Hear No Evil

Did Cuban spies at­tack Amer­i­can diplo­mats with a se­cret sonic weapon?

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY PETER EISNER @Petereis­ner

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 of­fi­cials in re­tal­i­a­tion for the al­leged at­tack.

As crit­ics be­gan to ask why U.S. of­fi­cials 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,” ef­fec­tively con­firm­ing the story with­out men­tion­ing hear­ing loss. U.S. of­fi­cials con­tacted doc­tors at the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami Health Sys­tem af­ter the in­ci­dents were first 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 con­firmed, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son back­tracked from directly im­pli­cat­ing the Cuban gov­ern­ment. The State Depart­ment said that the U.S. was still try­ing to fig­ure 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 of­fered to work with Washington to fig­ure out what, if any­thing, hap­pened. Mean­while, in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts re­main baf­fled 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 off 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 of­fi­cial build­ings such as em­bassies. Any­where else in Ha­vana, U.S. of­fi­cials 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 of­fi­cer, 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 ef­fects 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 Castro crit­i­cized Trump’s moves but said the two coun­tries should “co­op­er­ate and live side by side, re­spect­ing their dif­fer­ences.”

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 fig­ure 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 baf­fled by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s claim that an en­emy spy ser­vice may have used sound waves to cause Amer­i­can diplo­mats to lose their hear­ing

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