CUBA BRIEF: American diplomats harmed in Cuba: Cuba denies it but the injuries are real.

The same regime that in June of 2013 told the Panamanian government that a North Korean cargo vessel approaching the Panama Canal contained only a shipment of sugar for the people of North Korea, had little to say when warplanes, thousands of projectiles, and missiles were found under tons of sugar.  Press forward to recent statements by Cuba’s Foreign Minister questioning whether the brain trauma, dizziness, and permanent hearing loss of American diplomats in Cuba is real.  

This issue of CubaBrief focuses on various aspects of the controversy: 

  • In “Latin America Should Not Tolerate Cuba’s Aggression Toward US Diplomats,” the Heritage Foundation’s Ana Quintana says that “The democracies of Latin America cannot stand idly by. An unknown attack on one country’s diplomats puts the rest of the region’s officials in danger.” 
  • While Council on Foreign Relation’s Elliott Abrams discusses in his blog Pressure Points “Ideology and Foreign Policy” as they relate to President Barack Obama’s Iran and Cuba deals. Mr. Abrams points out that “Obama foreign policy had a gigantic ideological element, and was all too often an effort to right imagined wrongs from the American past. The result of such of policy is victories for enemies like the Islamic Republic and Cuba, and danger for the United States, our allies, and even now our diplomats. In Cuba and Iran both, it’s a sorry record.” 
  • Finally, Adam Rogers asks in Wired a relevant question: “Were US diplomats in Cuba victims of a sonic attack—or something else?”

The Daily Signal, October 3, 2017

Latin America Should Not Tolerate Cuba’s Aggression Toward US Diplomats

By Ana Quintana / @Ana_R_Quintana
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced that he would expel two-thirds of Cuba’s diplomats stationed at their embassy in Washington, D.C.

This move comes after the U.S. scaled down the number of diplomats stationed in Havana as a result U.S. diplomats being injured by sonic attacks there.

Starting 10 months ago, a mysterious sonar device began either purposefully or inadvertently targeting American and Canadian diplomats. Published reports confirmed by the State Department puts the number of victims at 22 Americans and an unknown number Canadians.

The diplomats from both countries have experienced symptoms that include permanent hearing loss, visual problems, dizziness, and balance and other neurological issues. They were all posted in Havana and living in housing provided by the Cuban government, as is standard practice.

Even though the State Department has not accused the Cuban government of the attacks, it is the Cuban government that is responsible for the security of our diplomats.

The Cubans claim to be innocent, yet have stubbornly refused to either cooperate with the U.S. government or guarantee American diplomats’ safety. Both terms are direct violations of Cuba’s obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

While the Cubans may not have directed the attacks, their claims to innocence fall on deaf ears. It is unlikely that Cuba’s totalitarian regime would be unaware of a foreign actor or subversive element in the Cuban government carrying out a long-term attack on high-priority countries such as the U.S. and Canada.

U.S. government officials and their families posted in Havana and abroad are routinely victims of the Cuban government’s harassment.

Surveillance of all forms is commonplace, as well as various forms of physical and physiological abuse, including threatening attempts to run their cars off the road, poisoning of pets, and in one case, replacing mouthwash with urine. There have also been numerous reports of the Cuban government inspecting diplomatic pouches, a practice that violates the Vienna Convention. Clearly, Cuba’s well-earned reputation for harassing U.S. personnel makes its innocence hard to believe.

Still, Latin American countries have consistently scolded the U.S. and urged it to unilaterally change its policy toward Cuba. In spite of Cuba’s military dictatorship, its long history of repression, and its destabilizing role in the region, they say the U.S. must be the one to alter its ways.

This flawed logic led the Obama administration to prematurely normalize relations with Havana.

Following the announcement of President Barack Obama’s détente, The Heritage Foundation warned that the Cuban government will continue to be a danger to the U.S. and any change in policy must require a change in behavior from the Cuban government. Instead, the Obama administration asked for nothing and gave up everything. With diplomatic recognition comes a higher level of responsibility. The thugs governing Havana have proven they deserve neither. If Latin America as a region wants to be taken seriously, it must not tolerate an attack on the U.S. and Canada’s diplomats.

The democracies of Latin America cannot stand idly by. An unknown attack on one country’s diplomats puts the rest of the region’s officials in danger.

Latin America must stand in solidarity with the U.S. and Canada and strongly urge the Cuban government to cooperate on the investigation.


