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Cuba on US diplomats' health attacks: No way it's sonic weapons. Maybe it's stress

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

HAVANA -- Cuban investigators have discarded widespread speculation that a sonic weapon is to blame for damaging the health of two dozen American diplomats stationed in Havana.

Among their own theories? That stress over shifting U.S.-Cuba relations could have exacerbated health problems.

Initial news reports in August, citing unnamed U.S. officials, blamed a mysterious host of symptoms -- hearing loss, ringing in the ears, disequilibrium, headaches, fatigue, facial and abdominal pain, memory and sleep disorders, mild concussions and nausea -- on attacks using a "covert sonic device."

In an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald, five top members of the Cuban team investigating the incidents described their hypotheses and preliminary findings in a case that threatens to put U.S.-Cuba relations in the deep freeze. The United States has already withdrawn most American diplomats from Havana, expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington and warned that Americans should reconsider travel to Cuba and avoid two hotels, the Nacional and Capri.

Based on the still-limited evidence that's been shared by the FBI, the State Department and their own investigation, the Cuban researchers said they don't believe health symptoms suffered by U.S. Embassy personnel were caused by a sonic weapon or sound waves.

A State Department spokesman said in response to Herald queries about the Cuban theories: "We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. The investigation into the attacks is ongoing."

Unless the U.S. shares more data on their investigation, Cuban investigators said, what caused the health symptoms may remain an unsolved mystery.

They also complained that they're often the last to know when new developments in the bizarre case surface in the United States.

When the State Department said recently that it had received 19 unconfirmed reports from American travelers to the island who complained of health symptoms similar to those experienced by diplomatic personnel, Cuban investigators said they learned about it not from U.S. officials but by reading it in the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

"Without cooperation, we're not going to get anywhere," said Dr. Manuel Jorge Villar Kuscevic, an ear, nose and throat specialist and coordinator of the Cuban expert committee looking into the diplomats' health problems.

More than 80 Cuban specialists are working on the case and they have come up with 14 hypotheses -- from mass hysteria to a toxin or virus.

In rejecting the sonic attacks theory, Cuban investigators point out that not all the Americans suffered hearing loss. If a sonic weapon or sound waves intense enough to produce the array of symptoms were employed, all the diplomats would have shown auditory damage, they said.

"For a sound to be forceful enough to give you a concussion, people would end up deaf," said Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdes Sosa, head of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience.

"We have discarded the idea that the damages could be produced by any type of sound -- much less by any type of sonic weapon," said Villar.

"This type of weapon doesn't exist in Cuba," added Col. Ramiro Ramirez Alvarez, chief of diplomatic security at Cuba's Interior Ministry. "The United States is the first one that would have this type of thing. They're made there; they're sold there."

A long-range acoustic device (LRAD), a type of sound blaster that emits sound in the 145-151 decibel range, has been used in the U.S. for crowd control as well as internationally to repel Somali pirates and in war situations. Such sound canons are quite large. Smaller machines sold as ultrasonic sound generators, or cannons that emit sonic blasts, are advertised on the internet as devices to scare away pesky wildlife.

If some type of advanced, classified weapon -- one that could specifically direct sound waves from a distance -- is involved in the alleged attacks, it might further complicate the investigations. Cuba wouldn't want the United States to know it has access to such a covert device and Washington wouldn't admit it to Havana either.

"We're not real keen on providing the perpetrators of this a lot of knowledge about what they've done," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told The Associated Press in January.

The U.S. government has stopped short of saying the Cuban government is behind the incidents, but it does hold authorities on the island responsible for failing to protect its diplomats -- a responsibility of a host government under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Much of what the American public knows about the case has come from leaks to the media.

"Why do these leaks to the press continue?" asked Valdes Sosa. "Obviously someone is interested in keeping the allegations alive."

Diplomats began reporting headaches, dizziness, hearing problems and ear pain in December 2016 and January 2017, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, director of the Department of State's Bureau of Medical Services, said at a Senate subcommittee hearing in January.

As early as November 2016, some diplomats said they heard strange sounds in their homes that accompanied the onset of symptoms.

Some described "a high-pitched beam of sound, a "baffling sensation" similar to driving in a car with the windows partially open, or intense pressure in one ear, said Rosenfarb.

The Cuban investigative team said security and protection -- both visible and invisible -- have been stepped up at the U.S. Embassy and 42 diplomatic homes. The Cubans are continuing their investigation, and the team said it is close to publishing a scientific summary of its work.

Later incidents were reported at the Capri and Nacional hotels in Havana. Cuban investigators said those reports involved room No. 823 at the Nacional. It offers an expansive view of the sea and is outfitted with two double beds, two rocking chairs, heavy drapes, a Samsung television, a capsule coffee maker, a mini-bar and a closet safe.

The two rooms at the Capri are on the 15th and 17th floors. After checking them out and finding nothing suspicious, the rooms at both the Capri and Nacional were returned to the hotels' inventory and are now being rented to guests, the Cuban investigators said. They chose the Nacional as the site for their interview with the Herald.

The two hotels are included in the State Department's most recent travel advisory for Cuba. Because diplomats' "safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk," the advisory said.

Cuban investigators say they are absolutely serious about trying to find what could have caused the range of symptoms reported by the United States and to determine whether any criminal activity was involved. Acts against the diplomatic corps and chiefs of mission are serious crimes in Cuba with stiff penalties, said Lt. Col. Roberto Hernandez Caballero, a criminal investigator in the Interior Ministry.

