CubaBrief: New York Times reveals that 130 U.S. personnel attacked. Attacks first spotted in Havana, Cuba in 2016 where 40 were harmed.

General Raul Castro meets with Vladimir Putin in July 2014

General Raul Castro meets with Vladimir Putin in July 2014

According to The New York Times, in their May 12, 2021 article “Mysterious Ailments Are Said to Be More Widespread Among U.S. Personnel“, “the number of cases within the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Department and elsewhere spurred broad concern in the Biden administration. The initial publicly confirmed cases were concentrated in China and Cuba and numbered about 60, not including a group of injured C.I.A. officers whose total is not public.” Yesterday, they reported that the total U.S. personnel harmed “overseas starting five years ago now number more than 130 people, far more than previously known, according to current and former officials.”

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre heard on All Things Considered on October 27, 2020 on NPR in the segment “A CIA Officer Visits Moscow, Returns With Mysterious, Crippling Headaches” reported that “since 2016, more than 40 U.S. diplomats who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and more than a dozen at U.S. consulates in China have complained of a range of symptoms that also include balance issues, ringing in their ears and memory loss. More than a dozen Canadian diplomats who served in Cuba in 2017 reported similar symptoms.”

Some government officials believe that Russia is behind the attacks.

Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov at the port in Havana, January 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov at the port in Havana, January 20, 2015. (Reuters)

Advocates of returning to a detente with Havana claim that this is needed to avoid pushing Cuba toward Russia again. This is an absurd argument on several levels. First, Cuba’s relations with Russia cooled because of Gorbachev’s reforms, and Yeltsin’s democratic revolution. During this period the Castro regime banned Soviet publications, and purged Cuban officials that had been contaminated with ideas of Glasnost and Perestroika. Relations were restored in 2000 with Vladimir Putin’s turn to authoritarianism and foreign policy hostile to the interests of the United States. In July 2014 while visiting Havana, Putin wrote off $32 billion dollars of Cuba’s debt to Russia, left over from Soviet times.

This reality was put on display when the Russian Navy’s intelligence collection ship, the Viktor Leonov, docked in Havana just a day before the arrival of the U.S. delegation to negotiate the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States in January 2015. This was a month after President Obama and Dictator Raul Castro had announced their intentions to resume diplomatic relations. The Russian warship was docked in a pier usually reserved for cruise ships to send a high profile message to the Americans.

Néstor T. Carbonell in his May 11, 2021 article published in National Review, “The Havana Syndrome: Unraveling the Mystery” outlined the events that unfolded and the injuries done to U.S. and Canadian diplomats. Mr. Carbonell concludes that “in the case of Cuba — a police state with surveillance on every block — it’s unlikely that the multiple attacks on the island could have been carried out without the complicity of Castro and his politburo. If the CIA confirms the involvement of the Cuban regime, that nation should not be given a pass with another one-sided détente. Experience tells us that condoning evil only invites more evil.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed by Cuban officials as he arrives in Havana, Cuba, on 11 July.European Pressphoto Agency

Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed by Cuban officials as he arrives in Havana, Cuba, on 11 July.

European Pressphoto Agency

The New York Times, May 12, 2021

Mysterious Ailments Are Said to Be More Widespread Among U.S. Personnel

The Biden administration has begun more aggressively investigating episodes that left spies, diplomats, soldiers and others with brain injuries.

By Julian E. BarnesEdward Wong and Eric Schmitt

May 12, 2021

WASHINGTON — Mysterious episodes that caused brain injuries in spies, diplomats, soldiers and other U.S. personnel overseas starting five years ago now number more than 130 people, far more than previously known, according to current and former officials.

The number of cases within the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Department and elsewhere spurred broad concern in the Biden administration. The initial publicly confirmed cases were concentrated in China and Cuba and numbered about 60, not including a group of injured C.I.A. officers whose total is not public.

The new total adds cases from Europe and elsewhere in Asia and reflects efforts by the administration to more thoroughly review other incidents amid concern over a spate of them in recent months.

Since December, at least three C.I.A. officers have reported serious health effects from episodes overseas. One occurred within the past two weeks, and all have required the officers to undergo outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other facilities.