Pressure Points, October 1, 2017

Ideology and Foreign Policy

By Elliott Abrams
Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

 Barack Obama undertook two supremely ideological foreign policy moves. In both cases he seemed largely motivated by myths about American “crimes” in the past, and for that reason failed or refused to bargain hard for American advantage. Instead, he appeared to see the new negotiations as including a bit of restitution for previous American wrongs.

The more significant case was Iran, where he spoke of the crime of overthrowing the leftist Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, in 1953. There is good reason to wonder, in fact, whether the United States bears the responsibility for Mossadeq’s fate–or indeed whether Mossadeq and the Iranian people get the credit. (After the State Department released a large group of cables about those events in 1953, Reuel Gerecht wrote that “It is hard to read these cables and come to the conclusion that America overthrew Mossadeq.”) That was not Obama’s view, but in fact Obama was never much concerned about the Iranian people, and his human rights efforts in Iran were weak to the point of disappearance– even, or especially, when the Iranian people rose up against the regime in June 2009.

The other case was Cuba. There, Obama handed valuable gifts of money and legitimacy to the brutal Castro regime. As with Iran there was a peremptory claim that the deal being done would somehow lead to a vast relaxation of the regime’s oppression, but as with Iran it was quickly proved false. The new tourist flights, the cruise ship arrivals, the additional commerce, and all the money they brought was swept into the maw of the Castro regime, while the people benefitted not at all by experiencing an ounce of freedom.

Of course Obama might have negotiated for better. He might have agreed to do all he did for Castro providing only that all political prisoners were freed, internet freedom allowed, and so on–but he didn’t. He didn’t because he was too anxious to move forward, or what he mistakenly saw as forward, in Cuban-American relations. What he meant of course was Castro-American relations, ridding us of the Cold War relic of our Cuba policy. As for demanding freedom for the Cuban people, well, how old-fashioned.

Today we see the results, in both cases. Iran has received many commercial, political, and diplomatic benefits from the Obama deal, but there is no reform, no change. Internally, repression is at least as bad as ever. In the region, Iran’s aggression and subversion have increased. And its nuclear ambitions have not been abandoned, or it would not be trying to perfect advanced centrifuges and longer- and longer-range ballistic missiles.

In Cuba, there has similarly been no change in foreign or domestic policy. Cuba continues to be the mainstay of the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela, and continues to oppress, abuse, and imprison Cubans who seek freedom. And now, Obama’s gifts are being taken back: the United States is withdrawing most of its embassy staff and has issued a travel warning against visiting Cuba, because of the vicious attacks on American diplomats there. The New York Times reported that

the Trump administration, which has already expelled two Cuban diplomats over the illnesses, is considering further retaliatory steps, according to Congressional staff briefed by administration officials. And the State Department issued an advisory that Americans should not travel to Cuba. Because some of the attacks occurred in hotels where State Department employees were temporarily staying, officials said they worried that tourists and others could be affected.

The Washington Post said that “Senior State Department officials said U.S. diplomats have been ‘targeted’ for ‘specific attacks,’” not the victims of strange untargeted phenomena. Rumors in Washington suggest that the health problems of the American diplomats attacked in Cuba are even worse than has yet been reported. Of course the Cuban regime says it knows nothing, but its probity is non-existent and it has a long history of attacking American diplomats.

As Jose Cardenas wrote recently in Foreign Policy, 

 A 2003 cable from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana reported that “Cuban agents routinely enter U.S. employee residences to search belongings and papers, enter computers and gather other information thought to be useful from an intelligence point of view. Vehicles are also targeted. In many instances, no effort is made to hide the intrusions.” Not only are vehicles vandalized — tires slashed, parts removed, windshields smashed — but in some instances human excrement is left behind in the diplomats’ homes. The cable continues, “Electronic surveillance is pervasive, including monitoring of home phone and computer lines. U.S. personnel have had living-room conversations repeated or played back to them by strangers and unknown callers.” In one case, after one family privately discussed their daughter’s susceptibility to mosquito bites, “they returned home to find all of their windows open and the house full of mosquitoes.” In 2007, the Department’s Inspector General issued a 64-page report asserting that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate efforts to create hardship and discontent in the lives of the diplomats. “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets.”

Obama foreign policy had a gigantic ideological element, and was all too often an effort to right imagined wrongs from the American past. The result of such of policy is victories for enemies like the Islamic Republic and Cuba, and danger for the United States, our allies, and even now our diplomats. In Cuba and Iran both, it’s a sorry record.