However, with no access to the affected diplomats who have returned to the United States, Villar said, all that Cuban doctors had to work with was a document from the American doctors who had seen them. It was a synopsis of the ailments suffered by the diplomats.

It did not include audiograms, MRIs, cat scans or a statistical summary or tables indicating how many of the symptoms each patient had, said Valdes Sosa, of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience.

The list of symptoms, said Villar, could respond to a number of different illnesses, including inner ear infections, hypertension, epilepsy, toxicity by drugs or alcohol, diabetes, cancer and other ailments.

Here's a look at the Cubans' take on some of the theories:

-- Auditory or sonic attacks

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"When we talked about these so-called sonic attacks for the first time, I must confess that I thought it was science fiction," said Villar.

Cuban investigators said the FBI shared 14 recordings, apparently made on cellphones, from diplomatic residences.

The Cuban criminal investigators complained that the recordings arrived without information about where they were recorded and under what circumstances. After listening to them, the Cuban investigators said they were able to match some to ambient sounds in the area around the Playa and Siboney neighborhoods where many of the U.S. diplomats lived.

Hernandez said more than 200 Cubans who lived near the diplomats were examined to see whether they exhibited similar symptoms. Four showed hearing loss. Two cases were due to chronic ear ailments, one to exposure to artillery fire, and the other to industrial exposure, according to the investigators.

"It's impossible to generate the type of energy that would cause these damages (to the diplomats) without affecting other people," said Lt. Col. Jose Alazo Rangel, a criminal specialist in the Interior Ministry.

"None of the (sound) samples exceeded 74.6 decibels," said Villar. In Cuba, environmental noise over 80 decibels is considered unacceptable in the workplace.

The Cuban analysis of the recordings revealed a number of sounds -- female crickets, other insects, nocturnal birds, traffic noise, an air conditioner, a human voice -- but none that would put human health in danger, said Alazo.

If sonic waves were present, they would distort ambient sounds on the recordings to the point where cricket and other sounds would be unidentifiable, Alazo said. Investigators captured crickets near the diplomats' homes and taped their high-pitched sound to compare with those heard on the recordings.

When the FBI was in Cuba, Ramirez said he asked agents what they would do if they were in Cuban shoes. "I asked what we were missing. They said they would have done the same, or maybe a little less."

-- Infrasound and ultrasound

Investigators said infrasound, or sub-sonic sound too low for the human ear to hear, can produce vibration. But it is hard to direct and would be expected to affect others -- neighbors, spouses, and pets. Ultrasound, with frequencies too high-pitched to hear, can be concentrated better but it would have to be very close to a victim to cause damage.

Also puzzling is why any type of sound wave would affect only diplomats in certain rooms of their homes. Investigators said they haven't been able to check the possibility of whether some damaging device might have been installed in diplomatic homes because they've only been permitted to enter three of the residences.

"I personally listened to the 14 recordings and had them turned up to the maximum level," said Villar. "Well, here I am. Do you really think it's possible to use a cellphone to record acoustic aggression?"

-- Mass hysteria

Cuban investigators say they need to do more work on whether stress caused by deteriorating U.S.-Cuba relations under Trump could have damaged the diplomats' health. But they haven't ruled out mass hysteria even though the U.S. has disparaged it.

During the Senate hearing, Rosenfarb said that U.S. findings "suggest this is not an episode of mass hysteria." The U.S. consensus at this point, he said, is that the injuries "were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source."

The Cubans said among the conditions that would have contributed to psychosomatic illness and mass hysteria were that all the diplomats worked in the same place and were dealing with the uncertainty of U.S. policy change toward Cuba. The U.S. government's use of terms such as sonic weapons, attacks and victims could have increased anxiety, Cuban investigators said.

"I think some of them did get sick -- for diverse reasons," said Valdes Sosa. "But tension and the change in relations between the two countries could exacerbate their illnesses."

-- What about the Canadians?

Several Canadian diplomats and family members reported the onset of symptoms similar to ones suffered by the Americans. They, too, were reported to have occurred at diplomatic residences.

Little has been released about the Canadian cases. Ramirez said the Canadian investigation has been characterized by cooperation and exchange.

Valdes Sosa said the Canadian complaints also could be the product of mass hysteria. "They're all diplomats; they speak the same language and they talk a lot with the Americans," he said.

Cuban investigators said they had received no reports of similar health symptoms affecting diplomats at other embassies.

-- A virus or toxin

Valdes Sosa said neither a virus, which would be expected to spread to those beyond the American diplomatic corps, nor a toxin, which would not be expected to produce such a variety of symptoms, seems plausible.

There has been no shortage of theories about who might be responsible for the diplomats' health problems: a deliberate attack by a third-party trying to interrupt U.S.-Cuba relations, a rogue element in the Cuban government not pleased with the rapprochement, or a Cuban surveillance attempt gone wrong.

Some in the United States, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, insist that in a tightly controlled country like Cuba, not only must the government know what caused the mysterious incidents but also who is responsible.

"People were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it. They just won't say -- for some reason," Rubio said at a Jan. 9 Senate subcommittee hearing that he called to gather information on the State Department's response to the attacks.

Cuba has emphatically rejected the idea that it could be behind any attacks. "Why would we do that when we're in the process of trying to normalize relations?" asked Ramirez.

Cuba watchers have suggested that Russia or China might have wanted to interrupt the rapprochement that began on Dec. 17, 2014, under the Obama administration. To that, Ramirez adds another possibility: "It could be the government of the United States itself -- using the incidents as a pretext to reduce embassy staff."

(c)2018 Miami Herald

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