Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan’s Security and Privacy Research Group may have found the solution to the mystery of so-called “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba. [1] The leaders of.the team were electrical engineering and computer science professors Kevin Fu of the University of Michigan and  Wenyuan Xu from Zhejiang University. [2]

New Theory for “Sonic Attacks” [3]

In an article they simplified their project by answering the following four questions:

  1. What is ultrasound useful for? Ultrasound – high-frequency sound waves human ears can’t hear—are useful, for example, in medical devices to examine fetuses during pregnancy or in occupancy sensors to detect movement.
  2. What can go wrong with ultrasound? Examples: electronic hearing aids converting ultrasonic occupancy sensors into audible sounds and ultrasonic signals secretly activating voice-control systems.
  3. Should people worry about ultrasound causing bodily harm? There’s little evidence of ultrasound causing bodily harm without prolonged, direct physical contact at high intensity. 
  4. What might have happened inCuba? The true cause could have been equipment trying to listen in on the diplomats’ and visitors’ conversations. No single ultrasonic tone would do this, but combining more than one can create audible byproduct sounds, including by accident. To test this theory they created an eavesdropping device that would record audible conversations and transmit the recordings to a nearby surveillance team over an inaudible ultrasonic link. When we placed a second inaudible ultrasonic device in the area, we were able to create interference – technically called “intermodulation distortion” – between the two signals that made similar sounds to those recorded in Cuba.”

The Introduction of their 80-page research report elaborates on the above answer to the first question by stating, “There are many potential sources of ultrasound in office, home, and hotel environments. Energy efficient buildings often use ultrasonic room occupancy sensors in every room (Figure 1). Ultrasonic emitters can repel rodents and other pests. HVAC systems and other utilities with pumps or compressors can vibrate entire buildings. Certain burglar alarm sensors, security cameras, and automated doors use ultrasound for detection of movement.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

There 80-page research paper’s Conclusion states,“Our conclusion is that if ultrasound played a role in harming diplomats in Cuba, then a plausible cause is intermodulation distortion between ultrasonic signals that unintentionally synthesize audible tones. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.” The conclusion of the research paper itself also states, “our experiments do not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent to harm diplomats.” (Emphasis in original.)

“This is a variation of what I have always thought,” James Cason, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana, told el Nuevo Herald. “It explains the sonic part, that no one was spotted planting new devices inside the homes and doing it from the outside would require something huge.”


As a non-electrical engineer who has been carefully following the news about the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats Cuba, this research paper offers a new possible explanation of what happened in what many accounts call “acoustic attacks” in Cuba. This theory deserves further investigation.

If I correctly understand this theory, the audible sound similar to that heard in Cuba requires at least two ultrasound sources that interfere with each other and this suggests that the audible sound was accidental and not intended. This supports Cuba’s consistent assertion that it did not intend to do anything to harm the American diplomats, an assertion that makes obvious sense from Cuba’s own self-interest of avoiding antagonizing the U.S.

One of the ultrasound sources in their research was one “that would record audible conversations and transmit the recordings to a nearby surveillance team over an inaudible ultrasonic link.” Why was this device chosen? Was it the only device that would produce the comparable interference when combined with another ultrasonic source? Or are there other possible ultrasound devices? In any event, what country or company was the source of this ultrasound in Cuba? Cuba? A secret U.S. agency? A third country?

If one of the ultrasound devices in Cuba was one for eavesdropping and if Cuba was the user of such device, the U.S. would still have a legitimate complaint against Cuba. But a wide reading of materials about the U.S. and Cuba suggests that the U.S. always has assumed that Cuba was and is always attempting to spy on U.S. diplomats on the island.

I hope this theory is confirmed by others as it should eliminate the supposed reason for the U.S.’ reducing the staffing of its Havana Embassy, issuing the travel advisory that U.S. citizens should reconsider any plans to travel to Cuba and expelling Cuban diplomats from Washington, D.C.

Other comments from readers are especially welcome on these and related issues.


[1] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-2018” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] Professor Fu at an apparent young age already has an impressive resume and in October 2017 received a University of Michigan Regent’s Award for Distinguished Public Service. (Craig, Kevin Fu recognized with Regents’ Award for Distinguished Public Service, Univ. Michigan CSE News (Oct. 9, 2017).

[3] Fu & Xu,, Can sound be used was a weapon? 4 questions answered, The Conversation (Mar. 1, 2018); Yan, Fu & Xu, On Cuba, Diplomats, Ultrasound, and Intermodulation Distortion (Mar. 1, 2018) (80-page report); Moore, Cuba “sonic attacks”; a covert accident? Univ. Michigan CSE News (Mar. 2, 2018); Torres, Computer scientists may have solved the mystery behind the ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, Miami Herald  (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[4] A prior post reported about American teens hearing high-pitched sounds at the Havana Airport that apparently came from a “Zonic” device, whose Spanish manufacturer described it as “an “ultrasound animal repeller” that “makes the stay of birds, reptiles, and rodents uncomfortable” by emitting “vibrations of high frequency (ultrasounds), alternating between ranges for different animals, so that they will never nest.” 

