Ex­perts stumped by Cuba ‘ sonic at­tacks’

The mys­te­ri­ous in­ci­dents have left diplo­matic staff with hear­ing loss, speech prob­lems and brain in­juries but in­ves­ti­ga­tors ap­pear no closer to find­ing out who is be­hind them, writes Josh Le­d­er­man

Weekend Herald - - WORLD -

he blar­ing, grind­ing noise jolted the Amer­i­can diplo­mat from his bed in a Havana ho­tel. He moved just a few feet, and there was si­lence. He climbed back into bed. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, the ag­o­nis­ing 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 US vic­tims in an as­ton­ish­ing in­ter­na­tional mys­tery still un­fold­ing in Cuba. The top US diplo­mat has called them “health at­tacks”. New de­tails learned by the As­so­ci­ated Press in­di­cate at least some of the in­ci­dents were con­fined to spe­cific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser- like speci­ficity, baf­fling US 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 the United States re­opened 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 US 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 US Gov­ern­ment ini­tially re­alised.

The US first ac­knowl­edged the at­tacks in Au­gust — nine months after symp­toms were first re­ported.

It may seem the stuff of sci- fi nov­els, of the cloak- and- dag­ger ri­val­ries that haven’t fully dis­si­pated de­spite the his­toric US- 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 Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion still hasn’t iden­ti­fied a cul­prit or a de­vice to ex­plain the at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with more than a dozen cur­rent and for­mer US of­fi­cials, Cuban of­fi­cials and oth­ers briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Most weren’t au­tho­rised to dis­cuss the probe and de­manded anonymity.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into all of this is still un­der way. It i s an ag­gres­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said yes­ter­day. “We will con­tinue do­ing this un­til we find out who or what is re­spon­si­ble for this.”

In fact, al­most noth­ing about what went down in Havana i s 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 that 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 steps from the Male­con, Havana’s iconic, water­side prom­e­nade.

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 US 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 minute- long bursts.

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

The scope keeps widen­ing. On Wed­nes­day, 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 i s 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 US, Canada has main­tained warm ties with Cuba for decades.

Sound and health ex­perts are equally baf­fled. Tar­geted, lo­calised 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 lo­calised 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.

“Brain dam­age and con­cus­sions, it’s not pos­si­ble,” said Joseph Pom­pei, a for­mer MIT re­searcher and psy­choa­cous­tics ex­pert. “Some­body would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very pow­er­ful ul­tra­sound trans­duc­ers.”

Other symp­toms have in­cluded brain swelling, dizzi­ness, nau­sea, se­vere headaches, bal­ance prob­lems and tin­ni­tus, or pro­longed ring­ing in the ears. Many vic­tims have shown im­prove­ment since leav­ing Cuba and some suf­fered only mi­nor or tem­po­rary symp­toms.

After the US com­plained to Cuba’s Gov­ern­ment earlier this year and Canada de­tected its own cases, the FBI and the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice trav­elled to Havana to in­ves­ti­gate.

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

In May, Wash­ing­ton ex­pelled two Cuban diplo­mats to protest the com­mu­nist Gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to pro­tect Amer­i­cans serv­ing there. But the US has taken pains not to ac­cuse Havana of per­pe­trat­ing the at­tacks. It’s a sign in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve that even if el­e­ments of Cuba’s se­cu­rity forces were in­volved, it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily di­rected from the top.

Cuba’s Gov­ern­ment de­clined to an­swer spe­cific ques­tions about the in­ci­dents, point­ing to a pre­vi­ous For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry state­ment deny­ing any in­volve­ment, vow­ing full co- op­er­a­tion and say­ing it was treat­ing the sit­u­a­tion “with ut­most im­por­tance”. “Cuba has never, nor would it ever, al­low that the Cuban ter­ri­tory be used for any ac­tion against ac­cred­ited diplo­matic agents or their fam­i­lies, with­out ex­cep­tion,” the Cuban state­ment said.

After half a cen­tury of es­trange­ment, the US and Cuba in 2015 re­stored diplo­matic ties be­tween coun­tries sep­a­rated by a mere 150km of water. Em­bassies were re­opened and re­stric­tions on travel and com­merce eased. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has re­versed some of those changes, but left oth­ers in place.

Mark Feier­stein, who over­saw the Cuba de­tente on Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, noted that Cuban author­i­ties have been un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally co­op­er­a­tive with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

If the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion felt con­fi­dent Raul Cas­tro’s Gov­ern­ment was to blame, it’s likely the US would have al­ready taken ma­jor puni­tive steps, such as shut­ter­ing the newly re- es­tab­lished Amer­i­can Em­bassy. And the US hasn’t stopped send­ing new diplo­mats to Cuba even as the vic­tim list grows.

“Had they thought the Cuban Gov­ern­ment was de­lib­er­ately at­tack­ing Amer­i­can diplo­mats, that would have had a much more neg­a­tive ef­fect,” Feier­stein said. “We haven’t seen that yet.”

Pic­tures / AP

One of the in­ci­dents hap­pened on an up­per floor of the re­cently ren­o­vated Ho­tel Capri, a 60- year- old con­crete tower steps from the Male­con, Havana’s iconic, water­side prom­e­nade.

The Gov­ern­ment of Raul Cas­tro has in­sisted it is not be­hind the ‘ at­tacks’.

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