And in one case in 2019 that has not previously been reported, a military officer serving overseas pulled his vehicle into an intersection, then was overcome by nausea and headaches, according to four current and former officials briefed on the events. His 2-year-old son, sitting in the back seat, began crying. After the officer pulled away from the intersection, his nausea stopped, and the child stopped crying.

Both received medical attention from the government, though it is not clear whether they suffered long-term debilitating effects. Officials suspect the officer may have been targeted. The episode upset officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations, prompting them to investigate further.

The Biden administration has not determined who or what is responsible for the episodes or whether they constitute attacks. Though some Pentagon officials believe Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., is most likely behind the case of the 2-year-old, and evidence has emerged that points to Russia in other cases, the intelligence agencies have not concluded any cause or whether a foreign power is involved.

“As of now, we have no definitive information about the cause of these incidents, and it is premature and irresponsible to speculate,” said Amanda J. Schoch, the spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement.

While no military personnel have been injured in combat zones, several were hurt in Europe and Asia, according to former officials.

Some suffered long-term brain injuries including debilitating headaches. The episodes, according to the National Security Council, involve personnel experiencing “sensory phenomena,” such as sound, pressure or heat, along with or followed by physical symptoms, such as sudden-onset vertigo, nausea, and head or neck pain.

This article is based on interviews with 20 current and former officials across multiple government agencies who have worked on the issue or have been briefed on the episodes, many of which remain classified.

The Biden administration is trying to strike a careful balance between showing officials that they are taking the issue seriously and trying to keep panic from spreading, either inside the government or among the public. The National Security Council has begun an intelligence review, aimed at discovering whether additional unreported incidents fit the pattern, a spokeswoman said.

“We are bringing the U.S. government’s resources to bear to get to the bottom of this,” said Emily J. Horne, a spokeswoman for the council.

The C.I.A. has formed a new targeting cell to try to gather information about the episodes, how they occurred and who is responsible. The cell aims to operate with a similar rigor and intensity to the group expanded by the agency sometime after the Sept. 11 attacks to hunt Osama bin Laden. The White House has also worked to standardize reporting of incidents and improve medical treatment for victims.

In a report released in December, the National Academy of Sciences said a microwave weapon probably caused the injuries. Some officials believe a microwave or directed-energy device is the most likely cause.

The severity of the brain injuries has ranged widely. But some victims have chronic, potentially irreversible symptoms and pain, suggesting potentially permanent brain injury. Physicians at Walter Reed have warned government officials that some victims are at risk for suicide.

The United States has investigated episodes both in the country and overseas, but the vast majority have been overseas, according to the National Security Council, and some reported domestically are likely to be aftershocks caused by earlier incidents overseas, according to current and former officials.

But at least two episodes involving White House staff members, one in 2020 that affected a National Security Council official near the Ellipse south of the White House and another in 2019 involving a woman walking her dog in Northern Virginia, have no known connection to an earlier overseas event. While many officials expressed skepticism that Russia or another power would conduct an attack in the United States, agencies are investigating.

Congress has demanded more from the C.I.A. In a closed-door meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, senators accused the C.I.A. of doing too little to investigate the mysterious episodes and until recently showing skepticism about them, according to people briefed on the meeting.

During the Trump administration, some in the agency said there was little intelligence showing a foreign power was responsible and argued that it made little sense analytically for Russia or another foreign intelligence service to make unprovoked attacks on Americans. Others doubted the cause of the brain injuries.

The new C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, has tried to move aggressively to improve the agency’s response, current and former officials said. Mr. Burns has met with victims, visited doctors who have treated injured agency officers and briefed lawmakers.

He has also assigned his deputy, David Cohen, to oversee the investigation and the health care response. Mr. Cohen will meet monthly with victims and will lead regular briefings for Congress. The agency has also doubled the number of medical personnel conducting treatment and managing cases of injured officers.

In addition, the chief medical officer, who had been criticized by some former officers as too skeptical of the incidents and dismissive of some symptoms, announced his retirement. He was replaced with another doctor seen inside the C.I.A. as more focused on patient care.

The C.I.A. has also cut the average wait time for injured officers at Walter Reed. It was up to eight weeks at the end of last year and is now less than two.

