuba could stop the Attacks against Americans, do you think Cuba is responsible?

Cue, Trump: …I do believe Cuba is responsible. I do believe that, and it’s a very unusual attack as you know, but I do believe Cuba is responsible, yes.

He’s not alone, though.

Cue, Patrick: “as the Cubans themselves have said to me many times, you can’t do something in this country without them knowing…”

Cue, Tillerson: “What we’ve said to the Cubans is, small island, you got a sophisticated security apparatus … You can stop it.”

The case against Cuba builds quickly. As summer of 2017 turns to autumn, the US ramps up its response.

Cue, anchor: Today the US expelled 15 cuban diplomats from the embassy in Washington in an escalating response to mysterious illnesses afflicting American embassy staff in Havana. US officials believe someone is targeting American diplomats, possibly with some type of sonic weapon…


While American and Cuban investigators try to figure out what’s happening, something else is going on. Something that would change the shape of this mystery.

Because it turns out, the American officials are not the only ones in Havana who’ve been experiencing weird things.

John Phillips is an attorney based in Toronto. He represents a group of Canadian diplomats who’d been stationed in Havana.

They were experiencing odd stuff as early as spring 2017…

Cue, Phillips: The plaintiffs that we represent … had incidents variously described as loud sounds, that led to them having debilitating symptoms.

Like the Americans… the Canadian diplomats assumed these symptoms had some other routine cause. So… like Kevin and Doug… the Canadians downplayed the health problems.

All these diplomatic families socialised. Their kids went to the same school. They lived in the same neighbourhood, some next door to each other.

So in May 2017, a couple of weeks after the US embassy first briefs its staff on their cases… a couple of Americans get in touch with their Canadian neighbours.

Cue, Phillips: Some American diplomats who were posted in country came and attended in a sort of clandestine meeting with one of our clients …

The identity of those involved isn’t public, but the Canadian diplomat uses the pseudonym Allen in court documents. So we’ll call him that.

Cue, Phillips: They’re aware that in Cuba everybody’s under surveillance by the Cuban government and others … So they met in a street … and discussed what was going on …

Even the scant details in their meeting are alarming because Allen hears the Americans describe the same thing he’s going through. Weird headaches. Vision problems.

Apparently, American diplomats are getting sick too. And… rumours of a sonic weapon are spreading.

Cue, Phillips: my clients were advised that the US diplomats had received a direction to leave the country as a result of some incidents that were going on…

So Allen then goes to their Ambassador.

Cue, Phillips: …and was told in no uncertain terms that he was not permitted to speak to even his spouse or anyone else about the concerns that had been raised by the United States diplomats and nothing further came from that communication. And that’s what started the concern for our people.


A week or so later, on June 1st, Allen is shocked awake in the middle of the night – by a sound.

In a newspaper interview he describes it as a screeching, grating noise lasting about half an hour, accompanied by overwhelming nausea.

Immediately afterward, his eldest son, who’s been in a different room, comes in – in severe distress. He is covered in blood. At the same moment Allen heard the sound … his son had suffered a massive nosebleed.

Eventually, Allen and his whole family – as well as more than a dozen Canadians – get diagnosed with brain injuries, the same as their American counterparts.

Cue, anchor: Canada announced another diplomat working on the communist island has gotten sick with the same mysterious illness that has struck more than two dozen Americans.

Cue, anchor: Canadian diplomats and their family members reported similar symptoms even though Canada has very strong ties to Cuba…

A couple of them get sent to Miami, where the Americans had been treated. Others get sent to a specialist neurological centre at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

At both hospitals, doctors come to the same conclusion again. They see evidence of brain damage. But no visible cause.

Cue, Phillips: they’re devastating. In particular, the Allen children … their condition has caused them to suffer desperately … one of them has fainting spells … so that continues, and it’s getting worse

Canada, unlike the US, does not pull its people out.

Cue, Phillips: The end result was that after the Americans effectively bugged out of Havana, the Canadians continued to raise concerns as this became more and more known

That’s why John’s clients are now suing the Canadian government – they claim it “badly mishandled” the events.

But the Canadians are just the start.

By late summer 2017… the mysterious ailment has started appearing in other countries.

Cue, Anchor: “…we now know about a case in Berlin. We’ve also learned about cases in central Asia … that goes to the question of who’s behind this.

Cue, Mitchell: “… what we’re discussing has been reported around the world… ”

Cue, Anchor: “despite the rising cases there is still skepticism…”

Cue, Mark: “ there are other incidents … that just haven’t been made public yet…”

First dozens of cases. Then hundreds.

Shane: …cases have been reported on every continent on the planet except Antarctica.
they are everywhere…

Mark: “there’s no reason why this isn’t the Viennese syndrome, the Bogata syndrome, the Hanoi syndrome, the Moscow Syndrome …”

Cue, Anchor: “… they were stricken in Washington. And on the grounds of the Whitehouse …”

Whatever this is… it’s spreading.

[Cue, Charlie: “… it is a well conceived, global program to attack Americans …”]
[Cue, Marc: “I think this is an act of war on our personnel, and we have to figure out who did this…”


Next time on THE SOUND.

Cue, newsreader: …We’re now getting our first listen to what’s believed to be a sonic attack against US diplomats working in Cuba. The Associative Press obtaining an audio recording describing it as – quote – shrieking crickets with an electronic twang

Baloh: But when I saw the actual paper. The final conclusion was there really was no abnormalities on the MRI studies. They were essentially within normal limits.

Cue, Bartholomew: Look, there’s an old saying: speak of the devil and he is bound to appear.

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

THE SOUND is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX

It 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, engineering, and 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.