Cuba mys­tery: What the­o­ries U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors are pur­su­ing

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS - 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.

The United States doesn’t even know what to call it. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son used the phrase “health at­tacks.” The State Depart­ment prefers “in­ci­dents.”

Ei­ther way, sus­pi­cion has fallen on Cuba. But in­ves­ti­ga­tors also are ex­am­in­ing whether a rogue fac­tion of its se­cu­rity ser­vices, an­other coun­try such as Rus­sia, or some com­bi­na­tion 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.

Per­haps the biggest mys­tery is why the symp­toms, sounds and sen­sa­tions vary so dra­mat­i­cally from per­son to per­son.

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.

“These are very non­spe­cific symp­toms. That’s why it’s dif­fi­cult to tell what’s go­ing on,” said Dr. H. Jef­frey Kim, a spe­cial­ist on ear dis­or­ders at MedS­tar Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal who isn’t in­volved with the investigation.

To solve the puz­zle, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are sort­ing symp­toms into cat­e­gories, such as au­di­tory and neu­ro­log­i­cal, ac­cord­ing to in­di­vid­u­als briefed on the probe.

There can be a lag be­fore vic­tims dis­cover or report symp­toms, some of which are hard to di­ag­nose. So in­ves­ti­ga­tors are chart­ing the time­line of re­ported in­ci­dents to iden­tify “clus­ters” to help solve the when, where and how of the Ha­vana who­dunit.

While Cuba has been sur­pris­ingly co­op­er­a­tive , even invit­ing the FBI to fly down to Ha­vana, it’s not the same as an investigation with the U.S. gov­ern­ment in full con­trol.

“You’re on for­eign soil,” said David Ru­bin­cam, a for­mer FBI agent who served in Moscow. “The qual­ity of the in­for­ma­tion and ev­i­dence you col­lect is lim­ited to what the host gov­ern­ment will al­low you to see and hear and touch and do.”

Es­pe­cially when you don’t even know what you’re look­ing for.

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 high-deci­bel 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.

And it’s not im­pos­si­ble that in­fra­sound could ex­plain some of what diplo­mats thought they heard.

Though in­fra­sound is usu­ally in­audi­ble, some peo­ple can de­tect it if the waves are pow­er­ful enough. For ex­am­ple, in­di­vid­u­als liv­ing near in­fra­sound-gen­er­at­ing wind tur­bines have de­scribed pul­sat­ing hums that have left them dizzy, nau­seous or with in­ter­rupted sleep. Such ef­fects have prompted fierce sci­en­tific de­bate.

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.

And the pin­pointed fo­cus of the sound, re­ported by some? In­fra­sound waves travel ev­ery­where, mak­ing them dif­fi­cult to aim with pre­ci­sion.

“There’s no ef­fi­cient way to fo­cus in­fra­sound to make it into a us­able weapon,” said Mario Svirsky, an ex­pert on ear dis­or­ders and neu­ro­science at New York Univer­sity School of Medicine.

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 be­tween the de­vice and the body. “You can­not sense ul­tra­sound from long dis­tances,” Svirsky said. No vic­tim said they saw a weird con­trap­tion nearby.

None of these sound waves seems to ex­plain the con­cus­sions. Usu­ally, those fol­low a blow to the head or prox­im­ity to some­thing like a bomb blast.

“I know of no acous­tic ef­fect or de­vice that could pro­duce trau­matic brain in­jury or con­cus­sion-like symp­toms,” said Juer­gen Alt­mann, an acous­tic weapons ex­pert and physi­cist at Ger­many’s Tech­nis­che Univer­si­taet Dort­mund.

Elec­tro­mag­netic weapon

It may sound like Star Wars fan­tasy, but elec­tro­mag­netic weapons have been around for years. They gen­er­ally harm elec­tron­ics, not hu­mans.

The elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum in­cludes waves like the ones used by your cell­phone, microwave and light bulbs.

And they can be eas­ily pin­pointed. Think lasers. Such waves can also travel through walls, so an elec­tro­mag­netic at­tack could be plau­si­bly con­cealed from afar.

There’s prece­dent. For more than a decade end­ing in the 1970s, the for­mer Soviet Union bom­barded the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow with mi­crowaves. The ex­act pur­pose was never clear.

What about the sounds peo­ple heard?

