Mys­tery sur­rounds ail­ing diplo­mats in Cuba

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Josh Le­d­er­man and Lau­ran Neer­gaard

WASH­ING­TON — There must be an an­swer.

What­ever is harm­ing U.S. diplo­mats in Ha­vana, it’s eluded the doc­tors, sci­en­tists and in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts scour­ing for an­swers. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have chased many the­o­ries, in­clud­ing a sonic at­tack, elec­tro­mag­netic weapon or flawed spy­ing de­vice.

Each ex­pla­na­tion seems to fit parts of what’s hap­pened, con­flict­ing with oth­ers.

Sus­pi­cion has fallen on Cuba. But in­ves­ti­ga­tors also are ex­am­in­ing whether an­other coun­try such as Rus­sia is to blame, more than a dozen U.S. of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Those of­fi­cials spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they weren’t au­tho­rized to pub­licly dis­cuss the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The AP also talked to sci­en­tists, physi­cians, acous­tics and weapons ex­perts, and oth­ers about the the­o­ries be­ing pur­sued.

Of the 21 med­i­cally con­firmed U.S. vic­tims, some have per­ma­nent hear­ing loss or con­cus­sions, while oth­ers suf­fered nau­sea, headaches and ear-ring­ing. Some are strug­gling with con­cen­tra­tion or com­mon word re­call, the AP has re­ported. Some felt vi­bra­tions or heard loud sounds mys­te­ri­ously au­di­ble in only parts of rooms, and oth­ers heard noth­ing.

To solve the puz­zle, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are sort­ing symp­toms into cat­e­gories.

SONIC DE­VICE

The first signs pointed to a sonic at­tack. But what kind?

Some vic­tims heard things — signs that the sounds were in the au­di­ble spec­trum. Loud noise can harm hear­ing, es­pe­cially high­deci­bel sounds that can trig­ger ear-ring­ing tin­ni­tus, rup­tured ear drums, even per­ma­nent hear­ing loss.

But oth­ers heard noth­ing, and still be­came ill. So in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­sid­ered in­audi­ble sound: in­fra­sound, too low for hu­mans to hear, and ul­tra­sound, too high.

In­fra­sound of­ten is ex­pe­ri­enced as vi­bra­tion, like stand­ing near a sub­woofer. Some vic­tims re­ported feel­ing vi­bra­tions.

The bal­ance prob­lems re­ported in Ha­vana? Pos­si­bly ex­plained by in­fra­sound, which may stim­u­late cells in the ear’s vestibu­lar sys­tem that con­trols bal­ance, sci­en­tists say. But there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence in­fra­sound can cause last­ing dam­age once the sound stops.

If not in­fra­sound, maybe ul­tra­sound? At high-in­ten­sity, ul­tra­sound can dam­age hu­man tis­sue. That’s why doc­tors use it to de­stroy uter­ine fi­broids and some tu­mors.

But ul­tra­sound dam­age re­quires close con­tact.

THE CUBA THE­ORY

It was only nat­u­ral that Amer­i­can sus­pi­cion started with Cuba.

The at­tacks hap­pened on Cuban soil. The two coun­tries rou­tinely ha­rassed each other’s diplo­mats over a half-cen­tury of en­mity. De­spite eased ten­sions over the past cou­ple of years, dis­trust lingers.

Diplo­mats re­ported in­ci­dents in their homes and in ho­tels.

But what’s the mo­tive? When symp­toms emerged last Novem­ber, Cuba was work­ing fever­ishly with the U.S. to make progress on ev­ery­thing from in­ter­net ac­cess to im­mi­gra­tion rules be­fore Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s term ended. Of­fi­cials still don’t un­der­stand why Ha­vana would at the same time per­pe­trate at­tacks that could de­stroy its new re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton en­tirely.

Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro’s re­ac­tion deep­ened in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ skep­ti­cism, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials briefed on a rare, face-to-face dis­cus­sion he had on the mat­ter with Amer­ica’s top en­voy in Ha­vana.

U.S. of­fi­cials were sur­prised that Cas­tro seemed gen­uinely rat­tled, and that Cuba of­fered to let the FBI come in­ves­ti­gate.

THE OUT­SIDERS

Who else would dare? U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors have fo­cused on a group of usual sus­pects: Rus­sia, Iran, North Korea, China, Venezuela.

Rus­sia, in par­tic­u­lar, has ha­rassed Amer­i­can diplo­mats ag­gres­sively in re­cent years Moscow even has a plau­si­ble mo­tive: driv­ing a wedge be­tween the com­mu­nist is­land and “the West” — na­tions such as the United States and Canada. Rus­sia also has ad­vanced, hard-to-de­tect weaponry that much of the world lacks. None of the of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed for this story pointed to any ev­i­dence link­ing Rus­sia to the ill­nesses.

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