Cas­tro con­cerned by U.S. diplo­mats’ ill­ness

In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­sider rogue se­cu­rity forces may be re­spon­si­ble for at­tacks

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FEATURES & ANALYSIS - By Josh Le­d­er­man, Rob Gil­lies and Michael Weissenstein

HAVANA: Raul Cas­tro seemed rat­tled. The Cuban pres­i­dent sent for the top Amer­i­can en­voy in the coun­try to ad­dress grave con­cerns about a spate of U.S. diplo­mats harmed in Havana. There was talk of fu­tur­is­tic “sonic at­tacks” and the sub­tle threat of reper­cus­sions by the U.S., un­til re­cently Cuba’s sworn en­emy.

The way Cas­tro re­sponded sur­prised Wash­ing­ton, sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the ex­change told the As­so­ci­ated Press.

In a rare face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion, Cas­tro told U.S. diplo­mat Jef­frey DeLau­ren­tis that he was equally be­fud­dled and con­cerned. Pre­dictably, Cas­tro de­nied any re­spon­si­bil­ity. But U.S. of­fi­cials were caught off guard by the way he ad­dressed the mat­ter, de­void of the in­dig­nant, how-dare-you-ac­cuse-us at­ti­tude the U.S. had come to ex­pect from Cuba’s lead­ers.

The Cubans even of­fered to let the FBI come down to Havana to in­ves­ti­gate. While U.S.-Cuban co­op­er­a­tion on law en­force­ment had im­proved, this level of ac­cess was ex­traor­di­nary.

“Some coun­tries don’t want any more FBI agents in their coun­try than they have to – and that num­ber could be zero,” said Leo Tad­deo, a re­tired FBI su­per­vi­sor who served abroad. Cuba is in that group.

The list of con­firmed Amer­i­can vic­tims was much shorter on Feb. 17, when the U.S. first com­plained to Cuba. Today, the num­ber of “med­i­cally con­firmed” cases stands at 21 – plus sev­eral Cana­di­ans. Some Amer­i­cans have per­ma­nent hear­ing loss or mild brain in­jury. The de­vel­op­ments have fright­ened Havana’s tight-knit diplo­matic com­mu­nity.

At least one other na­tion, France, has tested em­bassy staff for po­ten­tial sonic-in­duced in­juries, the AP has learned.

But sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials say there are real rea­sons to ques­tion whether Cuba per­pe­trated a clan­des­tine cam­paign of ag­gres­sion. The of­fi­cials weren’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­manded anonymity.

When the U.S. has ac­cused Cuba of mis­be­hav­ior in the past, like ha­rass­ing diplo­mats or crack­ing down on lo­cal dis­si­dents, Havana has of­ten ac­cused Wash­ing­ton of mak­ing it up. This time, al­though Cas­tro de­nied in­volve­ment, his gov­ern­ment didn’t dis­pute that some­thing trou­bling may have gone down on Cuban soil.

Per­haps the pic­ture was more com­plex? In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­sid­ered whether a rogue fac­tion of Cuba’s se­cu­rity forces had acted, pos­si­bly in com­bi­na­tion with an­other coun­try like Rus­sia or North Korea.

For decades, Cuba and the U.S. ha­rassed each other’s diplo­mats. The Cubans might break into homes to rear­range fur­ni­ture or leave fe­ces un­flushed in a toi­let. The Amer­i­cans might con­duct ob­vi­ous break-ins and traf­fic stops, punc­ture tires or break head­lights. Yet those pranks were pri­mar­ily to pester, not to harm.

What U.S. diplo­mats started re­port­ing last Novem­ber was al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. Diplo­mats and their fam­i­lies were get­ting sick. Some de­scribed bizarre, un­ex­plained sounds, in­clud­ing grind­ing and high-pitched ring­ing. Vic­tims even re­counted how they could walk in and out of what seemed like pow­er­ful beams of sound that hit only cer­tain rooms or even only parts of rooms, the AP re­ported this week.

At the time, Wash­ing­ton and Havana were in fran­tic co­op­er­a­tion mode, work­ing fever­ishly to lock in progress on ev­ery­thing from in­ter­net ac­cess to im­mi­gra­tion rules be­fore Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency ended. Don­ald Trump’s sur­prise elec­tion win on Nov. 8 meant the U.S. would soon be led by a pres­i­dent who’d threat­ened to re­verse the rap­proche­ment.

As America awaited an un­pre­dictable new ad­min­is­tra­tion, Cuba faced a piv­otal mo­ment, too.

Fidel Cas­tro died on Nov. 25. The revo­lu­tion­ary had reigned for nearly a half-cen­tury be­fore ced­ing power to his brother, Raul, in his ail­ing last years. It was no se­cret in Cuba that Fidel, along with some sup­port­ers in the gov­ern­ment, was un­easy about Raul Cas­tro’s open­ing with the U.S.