Wired, October 5, 2017


By Adam Rogers

THE 007-MEETS-THE-X-FILES ADVENTURES in Cuba continue. Last week the US Department of State recalled non-emergency personnel and families home from the embassy in Havana, citing injuries and illness among 21 people—“hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping” according to a statementfrom secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Those 21 people weren’t just cultural attachés. Some of the hardest-hit victims were US intelligence operatives, according to an AP story on Monday. Which is to say: Someone in Cuba has been remotely doing something mysterious to US spies’ ears and brains. Call it spook action, at a distance.

Most of the reporting on this story so far has talked about some kind of a “sonic weapon” or “sonic attack,” maybe a side effect of a surveillance technology. The problem is, physicists and acousticians don’t know how ultrasound (high frequency) or infrasound (low frequency) could do what the State Department says happened to its people. That leaves two possibilities: a new sci-fi sound gun or something else.

Here’s a hypothesis for the something else: poison.

Just to rewind a little bit: The reported injuries vary, from hearing loss (potentially permanent) and dizziness to confusion, headache, and even mild brain trauma. To audiologists and otolaryngologists, that suggests damage or injury in both the inner ear, which converts sound waves into neural impulses and regulates balance, and along neural pathways reaching into the brain. Some of the affected people reported hearing weird noises, sometimes only in specific parts of specific rooms—but others didn’t.

Immediately that suggests some kind of focused acoustic attack. But nobody will admit to knowing about any technologies that can do all that. “Nothing about this story makes any sense to us,” says Robert Putnam, senior marketing director at LRAD, which makes the long-range acoustic device that a cruise ship deployed against pirates in 2005. But the LRAD uses audible—very, very audible—sound. Most of the Cuban attacks seem to have been inaudible. “If it’s infrasound, they’re not really hearing it, and you’d have to pump a tremendous amount of energy into the ground,” Putnam says. “If it’s ultrasound, it attenuates very quickly, and if you pumped a lot of energy into it, it’d heat the skin.”

And technologies that focus a beam of audible sound at a single spot don’t have the kind of range our nominal magic sci-fi sound gun would need—as of 2010 “you had to be within five or 10 feet of the emitter for it to have an effect,” Putnam says. Of course, maybe the magical sci-fi sound gun has made significant technological progress since then.

But sound isn’t the only thing that affects hearing and the brain. Chemicals do, too. It’s called ototoxicity—toxicity to the ear—and it’s a known side effect of, for example, some chemotherapeutics and antibiotics. The widely used cancer drug cisplatin can cause hearing loss, as can the category of antibiotics called aminoglycosides, which includes streptomycin and neomycin. Basically, those drugs get into the fluid-filled ductwork of the inner ear and damage the hair cells, which talk to the nerves that lead to the brain.

Chemotherapeutics and antibiotics need to be administered intravenously to have an effect, though, so they don’t fit the facts. Heavy metals like lead and mercury can be ototoxic, but they also stay in the blood for a long time; the State Department hasn’t released specific test results for its people—maybe it won’t—but it’s safe to assume they got blood tests.

Another class of ototoxins: solvents, like the cleaning product xylene or styrene, used to make glass-reinforced polyesters. Some linger in the blood, but others have a shorter half life. They off-gas from new carpet, paint, and furniture—it’s why some new homes aren’t immediately ready for occupation. “Some of these are going to be obvious. You’re going to smell it,” says Kathleen Campbell, an expert in ototoxicity at Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine. “But when we study this, it’s usually through industrial exposure. We’re not looking at the possibility that it could be weaponized and have the aroma taken away.”

Finally, though, is an ototoxin that kind of fits the bill. Carbon monoxide causes hearing loss because of its action as an asphyxiant. It kills by displacing oxygen from hemoglobin, the stuff in red blood cells that ferries oxygen around the body. It’s odorless, a gas, and acts centrally—which is to say, it acts on the brain, not just parts of the ear. True, to suffer hearing loss from it, you’d probably have to inhale enough to pass out. But: “It greatly increases the risk of noise-induced hearing loss. It’s synergistic,” Campbell says. “If your oxygen levels go down in the ear and then you have noise exposure, you get a great increase in free radicals, and that attacks the hair cells.”

Synergistic effects are worth looking at here. Hearing loss doesn’t begin or end at the cochlea, the organ in the ear that mechanically turns sound into nerve impulses. Something that affects the central nervous system—like a solvent or carbon monoxide—could also affect the vestibular system, the trio of fluid-filled, semicircular canals that govern balance. And it could affect other parts of the brain as well.

Possibly—though this isn’t well-tested in humans, for good reasons—inaudible infra- and ultrasound could be synergistic with an ototoxin just as industrial factory noise can be. Maybe microwave beams are, too.