Displayed in Walter Reed is a painting by a C.I.A. officer injured in one of the overseas episodes. The painting is a black canvas, with a red splatter. C.I.A. personnel being treated at Walter Reed have called it “The Gunshot.”

“It signified his feeling that we all wished we had been shot, a visible injury, so that our colleagues would more readily believe us,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer who was hurt in Moscow in 2017.

The mystery first drew attention when diplomats and C.I.A. officers working in Havana in 2016 were sickened and reported feeling vertigo, nausea and headaches. Similar episodes began occurring the next year in Guangzhou, China. And last October, The New York Times reported that as early as 2017, another cohort of C.I.A. officers traveling in a variety of countries, including Russia, had said they were the likely victims of attacks and reported similar symptoms.

Lawmakers and the Trump administration’s National Security Council grew increasingly frustrated last year with State Department’s and the C.I.A.’s handling of the incidents.

Robert C. O’Brien, President Donald J. Trump’s last national security adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, his deputy, had already begun working in early 2020 to redouble efforts by their aides to understand the mysterious episodes and to get the Pentagon more involved.

But their staff members ran into frustration getting the C.I.A., the State Department and other agencies to share details about injured personnel, in part because of federal protections on health data. White House officials thought the investigation, in which the C.I.A. had been the lead agency, had run into a dead end.

The frustration culminated in a tense conversation Mr. Pottinger had with Vaughn Bishop, then the deputy C.I.A. director, and other officials in November. Mr. Pottinger urged the intelligence community to do more to cooperate with the Pentagon and other agencies. The next month, the National Security Council convened a deputy-level meeting across agencies to again push for further action and a broader investigation.

Mr. Pottinger declined to comment.

The Biden administration has tried to further improve coordination, including directing agencies to each name a coordinator to work on both identifying the cause of the episodes and improving health care for the injured personnel. Even some Democrats who have been briefed on the incidents called on the administration to be more aggressive.

“I don’t believe that we as a government, in general, have acted quickly enough,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine who heads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. “We really need to fully understand where this is coming from, what the targeting methods are and what we can do to stop them.”

Chicago Tribune, December 13, 2000


By Michael McGuire, Tribune Staff Writer


December 13, 2000

When times were good, a virtual armada of Soviet tankers and cargo ships sailed into Cuban harbors, crammed with oil and equipment such as Gaz trucks, farm machinery and military hardware plus consumer products that brought unprecedented comfort to the communist Caribbean island.

But the Soviet-subsidized affluence that allowed Cuba to spread its political and military influence in Latin America and Africa ended abruptly in the early 1990s with the downfall of Kremlin-led communism.

By 1994, Cuba’s economic output had plunged by 35 percent and a chill set in between the Kremlin and its strategic Cold War outpost 90 miles off Florida’s Key West.

Now Russia wants to change that.

On the eve of his scheduled arrival in Havana, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation should quickly revive its frayed economic ties with Cuba and compete with countries already established on the island for trade and investment. On Monday, Putin declared that the cooling of post-Soviet relations was wrong and that Russian business had suffered as a consequence.

“Unfortunately for us, in the years when our economic contacts collapsed, many important aspects of our mutual activity were squandered, and the position of Russian enterprises were taken by foreign competitors,” Putin told Russian television on Tuesday.

Putin said Russia should also use its improving relations with Cuba as a bridge to revive contacts with other Latin American nations in which, he said, Cuba plays an important role.

Putin’s trip appears to be part of a systematic effort by the Russian president to revive relationships with former allies that had deteriorated under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Putin has played host to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and sent a warm diplomatic note to Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Earlier this year he became the first Kremlin leader to visit North Korea.

Putin’s journey to Cuba is the first by a Kremlin leader since Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited his communist ally in 1989.

Putin emphasized that Russia has no ideological agenda in the region, although he is expected to be accompanied by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who likely will meet with Cuban military leaders to discuss possible areas of cooperation.

But Wayne Smith, a Cuba scholar who once held the top U.S. diplomatic post in Cuba, said he saw little military significance in the Russian visit.

“I don’t see anything that should be of any security concern to the U.S.,” Smith said. “Certainly, the Russians are not going to put troops back in Cuba and are not going to reintroduce missiles or anything of the sort.”

