Science fiction? Spy versus spy? Sabotage by a third party? Mass hysteria? Or political ploy? No one seems to know the source, much less the reasons behind, the miss-labeled “sonic attacks” reported by about two dozen US Embassy personnel in Havana. The “health incidents” took place between November 2016 and August 2017 at homes of US diplomats and in two Havana hotels, but not at the US Embassy itself. Patients described intensely loud sounds coming from a specific direction, buzzing, grinding metal, piercing squeals and humming, causing concussion-like symptoms. According to The Atlantic, the patients were “CIA agents posing as diplomats in Havana,” a common practice at US Embassies around the world. In fact, many countries post intelligence agents in their embassies.
Two additional embassy personnel returned to the US in late June reporting similar conditions, while “a number of individuals” employed at the US consulate in Guangzhou, China, reported identical health problems and were evacuated to the US in early June. In the Chinese case, the exact number was withheld by the State Department for “privacy” reasons, with no explanation offered for the differential treatment in Cuba. Two similar cases were reported in the US Embassy in Uzbekistan last November. A USAID officer based in the US Embassy and his wife reported “at least one acoustic attack similar to those experienced by the diplomats in Havana,” according to CBS News. USAID is reportedly often used as a cover for CIA agents. News about this event quickly disappeared from the mainstream media and a State Department spokesperson reported, “we can confirm that there was no incident in Uzbekistan.”
The source of the “sonic” incidents remains a mystery. A report issued jointly in July by Cuban and US law enforcement officials, part of a year-long forensic effort to determine the cause, found no scientific explanation for the health conditions, nor any evidence of intentional attacks. In late May, the President of the Cuban Academy of Scientists called for a joint Cuban-Canadian-US investigation (at least ten Canadian Embassy personnel suffered similar health problems in recent months).
Given the historically distrustful relations between the US and Cuba, the call for an impartial international scientific investigation would make sense. A report published in The Guardian in late May makes clear the perils of unilateral research that reflects possible underlying political motives:
A formal assessment of the American diplomats’ health commissioned by the US government was published in March by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania.
The preliminary report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes a new syndrome that resembles persistent concussion in people who have not received blows to the head.
But in a letter published in the Journal of Neurology, Sergio Della Sala and Robert McIntosh, both neuroscientists at the University of Edinburgh, claim the US report is seriously flawed.
Della Sala said much of the evidence the doctors used to propose a new concussion-like syndrome came from six diplomats who each took 37 cognitive tests. The tests looked at visual and auditory attention, working memory, language, reasoning, movement and other cognitive abilities.
In their report, the US doctors reveal that all six embassy staff who had the full battery of tests had some brain impairment or another. But Della Sala and McIntosh say anybody who took the tests would have been classed as impaired. They point out that it is standard practice with cognitive tests to measure people’s performance against others in the population. Often, a person has to score in the bottom 5% to be considered impaired. But the US doctors set the threshold at 40%, meaning that by definition, four in 10 who take the test will be “impaired”.
Della Sala and McIntosh ran a simulation that looked at the probability of passing all 37 tests when the threshold for failure was set so high. “The chances that somebody will be without an impairment is zero,” Della Sala said. “We ran the simulation 1,000 times, and never, ever is there one single individual who appears to be normal. They are all classed as impaired.”
US-based scientists were also skeptical. Mark Cohen, a professor of neurology and pioneer in functional brain imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, said there was insufficient evidence to link the diplomats’ health problems to the sounds they heard. “These are symptoms which are typical of many, many causes,” he said. “It is an incautious leap to presume that the cause was related to the reports of sounds heard by these diplomats.”
Rigorous scientific evaluation is difficult because US authorities have not been forthcoming with hard data. Even scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, where many of the patients were treated, are unwilling to share data with other scientists, referring requests to the State Department. According to the New York Times, only 25 percent of those evacuated from Cuba were later found to have health problems, but even this information only became public after the Times report.
There are several possible explanations for this reluctance to share information. Perhaps the US itself is responsible for the incidents, or the State Department is unwilling to expose possible CIA agents to scrutiny, or the incidents, whatever their cause, may have been mobilized for political purposes.
Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA analyst whose work focused on Cuba, said, “[US authorities] were so desperate to make their case that it was sonic attacks. This is serious stuff. You’re accusing [Cuba] of doing line-of-sight attacks with a weapon that no one knows exists. So once the political people got stuck in their own internal contradictions, it was almost impossible then to get a real serious discussion about what was going on. The administration had already decided it was going to use this – the legitimate symptoms of US government officials – for a political maneuver that looks like a lot of other political things that this administration has done, and that is, at any cost, undo what [Obama] did.”
Cuba is anxious to get to the bottom of this mystery. “We think that this could be clarified if a serious discussion is held and we exchange the information we have,” according to Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, the general director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center. All he and his colleagues have had to go on is a one-page medical summary with no test results or data included, he says. For months, the State Department has been characterizing these illnesses as the result of an attack. If this proves false, what options does the State Department have? “Once you say there’s been an attack, you can’t back up. Would they be willing to recognize that they’ve made a mistake? They’ve got themselves into a corner, and they don’t know how to pull out … The most alarming consideration is that medical data was withheld from the Cuban side to protect the patient privacy, but then it goes directly to publication [in JAMA],” he added.
Cuba demonstrated openness to a thorough investigation from the beginning, even providing a team of FBI agents with access to the homes and hotels where the incidents were reported and hosting several FBI visits to the island. Now Cuba is calling for a transparent tri-partite investigation including experts from Canada, the US and Cuba.