The thing is, the Cubans have denied any involvement in whatever these attacks are, if indeed they are attacks. In a briefing, a senior State Department official said the investigation is ongoing.

US officials have reportedly said they’re looking into whether some other country’s operatives were responsible. Like maybe even Russia, which has already been involved in attacks on US news media and voting systems. And Russian security services have long employed poison as a weapon, from the 1978 murder of Bulgarian playwright Georgi Markov with a pellet filled with ricin fired from a trick umbrella to the 2006 killing of the spy Alexander Litvinenkowith tea laced with polonium-210.

The Russians have also used microwaves as a surveillance tool. Soviet intelligence beamed microwaves at the US embassy in Moscow for decades, at least for part of that time to send power to passive microphones embedded in a carved Seal of the United States.

Synergistic effects aren’t limited to ototoxins, either. Infrasound—anything below 20 hertz—can be more damaging if it’s accompanied by audible noise. That might not explain the cognitive symptoms that the US personnel experienced, but an audible noise like that reported by some Americans could have provided cover for the infrasound delivery. “Is it plausible that low-frequency sounds could injure the inner ear or create a vestibular phantom, a sense of nausea or motion sickness?” says Robert Jackler, an otolaryngologist at Stanford Medical School. “Yes, absolutely.”

Ultrasound really needs a fluid medium to conduct; that’s why pregnant women get that gel on their abdomens before an ultrasound imaging test. Infrasound delivers through the air, but anyone who’s ever been to a dance club or ridden a helicopter has felt the “vibrotactile” aspect of infrasound—the whomp-whomp feeling in your guts.

It could work as a weapon on people, too. Jackler pointed me to a 2007 study in which researchers exposed chinchillas to infrasound and an audible noise, showing that the two together caused increased damage to the cochlea, specifically by letting cochlear fluids mix together via a rupture. If you really want to get conspiratorial, a team of Russian researchers replicated that work in 2011 in humans, studying soldiers who were working with heavy ground vehicles, helicopters, and hovercraft. The ones exposed to the most infrasound all had more hearing loss, digestive and nervous-system problems, and eye diseases. (The same team in 2017 found that infrasound had a mutagenic effect on mice, so, you know, oy gevalt.)

I emailed one of the researchers who worked on both of those papers, asking if she thought her work might have any relevance to what happened in Cuba. “We do not know anything about such weapons, and we consider this unacceptable,” writes Irina Vasilieva, a biologist at the NN Petrov National Medical Center of Oncology.

How will anyone figure out if any of this is true? Tests, of course. Hearing loss due to medical ototoxicity generally affects higher frequencies first; solvents attack the midrange. Hearing loss from loud noises yields a “noise notch” between 2 and 6 kilohertz. Hair cells give off wee little whistles when functioning normally—otoacoustic emissions—that can test if they’re functioning normally. And then there’s auditory brain-stem testing to see if the damage is central instead of peripheral. “I’ve worked with the Department of Defense on auditory research for a couple decades, and I’ve been very impressed with their capabilities. I’m sure they’re already looking at everything I’ve talked about,” Campbell says. “More and more I suspect there’s some combination rather than one pure effect.”

That combination might not have been intentional. Presumably a magic sound gun could have synergistically combined with environmental noise, or some unknown ototoxin, and caused injuries when it was only supposed to pick up secret conversations. Maybe this isn’t James Bond or The X-Files; maybe it’s Coen Brothers. Perhaps nobody, as hapless bad guys are wont to say, was supposed to get hurt.

The thing is, poisoning people at a distance is really hard to do. “You’ve got to have a consistent dose and a consistent delivery mechanism,” says Edward Boyer, a medical toxicologist at Harvard Medical School. Anything ototoxic enough to cause the range of symptoms in the diplomats would have been toxic in other ways, too, he says. And even the symptoms that the State Department has already made public “imply highly variable pharmacokinetics, which to me says that it wouldn’t be that useful as a toxin. If you can’t incapacitate everybody, what’s the point of using it at all?”

But don’t let that shake your paranoia just yet. “It may be that this was a test case, and they wanted to see how useful it was, whoever unleashed it on us,” Boyer says.

For now, whatever happened to the diplomats and spies in Cuba remains a mystery without enough clues. The experts I talked to emphasized that to do anything more than speculate they’d have to see lab results, neuropsychiatric workups, neuroimaging, environmental history … all results that the State Department hasn’t made public, if indeed the tests happened. And even if State does determine what affected their people in Cuba, it might not say. Sometimes the truth isn’t out there.