In Cuba, mystery deepens over diplomat attacks
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
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.”
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.