No an­swers in mys­tery

Strange ‘health at­tacks’ re­ported by Cana­dian, U.S. diplo­matic staff in Cuba baf­fle ex­perts


WASH­ING­TON — The blar­ing, grind­ing noise jolted the Amer­i­can diplo­mat from his bed in a Ha­vana ho­tel. He moved just a few me­tres, and there was si­lence. He climbed back into bed. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, the ag­o­niz­ing sound hit him again. It was as if he’d walked through some in­vis­i­ble wall cut­ting straight through his room.

Soon came the hear­ing loss, and the speech prob­lems, symp­toms both sim­i­lar and al­to­gether dif­fer­ent from oth­ers among at least 21 U.S. vic­tims in an as­ton­ish­ing in­ter­na­tional mys­tery still un­fold­ing in Cuba. The top U.S. diplo­mat has called them “health at­tacks.” New de­tails in­di­cate at least some of the in­ci­dents were con­fined to spe­cific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser­like speci­ficity, baf­fling U.S. of­fi­cials who say the facts and the physics don’t add up.

“None of this has a rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion,” said Ful­ton Arm­strong, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cial who served in Ha­vana long be­fore Amer­ica re-opened an em­bassy there. “It’s just mys­tery af­ter mys­tery af­ter mys­tery.”

Sus­pi­cion ini­tially fo­cused on a sonic weapon, and on the Cubans. Yet the di­ag­no­sis of mild brain in­jury, con­sid­ered un­likely to re­sult from sound, has con­founded the FBI, the State Depart­ment and U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Some vic­tims now have prob­lems con­cen­trat­ing or re­call­ing spe­cific words, sev­eral of­fi­cials said, the lat­est signs of more se­ri­ous dam­age than the U.S. gov­ern­ment ini­tially re­al­ized. The U.S. first ac­knowl­edged the at­tacks in Au­gust — nine months af­ter symp­toms were first re­ported.

It may seem the stuff of scifi nov­els, of the cloak-and-dag­ger ri­val­ries that haven’t fully dis­si­pated de­spite the his­toric U.S.-Cuban rap­proche­ment two years ago that seemed to bury the weight of the two na­tions’ Cold War en­mity. But this is Cuba, the land of poi­soned cigars, ex­plod­ing seashells and covert subterfuge by Wash­ing­ton and Ha­vana, where the unimag­in­able in es­pi­onage has of­ten been all too real.

The U.S. still hasn’t iden­ti­fied a cul­prit or a de­vice to ex­plain the at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with more than a dozen cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials, Cuban of­fi­cials and oth­ers briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Most weren’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the probe and de­manded anonymity.

In fact, al­most noth­ing about what went down in Ha­vana is clear. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have tested sev­eral the­o­ries about an in­ten­tional at­tack — by Cuba’s gov­ern­ment, a rogue fac­tion of its se­cu­rity forces, a third coun­try such as Rus­sia, or some com­bi­na­tion thereof. Yet they’ve left open the pos­si­bil­ity an ad­vanced es­pi­onage op­er­a­tion went hor­ri­bly awry, or that some other, less ne­far­i­ous ex­pla­na­tion is to blame.

Aside from their homes, of­fi­cials said Amer­i­cans were at­tacked in at least one ho­tel, a fact not pre­vi­ously dis­closed. An in­ci­dent oc­curred on an up­per floor of the re­cently ren­o­vated Ho­tel Capri, a 60-year-old con­crete tower.

The cases vary deeply: Dif­fer­ent symp­toms, dif­fer­ent rec­ol­lec­tions of what hap­pened. That’s what makes the puz­zle so dif­fi­cult to crack.

In sev­eral episodes re­counted by U.S. of­fi­cials, vic­tims knew it was hap­pen­ing in real time, and there were strong in­di­ca­tions of a sonic at­tack. Some felt vi­bra­tions, and heard sounds — loud ring­ing or a high-pitch chirp­ing sim­i­lar to crick­ets or ci­cadas. Oth­ers heard the grind­ing noise. Some vic­tims awoke with ring­ing in their ears and fum­bled for their alarm clocks, only to dis­cover the ring­ing stopped when they moved away from their beds.

The at­tacks seemed to come at night. Sev­eral vic­tims re­ported they came in minute­long bursts.

Yet oth­ers heard noth­ing, felt noth­ing. Later, their symp­toms came.

The scope keeps widen­ing. On Tues­day, the State Depart­ment dis­closed that doc­tors had con­firmed an­other two cases, bring­ing the to­tal Amer­i­can vic­tims to 21. Some have mild trau­matic brain in­jury, known as a con­cus­sion, and oth­ers per­ma­nent hear­ing loss.

Even the po­ten­tial mo­tive is un­clear. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are at a loss to ex­plain why Cana­di­ans were harmed, too, in­clud­ing some who re­ported nose­bleeds. Fewer than 10 Cana­dian diplo­matic house­holds in Cuba were af­fected, a Cana­dian of­fi­cial said. Un­like the U.S., Canada has main­tained warm ties to Cuba for decades.

Sound and health ex­perts are equally baf­fled. Tar­geted, lo­cal­ized beams of sound are pos­si­ble, but the laws of acous­tics sug­gest such a de­vice would prob­a­bly be large and not eas­ily con­cealed. Of­fi­cials said it’s un­clear whether the de­vice’s ef­fects were lo­cal­ized by de­sign or due to some other tech­ni­cal fac­tor.

And no sin­gle, sonic gad­get seems to ex­plain such an odd, in­con­sis­tent ar­ray of phys­i­cal re­sponses.

Af­ter the U.S. com­plained to Cuba’s gov­ern­ment ear­lier this year and Canada de­tected its own cases, the FBI and the RCMP trav­elled to Ha­vana to in­ves­ti­gate.

FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors swept the rooms, look­ing for de­vices. They found noth­ing, sev­eral of­fi­cials briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said.

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