Developments  in U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations

As previously reported, beginning in late 2016 and continuing through August 2017, 24 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba have suffered various medical problems, which apparently were in connection with unusual sounds (sometimes referred to as “sonic attacks”). In response the U.S. in September  2017 reduced the staffing at its embassy in Havana and the State Department ordered non-essential embassy personnel and the families of all staff to leave Havana, arguing the U.S. could not protect them from unexplained illnesses. In addition, the U.S. expelled some of the Cuban diplomats from Washington, D.C. and imposed an advisory for U.S. citizens to reconsider plans to travel to Cuba because of the problems of some of its diplomats in Havana.[1]

In recent days there there have been significant developments on these issues.

Continued Reduced U.S. Staffing in Havana [2]

On March 2, the U.S. State Department announced that effective March 5, “a new permanent staffing plan will take effect. The embassy will continue to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions, similar to the level of emergency staffing maintained during ordered departure. The embassy will operate as an unaccompanied post, defined as a post at which no family members are permitted to reside.”

The announcement also admitted that after over 15 months of investigation the U.S. still does “not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks, and an investigation into the attacks is ongoing. The health, safety, and well-being of U.S. government personnel and family members . . . were a key factor in the decision to reduce the number of personnel assigned to Havana.”

Continued U.S. Travel Advisory for Cuba

Also on March 2 the State Department reissued its Travel Advisory for Cuba for U.S. citizens to “Reconsider travel to Cuba due to  attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff.” It also stated the following:

  • “Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks.  Many of these employees have suffered injuries.  Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping.” 
  • “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk.  Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences (including a long-term apartment at the Atlantic)  and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana.”
  • “The U.S. Embassy in Havana is operating with reduced staffing and, as result, has limited ability to assist U.S. citizens, particularly outside Havana.”  
  • “Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Cuba.”
  • Specific suggestions were made for those U.S. citizens who nevertheless decide to travel to Cuba, including the following: “Avoid Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri. Know where to seek medical care in Cuba. Consult with a medical professional prior to traveling if you have personal health concerns or upon return if you believe you have suffered symptoms similar to those listed above. Visit our website for Travel to High-Risk Areas. Review the Crime and Safety Report for Cuba.”

The Crime and Safety Report for Cuba was not issued by the State Department, but by the federal Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). It states the State Department “ HAS ASSESSED HAVANA AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS,” i..e., “non-violent crimes against tourists; . . . . roads are often dangerous due to lack of road maintenance.” A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS. HAVANA AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.”

U.S. Reactions to These U.S. Decisions [4]

“We have lost the strategic opportunity to pull Cuba into our sphere of interest,” said Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana. “Cuba always needs to have benefactor … now the next benefactor will likely be Russia or China.”

With the reduced staffing, the U.S. is unable to maintain close ties with civil society and the opposition in Cuba. 

In addition to the previously noted inability of the Havana embassy to provide normal services to U.S. citizens on the island, it is unable to provide visa services to Cubans wanting to visit the U.S.

The six Democratic senators and representatives who visited Cuba last month, as discussed in an earlier post, already had expressed their opposition to the reduced staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the travel advisory for the island.

One of them, Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida, followed up with a February 28 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She stressed her concern about the “detrimental impact [of reduced staffing] on families, [and] educational, religious and cultural exchanges” between the two countries. With the upcoming anticipated change in Cuba’s presidency the U.S. “should be there promoting economic and human rights reforms and continued cooperative dialogue.”

Representative Castor’s letter also called for reversal of the “overarching travel warning” for Cuba and the restrictions on person-to-person travel to the island. “There is nothing in recent history to show that Cuba is unsafe for American visitors and travel restrictions serve no purpose.” In fact, these restrictions already are adversely affecting the emerging private sector on the island, which should be a force for change on the island and improved relations with the U.S.

Representative Barbara Lee (Dem.,  CA) had similar thoughts: “The decision of the State Department affects years of progress toward the normalization of relations with Cuba. Our diplomats should be allowed to do their job and return to their posts in Cuba.”

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization, said, “”It is deeply disappointing that [the U.S. has chosen] . . . not to return U.S. diplomats to their assigned posts in Havana. This decision will be applauded in Moscow and Beijing, as both countries are poised to take advantage of Cuba’s historic transition of power while the United States remains on the sidelines. . . . As Washington continues to distance itself from Havana, U.S. adversaries have exerted greater influence. In a time of political uncertainty for Cuba, safeguarding U.S. national security interests remains more critical than ever. Last year, over a dozen retired U.S. military flag officers urged U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster to continue to normalize relations with Cuba in order to strengthen regional stability in the Western Hemisphere.” 