“There is a strug­gle go­ing on for the soul of their revo­lu­tion,” said Michael Parmly, who headed the U.S. diplo­matic post in Havana from 2005 to 2008. “It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble there are rogue el­e­ments.”

When the first diplo­mats came for­ward with their in­ex­pli­ca­ble episodes and symp­toms, the U.S. didn’t con­nect the dots. It took weeks be­fore em­bassy of­fi­cials pieced to­gether “clus­ters” of in­ci­dents, and mul­ti­ple vic­tims with con­firmed health dam­age.

By the time Obama left the White House on Jan. 20, talk of mys­te­ri­ous mal­adies had reached some of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton. Word of sonic at­tacks hadn’t reached the top ech­e­lons of the White House or U.S. State Depart­ment, three for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials told the AP.

As Trump took of­fice, a clearer pic­ture started to emerge. On Feb. 17, the U.S. com­plained to Cuba’s em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton and its For­eign Min­istry in Havana.

Soon came Cas­tro, seek­ing out DeLau­ren­tis di­rectly.

The at­tacks halted for a time. But sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials said it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t long be­fore the in­ci­dents started again, as mys­te­ri­ously as they’d stopped. Then the Cana­di­ans got hit. Be­tween March and May, sev­eral house­holds ex­pe­ri­enced symp­toms in­clud­ing nau­sea, headaches and nose­bleeds, a Cana­dian of­fi­cial knowl­edgable of Canada’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion said. Then those at­tacks, too, ended. What cul­prit would want to at­tack both the U.S. and its north­ern neigh­bor? Cuba has no ob­vi­ous griev­ances with Canada. The two coun­tries have close ties. But per­haps Cana­di­ans were tar­geted to mud­dle the mo­tive and throw in­ves­ti­ga­tors off the trail, an­other pos­si­bil­ity U.S. author­i­ties haven’t elim­i­nated.

The Cana­di­ans tested some of their staff in Havana and re­called oth­ers home tem­po­rar­ily, the Cana­dian of­fi­cial said.

Search­ing for its own an­swers, the U.S. Em­bassy con­ducted med­i­cal tests on staffers. Many were sent to the Univer­sity of Mi­ami for fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion. The State Depart­ment con­sulted with doc­tors at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. The U.S. en­cour­aged those in­sti­tu­tions to keep what they knew pri­vate.

In Havana’s diplo­matic cir­cles, anx­i­ety spread. The French Em­bassy tested em­ploy­ees after a staff mem­ber raised health con­cerns, ac­cord­ing to a French diplo­mat fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. False alarm; the tests turned up no signs of dam­age con­sis­tent with a sonic at­tack.

The FBI trav­eled to Havana and swept some of the rooms where at­tacks were re­ported – a list that in­cluded homes and at least one ho­tel: the Span­ish-run Ho­tel Capri, where vis­it­ing U.S. of­fi­cials oc­ca­sion­ally stay. The Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice flew down, too.

Nei­ther law en­force­ment agency found any sonic de­vice, sev­eral of­fi­cials told the AP.

By May 23, the U.S. still had no an­swers. But some­thing had to be done. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pelled two Cuban diplo­mats from Wash­ing­ton to protest the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to pro­tect the safety of Amer­i­can diplo­mats. Nei­ther coun­try dis­closed the ex­pul­sion at the time. Cuba didn’t re­tal­i­ate.

The next month, Trump im­posed some bar­ri­ers to travel be­tween the for­mer Cold War foes. But there was no hint it was to pun­ish Cas­tro’s gov­ern­ment for the at­tacks. Trump left much of Obama’s broader de­tente in­tact, in­clud­ing the two na­tions’ re­opened em­bassies. The diplo­mats suf­fered in pri­vate, un­til Aug. 9.

News re­ports fi­nally prompted the State Depart­ment to pub­licly ac­knowl­edge “in­ci­dents which have caused a va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal symp­toms” and were still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The AP learned they in­cluded con­cen­tra­tion prob­lems and trou­ble re­call­ing com­mon­place words.

Two weeks later, the U.S. an­nounced at least 16 Amer­i­cans showed symp­toms. At that point, the State Depart­ment said the in­ci­dents were “not on­go­ing.” Still, the tally con­tin­ued to rise – first to 19 vic­tims, and then this week to 21.

In the mean­time, the State Depart­ment had to with­draw its as­sur­ance the at­tacks had long ceased. There had been an­other in­ci­dent, on Aug. 21.

“The re­al­ity is, we don’t know who or what has caused this,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said Thurs­day. “And that’s why the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is un­der­way.”

The way Cas­tro re­sponded sur­prised Wash­ing­ton, of­fi­cials said.

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