U.S.-Cuba: More Facts, Less Clarity on “Sonic Attacks”

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Embassy in Cuba at dusk

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba. / U.S. Embassy Havana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Two prestigious publications – the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and ProPublica – released in-depth investigations this week into the alleged “sonic attacks” directed at U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2016-2017, but neither could confirm the U.S. allegations, explain the technology involved, nor provide comprehensive alternative explanations of what caused the victims’ mysterious symptoms.

JAMA studied the “neurological manifestations” that 21 diplomats linked to “audible and sensory phenomena” they reported experiencing.  Evaluations began an average of 203 days after the victims felt they were exposed to the sound waves.  The 10 joint authors validated some of the symptoms that the patients reported – including problems with cognitive abilities, vision, hearing, balance, and sleep – that had “raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology.”  They had concussion-like symptoms without a concussion.  Contrary to information leaked to the press several months ago, MRI brain scans came out normal in most cases, and the doctors were unable to determine the causes of mild or moderate irregularities on three of the scans.  Based on the “high levels of effort and motivation” the patients showed during testing, the authors discounted psychological factors (e.g., “mass hysteria”).  But they were not able to link the sounds or other energy that the victims reported with the symptoms.

  • An accompanying JAMA editorial urged “caution in interpreting the findings;” noted that “a definitive conclusion cannot be reached;” said that the cases “merit consideration of a common medical, environmental, or psychological event as the potential cause;” reported that many of the symptoms described “also occur in other medical, neurological, or psychiatric conditions;” and concluded that “many potential causes for the symptoms experienced … remain possibilities.”

An investigation by ProPublica reporters Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, who interviewed dozens of U.S. and foreign officials, intelligence officers, and other experts, concluded that, “Even in a realm where secrets abound, the Havana incidents are a remarkable mystery.”  They report that a CIA officer first surfaced the idea that he was struck by, in the authors’ words, “a strange, disturbing phenomenon – a powerful beam of high-pitched sound that seemed to be pointed right at him,” and it was FBI that, after eight months of analysis and several investigative visits to the island, ruled out attack with some sort of sonic device.

  • ProPublica could not identify a Cuban motive in conducting or even tolerating the alleged attacks, noting that “Cuban hostility toward the American diplomats in Havana was hovering somewhere near a 50-year low.” The investigators looked into alternative attack scenarios – such as that the Russians have developed an unknown technology and conducted the operations to disrupt U.S.-Cuba relations – but concluded that evidence is lacking.  They reported allegations that the Trump Administration has used intelligence on the incidents selectively to rationalize its efforts to reverse the U.S.-Cuba normalization process started by President Obama.

Both articles, within their specialties, provide valuable texture to understanding what the U.S. personnel in Havana have experienced – while correcting some of the information leaked since the issue first arose, such as the extent and nature of the “white matter foci” in brain scans.  Neither offers a comprehensive explanation of what happened, but both lay bare the lack of evidence supporting the Trump Administration’s preferred explanation that the Embassy officers were victims of “sonic attacks.”  The difficulty understanding events is compounded by the State Department’s reluctance to allow independent examination of the patients until it was too late to look seriously at alternative explanations.  Waiting 203 days to arrange comprehensive medical examinations, such as those written up by JAMA, would suggest excessive comfort with the “sonic attack” meme.  Moreover, by refusing Cuba’s repeated requests for information on the victims’ symptoms (with patients’ identity fully masked to ensure privacy and security) and directing Embassy personnel not to call a special hotline the Cuban government established so alleged attacks can be investigated real-time, the State Department has undermined its own assurances that it’s doing everything it can to solve the mystery.  Circumstantial evidence is mounting that the Administration – having punished Cuba by drastically slashing Embassy staff in Havana and putting much of the U.S.-Cuba normalization process on hold – is fine with letting the diplomats’ ailments remain a mystery that the Cubans cannot resolve to Washington’s satisfaction.

February 16, 2018

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