How a Soviet plot to beam the U.S. Embassy with microwaves led to a 'brain weapons arms race'

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In some of the darkest days of the Cold War, the U.S. intelligence community was alarmed by a startling discovery: the Soviet Union was bombarding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwaves, in what some officials feared was an attempt to harm American diplomats and possibly, even mess with their minds.

The discovery in the 1950s led to years of highly classified research by the Pentagon to assess the impact on the body and mind of what the Russians were doing. Were the Russians implanting sounds or even words into the heads of American diplomats in an effort to disrupt their work and damage their health?

The questions ultimately triggered a supersecret “brain weapons arms race,” says journalist Sharon Weinberger in today’s episode of the "Conspiracyland" podcast entitled “The Mystery of the Moscow Signal.” (It is the second of three episodes in the "Conspiracyland" series “The Strange Story of Havana Syndrome.”)

“So one of the working theories was that [the Soviets] knew something we didn't know,” said Weinberger, the author of a book, “The Imagineers of War,” that dug into the issue. “That they had uncovered some secret of weaponizing microwaves. And so we had to catch up with them, and we had to have our brain weapons.”

The Cold War concerns about the impact of microwave bombardment on American diplomats is newly relevant to one of the most perplexing issues that has confronted U.S. officials in recent years: the epidemic of strange health ailments, ranging from vertigo and dizziness to, in some cases, brain injuries, reported by U.S. diplomats and spies. It is a phenomenon known as Havana syndrome.

 In the early 1950's, U.S. officials discovered a microwave-generated bug concealed inside this Great Seal of the United States given as a gift to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
In the early 1950s, U.S. officials discovered a microwave-generated bug concealed inside this Great Seal of the United States given as a gift to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. (Photo combination: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Seman/Yahoo News)

When the reports of health ailments first surfaced in 2017, and later spread to U.S. officials serving all over the world, some in the U.S. intelligence community — and many in the media — concluded that the "Havana syndrome" symptoms were the direct result of secret Russian microwave attacks comparable to what diplomats in Moscow had experienced decades earlier.

But as "Conspiracyland" shows, that theory only goes so far: Pentagon researchers were never able to establish a connection between microwave exposure and injuries to the body and brain, undercutting the entire U.S. interest in developing a brain weapon.

This finding is buttressed by newly declassified documents released just this week about Project Pandora — a top-secret project in which Pentagon researchers in the 1960s bombarded rhesus monkeys with waves of microwaves in an effort to test whether this had any impact on their ability to perform basic tasks on a computer, in exchange for receiving banana pellets. The documents were obtained by the nonprofit National Security Archive. (Peter Kornbluh, a senior researcher at the National Security Archive, appears in a special bonus episode of "Conspiracyland," which will be released today, called “Henry Kissinger’s Radiation Treatment.”)

As the documents show, the researchers couldn’t find evidence that the monkeys were in any way disrupted or harmed by the microwave bombardment, undermining the idea that U.S. diplomats were being injured at the embassy in Moscow. “I feel confident in stating that … persons exposed are at no risk of injury,” a CIA analyst wrote in a September 1967 memo about the monkey experiments.

U.S. Embassy in Moscow from circa 1964. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)
U.S. Embassy in Moscow from circa 1964. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

"Conspiracyland" also includes an interview with James McIlwain, a neuroscientist who had reviewed the Project Pandora monkey tests for the Pentagon and similarly concluded “there’s no convincing evidence of the effect of a special signal [of microwaves] on the performance of monkeys.”

Still, the conviction that microwave bombardments were affecting the health of U.S. diplomats persisted for years and reached a crescendo in the 1970s, when Walter Stoessel, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, demanded that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger confront the Soviets over the issue. Stoessel had been diagnosed with leukemia while serving as ambassador, and believed his condition could have stemmed from the Soviet’s microwave-beam bombardment.

Documents obtained by the National Security Archive include transcripts of sometimes testy, sometimes humorous conversations that Kissinger had with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin over the issue.

"I wanna talk to you about the signal,” Kissinger said during one conversation on Dec. 9, 1975. "What signal?" replied Dobrynin, feigning ignorance of what Kissinger was talking about.

"That beam you are beaming into our embassy in Moscow," Kissinger says. He urged the Soviets to “turn it off” — at least until he arrived in Moscow during an upcoming trip — at which point “you can turn it on again” and “give me a radiation treatment.”

“Then you would be radioactive,” joked Dobrynin.

But for all the humorous asides, Kissinger made clear this was a serious issue: The State Department was under pressure to call out the Russians publicly and pressure them to stop the microwave bombardments. “Look, we're really sitting on it here, but too many people know about it,” Kissinger told Dobrynin. “We will catch hell unless we say something is happening."

Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, in bowler hat, points his index finger at Henry Kissinger, who has his hands in his pockets, with a crowd of spectators behind a rope line.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, chats with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Dec. 5, 1974, as they awaited the arrival of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. (AP Photo)

The Soviets never 'fessed up to bombarding the embassy with microwaves, although eventually they turned it off in the 1970s under U.S. pressure. The prevailing theory today is they were using the microwaves to activate secret listening devices they had installed to eavesdrop on the conversations of U.S. diplomats.

But the Pentagon’s interest in developing its own microwave weapon didn’t go away. As Weinberger explains in "Conspiracyland," after the Sept. 11 attacks, researchers stepped up their efforts to develop a microwave weapon that could even implant sounds and words into the heads of terrorist targets. It came to be called “a voice of God weapon.”

“So at some point, over the years, the idea was forwarded that if you could create the sensation of sending words into people's heads, you could make them think they're crazy, that their mind is going crazy,” she said. “You could make them think that God is talking to them” and tell them to “lay down your weapons.”

That, she said, would be “the ultimate gaslighting.” But like much else in the realm of microwave weapons research — including those monkey experiments, so far as anybody knows — the exotic theories never panned out.

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Seman/Yahoo News; Bettmann Archive via Getty Images, Getty Images