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Microwaving Embassy Moscow — Another Perspective

ADST’s post on Microwaving Embassy Moscow brought back a flood of memories to James Schumaker, who served most of his career in the USSR and later Russia and Ukraine. In this account, he describes how U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Walter Stoessel threatened to resign, the widespread concern many Americans posted at the embassy had regarding potential health problems, especially when two ambassadors died of cancer, and his own experience with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. This comes from his blog and is used with his permission.

Read about the 1977 fire at the embassy, when the KGB sent in operatives disguised as firemen and other KGB anecdotes.


SCHUMAKER:  Just as I was arriving in Moscow, all hell was breaking loose over the issue of Moscow microwaves.  For years, it had been known that the Soviets had been irradiating the Chancery with low level non-ionizing radiation. In fact, microwave bombardment of the upper floors of the Central Wing had actually begun as soon as we had moved into the Chancery on Tchaikovskiy back in 1953.

The existence of the microwave problem had been kept under wraps for years, first because no one knew that there might be health consequences, and later, according to unconfirmed reports, because Henry Kissinger wanted to avoid damaging chances for détente.  When Ambassador Stoessel (seen at left) learned about the problem, he threatened to resign unless the Embassy community was told.  As a result, the microwave story was finally made public in a press conference called by the Ambassador.

In the wake of Ambassador Stoessel’s announcement, many in the Embassy community felt betrayed about being kept in the dark for so long, and still more were anxious about the effect the microwaves might be having.  Some thought that the microwaves were used by the Soviets to activate the numerous listening devices they had emplaced in the building prior to American occupancy.

Others believed that they were a jamming signal designed to foil our own electronic snooping devices (a highly classified report that came out in the 1970s leaned to this interpretation, and this is what the Soviets told us as well).  Still others thought that the Soviets, who apparently knew a lot more about microwaves than we did, were using them to affect the mental states of Embassy employees.

The worst fear of Embassy staffers, however, was that the microwaves, whatever their purpose, might have some as yet unknown health effects. This seemed to be borne out over the years by the finding, in the early 1970s, that an unusual number of people were departing post with elevated white cell counts.  It also came out that, anecdotally at least, there seemed to be a larger number of cancer cases, and especially leukemia, among former Embassy staff than would appear to be normal.

A study of the Embassy community by Johns Hopkins in 1978 purportedly proved that in actuality Embassy personnel were on average healthier than ordinary Americans, but in my view, and the view of many at the Embassy, this study was not conclusive.  In particular, the study did not recognize the fact that Americans permitted to go out to Moscow were already pre-selected to have “1” clearances in most cases [healthy for worldwide service], and so naturally the Embassy population would be much healthier than an average group of ordinary Americans.

At the same time, journalists like Paul Brodeur were pointing out that the health effects of low-intensity microwaves were not well understood, nor were the possible synergistic interactions of outside microwaves with similar microwave sources within the Embassy itself.  All in all, many people in Moscow were agitated and offended by what appeared to be efforts to sweep the whole controversy under the rug. Moscow staffers tended to be a little overwrought in any case, due to the unique pressures of work and life in Moscow, and the efforts of the State Department to assuage their concerns were viewed with extreme suspicion.

The clincher for many Moscow staffers was the unusual incidence of illness on the part of American Ambassadors stationed in Moscow.  An article by Paul Brodeur in the December 20, 1976 issue of New Yorker and an earlier article in Time Magazine reported that not only had two recent American Ambassadors to Moscow died of cancer (Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson and Charles Chip” Bohlen), then-Ambassador Walter Stoessel was suffering from a severe blood disorder (Ambassador Stoessel, who was universally admired, eventually died of leukemia in 1986).  To most Moscow staffers, it just seemed like too much of a coincidence.

For the most part, I was blissfully unconcerned about the microwave controversy.  At the time, it seemed to me that it was an issue taken more seriously by Embassy spouses, who were afraid for their children, than by the Embassy leadership, which in fact was in the crosshairs of whatever the microwaves might be doing.

Periodically, I would see Soviet technicians standing side by side with American techs on the upper floors of the Chancery.  They were measuring ambient levels of microwave radiation.  Naturally, the Soviet equipment didn’t find anything, while ours did.  I thought it was funny at the time.  Screens were put up on the Chancery windows, which were said to diminish the amount of microwave emanations getting into the Embassy.  I didn’t think much about that, either.  I just continued to do my work and not think about the possible consequences.

Microwaves continued to be beamed at the Embassy throughout my tour, and, though the levels went up and down over the years, emanating first from one, and then two locations, the microwaving of the Embassy continued until at least 1988.  Over the years, thousands of Americans were exposed.

Shortly after my tour was over, I found out that my cavalier attitude toward the microwave issue was not at all justified, at least in my own personal case.  Med informed me in late 1979 that my own white cell count was much higher than normal, and advised me to continue testing.  In 1985, my white cell count got high enough for MED to recommend that I see a hematologist, so I went to a local doctor in San Clemente, Dr. Tsang P. Fong.

He did a bone marrow test (the one where they hammer a spike into the pelvic bone – very uncomfortable).  The test confirmed that I had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) stage zero, but that chemotherapy was not advisable, since I had no symptoms and the cure would be worse than the disease.

My reaction to what should have been catastrophic news was typical for me — I had no real reaction at all.  I took Dr. Fong’s call at our condominium in Palm Springs, calmly accepted the news, and made another appointment to come in for additional testing.  I never told my mother –I didn’t want to upset her, and she couldn’t have done anything about it anyway.

As the reality of my illness began to set in, I started studying up on the issue.  My research on CLL was not encouraging.  Most patients progressed slowly to Stage Four, and survived on average only a few years.  The mortality rate 20 years out was close to 100 percent.

I determined to fight the disease as best I could by leading a healthy lifestyle, although, paradoxically, I then volunteered for a high-risk assignment to Kabul in 1988.  Perhaps in the back of my mind I had this feeling that I could take more risks, since I didn’t have very long to live anyway — a kind of “who cares?” illogical approach that has gotten me through many crises in life.  State Medical knew about the CLL diagnosis and downgraded me to a “2” Medical clearance, but didn’t stop me from going overseas, mainly because the jobs I was volunteering for often had no takers.

My white count stayed stable through the 1980’s, although I did notice that there were periods where I would look especially pale or have slightly swollen glands.  My visits to Dr. Fong convinced me, however, that I was doing much better than expected.  Most other patients I saw were very sick indeed, a pitiable lot.  In the 1990’s for reasons no one can really explain, my white count began to normalize.  By 1999, my CLL was in remission and my white count had returned to normal.  At my last State Department physical in 2001 my “1” clearance was restored.

To this day, I don’t know exactly how I got CLL, or why it gradually disappeared.  In the back of my mind, however, I have always considered the Moscow microwaves to be a prime suspect.  I have often wondered how many others faced the same medical issues I did over the past few decades.  Perhaps another, independent study of the problem is warranted.  I would certainly support such a proposal.