In Cuba, mys­tery deep­ens over diplo­mat at­tacks

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY JOSH LE­D­ER­MAN, MICHAEL WEIS­SENSTEIN AND MATTHEW LEE As­so­ci­ated Press

Wash­ing­ton — The 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 ag­o­niz­ing 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 U.S. vic­tims in an as­ton­ish­ing in­ter­na­tional mys­tery still un­fold­ing in Cuba. The top U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Amer­ica re-opened 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 U.S. 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 U.S. gov­ern­ment ini­tially re­al­ized. The United States first ac­knowl­edged the at­tacks in Au­gust — nine months af­ter symp­toms were first re­ported.

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 U.S. of­fi­cials, Cuban of­fi­cials and oth­ers briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Most weren’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the probe and de­manded anonymity.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into all of this is still un­der way. It is an ag­gres­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said Thurs­day. “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 is clear. In­ves­ti­ga­tors have tested sev­eral the­o­ries about an in­ten­tional at­tack — by Cuba’s gov­ern­ment, a rogue fac­tion of its se­cu­rity forces, a third coun­try like Rus­sia, or some com­bi­na­tion thereof. Yet they’ve left open the pos­si­bil­ity 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.

The scope keeps widen­ing. On Tues­day, 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 mo­tive is 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 U.S., Canada has main­tained warm ties to Cuba for decades.

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 U.S. would have al­ready taken ma­jor puni­tive steps, like shut­ter­ing the newly re-es­tab­lished Amer­i­can Em­bassy. And the U.S. 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.”

Des­mond Boy­lan / AP

A cus­tomer sits in the Ho­tel Capri in Ha­vana, Cuba. New de­tails about “health at­tacks” on U.S. diplo­mats in­di­cate the in­ci­dents were con­fined within spe­cific rooms.

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