‘Health attacks’ in Cuba defy explanation
Brain damage may have led to baffling range of symptoms in victims
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 to 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 laserlike 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 reopened 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.
It may seem the stuff of sci-fi novels, of the cloak-and-dagger rivalries that haven’t fully dissipated despite the historic U.S.Cuban rapprochement two years ago that seemed to lift the weight of the nations’ Cold War enmity.
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 happened 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 cause is to blame.
Aside from their homes, officials said an incident occurred in the Hotel Capri, a 60-year-old concrete tower.
The cases vary considerably, with different symptoms and different recollections of what happened. That’s what makes the puzzle so difficult to solve.
In several episodes recounted by U.S. officials, victims knew it was happening in real time, and there were strong indications of a sonic attack. Some felt vibrations and heard sounds — loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas. Others heard the grinding noise. Some victims awoke with ringing in their ears and fumbled for their alarm clocks, only to discover the ringing stopped when they moved away from their beds. The attacks came at night. Several victims reported they came in minute-long bursts.
Yet others heard nothing and felt nothing. Their symptoms appeared later.
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.
A motive is unclear. Investigators are at a loss to explain why Canadians were harmed too. Unlike the United States, Canada has maintained warm ties with Cuba for decades.
Sound and health experts are equally baffled. Targeted, localized beams of sound are possible, but the laws of acoustics suggest such a device would probably be large and not easily concealed. Officials said it’s unclear whether the device’s effects were localized by design or due to some other technical factor.
And no single sonic gadget seems to explain such an odd, inconsistent array of physical responses.
“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”
After the U.S. complained to Cuba’s government earlier this year and Canada detected its own cases, the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police traveled to Havana to investigate.
FBI investigators swept the rooms, looking for devices. They found nothing, several officials briefed on the investigation said.
Cuba’s government declined to answer specific questions about the incidents, pointing to a previous Foreign Affairs Ministry statement denying any involvement.
“Cuba has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception,” the Cuban statement said.