In a June 5th statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he created a health care task force to examine “the unexplained health incidents that have affected a number of U.S. government personnel and family members stationed overseas.” The New York Times reports, “the statement left open the possibility that there have been similar events at other American embassies or consulates. One American official said he was aware of reports of isolated episodes, but that there did not appear to be any discernible pattern.” From the beginning US officials have been concerned about the possibility of similar incidents at other embassies, and the impact on diplomatic personnel and bilateral relations with other countries. Given the recent incidents in China, this may induce US officials to take seriously an investigation that would explain the mystery, though to date, this has not been the case.
In the final analysis, there may not be a clear cause to discover. After a great deal of research, Cuban officials maintain this is a case of “mass hysteria” in which members of a closed community (international diplomats living in foreign countries fit this description) influence each other in profound ways. This does not discard that the reported symptoms are real, but the wide range of reported symptoms and the fact that all patients demonstrated normal MRI brain scans (according to the JAMA report) indicates this may be a case of mind over matter, something that is not uncommon in psychosomatic research. Currently there in no known acoustic weapon that would cause the reported symptoms. Only the US and Russia are known to be working on the weaponization of sound waves. (For a full discussion of the science behind these incidents, see “Sonic Weapon Attacks” on US Embassy Don’t Add Up – for Anyone,” in Scientific American, Feb 16, 2018.)
While the source of these health incidents is unknown, that has not stopped US officials from politicizing the issue. In a Congressional hearing earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Cuban-American with a well-known hatred of Cuban socialism, claimed, “We know two things for sure. People were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it.” Sen. Bob Menendez (D–N.J.), another politician with a powerful right wing Cuban-American constituency and a long history of support for the US embargo, described the incidents as “brazen and vicious attacks” on diplomats. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a long-time supporter of improved relations between the US and Cuba, said in January he has seen no evidence that American diplomats who suffered health symptoms while in Havana were “attacked.” Flake’s understanding is supported, to some extent, by State Department officials who cautioned that no final determination had been made about what caused the illnesses. It appears that Rubio is jumping the gun, perhaps in hopes of pleasing his right wing Cuban-American political funders in Florida and damaging any progress made in bilateral relations during the Obama administration.
The episodes played a big role in America’s current political disengagement with Cuba. Trump has proven anxious to repair relations with Republican leaders that were damaged during the presidential campaign. Among the most important leaders is Marco Rubio, disparaged by Trump before the election as “Little Marco.” Rubio built much of his political legacy on his opposition to improved US-Cuba relations, and this fits nicely with the Trump agenda to undo all that is Obama.
While the mystery remains unsolved and the debates in Congress, even within the Republican Party, carry on, it is instructive to compare the US responses to the Cuban and Chinese incidents, and to compare the US and Canadian reactions to the incidents in Havana.
The Chinese incident prompted careful words from the State Department – “The Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating and taking appropriate measures” – along with a warning that anyone experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” while in China should move away from the source of the noise. In contrast, the Cuban incidents prompted angry declarations from the Trump administration, unfounded accusations from leading Republicans, the temporary removal of all non-essential diplomatic staff from Havana (which became permanent in early March), the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, and State Department travel warnings leading to decreases in US travel to the island.
Cuban authorities called on the US “to desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health incidents that became a pretext to adopt new unilateral measures that affect the operation of the respective embassies, particularly, the rendering of consular services depended upon by hundreds of thousands of people.” The US Embassy in Havana is barely functioning with a skeletal staff and is unable to even review visa requests. Cubans applying for immigrant visas must travel to Georgetown, Guyana. Even tourist visas require travel to a US Embassy in a third country. In addition to travel costs, applicants pay a non-refundable $150 application fee, and the vast majority of applicants are rejected.
The Canadian response stands in stark contrast to that of the US. Between 10 and 15 Canadians were apparently affected by an “acquired brain injury,” the carefully diplomatic term use by Canadian officials, who ordered their diplomats not to discuss the situation publicly. Family members are no longer allowed to accompany diplomatic staff in Havana, but even this change was handled quietly and did not result in a reduction of Embassy personnel. Most notably, Canadian officials did not blame the Cuban government for “attacks” and did not issue travel warnings for Canadian tourists. Canada is the leading source of tourists in Cuba.
The Cuban government vehemently denies participation in any attack on US diplomats, and no one has yet offered a rationale for such an attack. Since the Obama administration, Cuba has been anxious to improve relations with the US. After a February visit to Cuba, Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL) said, “I don’t see a motivation of the Cuban government itself to have done harm” to our diplomats. That’s because there is none. In the context of gradually improving relations between the US and Cuba under the Obama administration, there was hope initially that Trump might continue his predecessor’s openings. Cuban officials were careful not to roil the waters. Then President Raul Castro publicly offered Trump congratulations on his election victory. Bilateral cooperation on issues like illegal drug interdiction, limited trade openings, and immigration continued apace. Cuba had nothing to gain and everything to lose from an attack on US diplomats. Cuba has always been careful to protect its diplomatic relations throughout the world, a perfectly logical stance for a small country.
A conscious attack on Canadian diplomats is even harder to understand. Cuba maintains robust commercial relations with Canada and more Canadian tourists visit the island each year than from any other country.
According to travel industry experts, Cuba remains one of the safest tourist destinations in the world. A survey of 462 Americans who visited Cuba between 2017 and 2018 — conducted by Cuba Educational Travel — found that 83 percent believe the island is “very safe.” A Congressional delegation that visited the island in February insisted the island was safe for Americans and asked the State Department to eliminate the travel alert.