Smith said the Russians instead are likely to push President Fidel Castro toward settlement of a $20 billion debt that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, while Cuba would press the Russians to provide more oil in exchange for sugar and raw materials mined on the island.

Vladimir Lukin, a deputy speaker in the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said he did not think Cuba could repay its entire debt to Russia. But, he said, “there may be other ways of repaying this debt, like Russia’s participation in Cuban businesses, maybe even in the tourist business.”

Cuba relies heavily upon its burgeoning tourism trade to spur an economy that has increased steadily in recent years.

“Certainly, the Russians are not going to resume the kind of preferential relationship that Cuba enjoyed before 1992 when the Russians sold oil to Cuba for under the world price and bought Cuban sugar for well above the world price–in effect giving the Cubans a world subsidy,” Smith said during a visit to Havana. “They might increase oil deliveries somewhat and they might buy more Cuban sugar.”

At one time, about 20 percent of Cuba’s gross national product was estimated to have come from Soviet subsidies. In 1999 Russia was estimated to have supplied more than 3.5 million tons of crude oil to Cuba and imported more than 2 million tons of raw cane sugar, nearly half of Cuba’s harvest, in trade amounting to a small percentage of its former level.

Trade between the two countries in 2000 is expected to total close to $1 billion.

Although the last 1,600 Russian ground troops left Cuba in 1993, among the likely topics up for discussion will be a sophisticated electronic listening post operated by Russian technicians at Lourdes near Havana that is believed to allow Moscow to eavesdrop on U.S. and Latin American telephone calls, Internet traffic, and other civilian and military telecommunications.

In the past, U.S. officials have acknowledged the existence of the listening post but have said it helps Russians verify U.S. compliance with arms-control agreements.

The talks also likely will involve the uncompleted nuclear power station in Jaragua southwest of Havana that is opposed by the U.S., which considers the reactor a safety risk to Florida and other states lining the Gulf of Mexico.

Last year Russia and Cuba agreed to create a joint venture to complete construction of the two Soviet-designed, light-water reactors that was begun in 1981 but put on hold in 1992.

Although critics say the reactors still do not meet the safety standards of Western nations, light-water reactors are considered safer than the graphite-cooled model that was in use in Chernobyl, Ukraine, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Copyright © 2000, Chicago Tribune

The New York Times, September 7, 1989


The God That Failed Fidel

Sept. 7, 1989

While the breezes of freedom surge through much of the Communist world, Fidel Castro is resolutely turning Cuba into a fortress of reaction. The latest sinister turn was the arrest of three Cuban human rights monitors, Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, Hiram Abi Cobas and Hubert Jerez Marino. Each was a leader of an unofficial group seeking some leeway for peaceful dissent; each was seized at 5 A.M. With their arrest, 23 human rights activists are now in Cuban jails.

The crackdown came in the wake of the banning of two Soviet publications, Moscow News and Sputnik – an unusual move for a country that depends on Soviet aid. An editorial in the Cuban party newspaper, Granma, accused the two periodicals of ”justifying bourgeois democracy as the highest form of popular participation” and showing a ”fascination with the American way of life.”

That’s an odd reproach, considering that Cuba’s baseball-playing President is himself notably fascinated by Americans. He has turned Hemingway’s house into a shrine, cultivated media celebrities like Barbara Walters and insisted that Cuba’s quarrel is with Washington, not the American people. What makes the censorship of Soviet publications more curious is Mr. Castro’s long record of loyally defending every gyration of Soviet policy, including labored excuses for Soviet assaults on Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

But the old Soviet god has now failed Mr. Castro, and infidels like Mikhail Gorbachev lead what was once the true church. Mr. Castro told Cuban party leaders last January: ”Those inside the Communist Party who show themselves in favor of perestroika and glasnost are of the same clique as those dissidents out there and of counterrevolutionaries. We are not going to tolerate this deviationism.” Exiled Cuban writers, who would never have dreamed of looking for help in Moscow, now appeal to the Soviets ”to persuade Fidel Castro to consider the advantages of democratization.” Having raised one wall against U.S. influence, Mr. Castro must now build another to shield his people from perestroika and glasnost.

The sad end looming ahead is a Cuba sealed off along the lines of North Korea, Albania and Rumania, where a leader-for-life can endlessly publish endless speeches about his ”humanist” revolution.