Did Cuban spies attack American diplomats with a secret sonic weapon?
Hear No Evil
IT SOUNDED like something out of Spy vs. Spy, the satirical Cold War comic strip featuring two black- and white-clad slapstick characters trying to destroy each other with bombs and booby traps. Last year, secret agents in Havana began bombarding American diplomats with a mysterious weapon that used sound waves to damage their hearing, among “other symptoms.” Or so the Trump administration indicated in August, months after it announced the expulsion of two low-ranking Cuban o cials in retaliation for the alleged attack.
As critics began to ask why U.S. o cials have yet to identify the victims or a motive, the State Department backed away from blaming Cuba for the assault. Meanwhile, scientists and intelligence analysts continue to question whether undetected sound waves could cause a sudden onset of hearing loss. “[Audiologists] are all scratching our heads about what the cause could be,” says Colleen Le Prell, a professor of hearing science and head of the doctoral audiology program at the University of Texas at Dallas. “None of us have a good explanation.”
On August 9, the Associated Press broke the news about the attacks, and the State Department acknowledged there had been a series of “incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms,” e ectively con rming the story without mentioning hearing loss. U.S. o cials contacted doctors at the University of Miami Health System after the incidents were rst reported. Weeks later, CBS quoted an unnamed medical source at the University of Miami, who said an American doctor had diagnosed American and Canadian diplomats working in Havana with “mild traumatic brain injury” and “likely damage to the central nervous system.”
Two days after the Associated Press report was con rmed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backtracked from directly implicating the Cuban government. The State Department said that the U.S. was still trying to gure out who was behind the “health incident” and that investigators had still not determined what had happened to the “at least 16 U.S. Government employees… [who] have been provided medical treatment in the United States as well as in Cuba.”
The Cuban government has denied any role in harming the diplomats and o ered to work with Washington to gure out what, if anything, happened. Meanwhile, intelligence analysts remain ba ed by the incident, saying it’s unclear what could cause such symptoms. “The entire story is bizarre,” says a former senior diplomat once stationed in Havana, who asked not to be quoted by name when discussing intel methods. “It doesn’t make any sense. The U.S. military and other militaries have developed low-frequency devices [that produce] temporary hearing loss. It is no secret that this technology exists. But nothing that is permanent.”
He and other analysts say intelligence organizations sometimes employ microwave technology that bounces beams o windows to detect conversations in targeted rooms and buildings.
But these methods, they add, are not believed to cause hearing loss, neurological damage or other physical harm.
Also, they’re typically used on secure rooms in o cial buildings such as embassies. Anywhere else in Havana, U.S. o cials assume that Cuban intelligence is monitoring them with traditional eavesdropping methods, such as tapping telephones or planting radio transmitters. The victims in this case apparently were lower-ranking diplomats, and the alleged exposure to what caused the symptoms apparently occurred in Cuban-built residences, the diplomatic source tells Newsweek.
As the mystery surrounding the symptoms continues, some speculate that malfunctioning equipment could be to blame. “We have very little experience anywhere in the world with… attacks designed to physically harm our diplomats,” said John Sipher, a former high-ranking CIA clandestine service o cer, writing for the blog Just Security.
The former diplomat agrees, saying, “It is possible that there is some new weapon never heard of. [But] the purpose of espionage is not to destroy people’s ears…[it’s to]…encourage them to talk.”
Researchers say hearing loss generally occurs with extended exposure to blaring sound at rock concerts or other high-decibel events. Temporary hearing loss can also occur due to viral or chemical exposure unrelated to espionage. Le Prell, the University of Texas audiologist, says the sudden onset of hearing loss without an audible source is “very unusual.”
“We know that sound that is not audible can have e ects on the ear and on general health,” Le Prell tells Newsweek. “However, the literature does not provide any examples of a sudden change of hearing from non-audible sound.”
Either way, the alleged attack occurred at a time when Cuba and the United States enjoy a relatively good relationship. Two years ago, President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century. Despite criticism, President Donald Trump has left Obama’s agreement with Cuba intact, with only minor restrictions on trade and on Americans traveling to Cuba. Cuban President Raúl
“THE ENTIRE CUBA STORY IS BIZARRE. IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.”
Castro criticized Trump’s moves but said the two countries should “cooperate and live side by side, respecting their di erences.”
Since then, Cuban diplomats in Washington appear to be going about their normal business, says William Leogrande, a professor of government at American University. “I heard absolutely no inkling of anything along these lines until the story broke,” says Leogrande, co-author of Back Channel to Cuba, a book about the history of secret negotiations between Washington and Havana. “It’s a serious issue, as indicated by the expulsion of the two Cubans. But I do think the U.S. side has proceeded cautiously, not making unfounded accusations until they gure out exactly what happened.”
Doing so won’t be easy. Spies—both real ones and the Spy vs. Spy kind—prefer their cloak-anddagger methods to remain in the shadows.
SPY VS. SPY: Analysts remain ba ed by the Trump administration’s claim that an enemy spy service may have used sound waves to cause American diplomats to lose their hearing +