Microwave pulses — short, in­tense blasts — can cause peo­ple to “hear” click­ing sounds. Ac­cord­ing to a two-decade-old U.S. Air Force patent, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary has re­searched whether those blasts could be ma­nip­u­lated to “beam” voices or other sounds to some­one’s head.

But when elec­tro­mag­netic waves cause phys­i­cal dam­age, it usu­ally re­sults from body tis­sue be­ing heated. The diplo­mats in Cuba haven’t been re­port­ing burn­ing sen­sa­tions.

Some­thing else

The stress and anx­i­ety about the dis­turb­ing in­ci­dents could be com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion. Diplo­mats may be tak­ing a closer look at mild symp­toms they’d other­wise ig­nored.

Af­ter all, once symp­toms emerged, the U.S. Em­bassy en­cour­aged em­ploy­ees to report any­thing sus­pi­cious. Many of these symp­toms can be caused by a lot of dif­fer­ent things.

At least one other coun­try, France, tested em­bassy staffers af­ter an em­ployee re­ported symp­toms. The French then ruled out sonic-in­duced dam­age, the AP re­ported .

Not know­ing what’s caus­ing the cri­sis in Cuba has made it harder to find the cul­prit. If there is one at all.

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. Cuban author­i­ties would know who is stay­ing in each. 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.

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

Then, Cana­di­ans got ill. Why them?

The warm, long-stand­ing ties be­tween Cuba and Canada

The rogues

If not Cas­tro, could el­e­ments of Cuba’s vast in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus be to blame? In­ves­ti­ga­tors haven’t ruled out that pos­si­bil­ity, sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials said.

It’s no se­cret that some within Cuba’s gov­ern­ment are un­easy about Raul Cas­tro’s open­ing with Wash­ing­ton.

“It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that hard-line el­e­ments acted,” said Michael Parmly, who headed the U.S. mis­sion in Ha­vana un­til 2008.

But mount­ing unau­tho­rized at­tacks, tan­ta­mount to ag­gres­sion against a for­eign power, would be a risky act of de­fi­ance in a coun­try noted for its strong cen­tral con­trol.

Cuba’s sur­veil­lance of U.S. diplo­mats in Ha­vana is in­tense. The gov­ern­ment tracks U.S. diplo­mats’ move­ments and con­ver­sa­tions.

So at a min­i­mum, if Amer­i­cans were be­ing at­tacked, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Cuba’s spies be­ing left in the dark.

The out­siders

Who else would dare? U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors have fo­cused on a small 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 and might not even know about.

None of the of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed for this story pointed to any ev­i­dence, how­ever, link­ing Rus­sia to the ill­nesses. The same goes for the other coun­tries.

Spy­ing gone awry?

Maybe no one tried to hurt the Amer­i­cans at all.

Sev­eral U.S. of­fi­cials have em­pha­sized the pos­si­bil­ity the cul­prit merely surveilled the U.S. diplo­mats us­ing some new, untested tech­nol­ogy that caused un­in­tended harm.

You might think eaves­drop­ping de­vices sim­ply re­ceive sig­nals. But the world of es­pi­onage is full of strange tales.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow dis­cov­ered Rus­sia lis­ten­ing to con­ver­sa­tions through a wooden plaque that the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador re­ceived as a gift. The plaque had a tiny “mi­cro­phone” and an­tenna em­bed­ded, but no power source, mak­ing it hard to de­tect even when the room was swept for bugs.

The Rus­sians had de­vel­oped some­thing novel. They re­motely beamed elec­tro­mag­netic waves to ac­ti­vate the de­vice, which then trans­mit­ted sound back via ra­dio fre­quen­cies.

Yet if the Cubans or any­one else were equally as in­no­va­tive, it’s un­clear why the in­ci­dents would have con­tin­ued once the United States and Canada com­plained.

DES­MOND BOYLAN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, a U.S. flag flies at the U.S. em­bassy in Ha­vana, Cuba. U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors are chas­ing many the­o­ries about what’s harm­ing Amer­i­can diplo­mats in Cuba, in­clud­ing a sonic at­tack, elec­tro­mag­netic weapon or flawed spy­ing de­vice. made it seem even less log­i­cal that Cas­tro’s gov­ern­ment was the cul­prit.

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