Similar thoughts come from Cuba Educational Travel, which “organizes educational exchange programs and people-to-people travel for U.S. citizens and residents to Cuba” and believes “our two countries have much to learn from each other and meaningful exchanges that foster dialogue can be highly beneficial to strengthening the artistic, environmental, medical, scientific, and social science communities in the U.S. and Cuba. Most importantly, increased travel and people-to-people contact will strengthen ties between ordinary Americans and Cubans.”

Cuban Reactions to These U.S. Decisions [5]

Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the US General Director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said the continued low staffing of the U.S. Embassy is in response to U.S. “political motivations and has no relationship whatsoever with the security of its officials.” He also criticized the U.S. for continuing to use the word “attack,” when “it knows perfectly well that no attack or deliberate act occurred in Cuba against its diplomats.”

Sergio Gómez, a journalist with Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, provided the following comprehensive list of reasons why the U.S. should restore the full staffing of its Havana Embassy:

  1. There are millions of affected people, including Cubans on the island who intend to travel to the U.S. to visit a family member, attend an event or re-settle in the U.S. and, therefore, need the assistance of the U.S. Embassy.
  2. Requiring Cubans to go to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia imposes extra burdens  on Cubans and on that country.
  3. It makes it impossible for the U.S. to fulfill its commitment to issue 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans.
  4. It impedes collaboration of scientists, scholars and athletes of the two countries.
  5. The U.S. expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. adversely affects its ability to assist  Cubans and Americans.
  6. There is no evidence of Cuban “attacks” on U.S. personnel.
  7. There is no evidence of Cuban causing the medical problems of U.S. personnel.
  8. Cuba has fully cooperated in investigating these medical problems, including welcoming the U.S. to do such investigations on the island.
  9. Cuba has an impeccable record of protecting foreign diplomats on the island.
  10. Cuba is a safe, stable and healthy country as evidenced by its welcoming 4 million foreign visitors last year, including 620,000 from the U.S.


The criticisms of these U.S. decisions from the U.S. and from Cuba are well founded. Restore full staffing of the Havana Embassy! Rescind the Travel Advisory for Cuba!


[1] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-2018” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, End of Ordered Departure at U.S. Embassy Havana (Mar. 2, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba ‘Health Attacks’ a Puzzle; Embassy Cuts Permanent, N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2018);Reuters, Drastic Staff Cuts at U.S. Embassy in Cuba Now Permanent, N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Advisory (Mar. 2, 2018); OSAC, Cuba 2017 Crime & Safety Report (Mar. 10, 2017). 

[4] Congressional Delegation Visits Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 24, 2018); Representative Castor, Letter to Secretary Tillerson (Feb. 28, 2018)l Engage Cuba Statement on Permanent Staff Reduction at U.S. Embassy in Havana (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[5] Gomez, Washington keeps cutting its Embassy in Cuba, Granma (Mar. 2, 2018); Gómez, Ten reasons why the United States should normalize its Embassy in. Havana, Granma (Mar. 2, 2018).

Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba 

Since late 2016, some U.S. diplomats, now numbering 24, have suffered various medical problems while stationed in Cuba. Perplexingly investigations by the FBI and other U.S. agencies as well as Cuban investigators over nearly the last 16 months have failed to ascertain the cause or the culprit, if any, of the cause of their problems.[1] On February 14 a new medical report was released on these individuals.

The Medical Report [2[

U.S. physicians at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have published the  preliminary results of their examination of 21 of these 24 individuals. Here are the key findings of their report:

  • The patients “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.”
  • The patients have experienced “persisting disability of a significant nature” involving “hearing, vision, balance and brain symptoms similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions, but without histories of head trauma.”
  • In most cases, the affected diplomats reported hearing a loud, painful noise that they later associated with their symptoms, but the physicians concluded, “There is no known mechanism for audible sound to injure the brain” and “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.”
  • “Viruses or chemical exposures are unlikely,” but could not be “systematically excluded.”
  • “Advanced MRI scans spotted a few changes in some patients in what are called white matter tracts,” but these might be attributed to previous events.
  • “Several of the objective manifestations consistently found in this cohort,” including vision and balance abnormalities, “could not have been consciously or unconsciously manipulated.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “This is a preliminary report.We thought it was important to get it out from a public health standpoint.” Nevertheless, “Uniformly, everyone who saw these patients was absolutely convinced. It looked like concussion pathology. Processing speed, inability to remember — those are such classic symptoms we see in concussion. We all believe this is a real syndrome.This is concussion without blunt head trauma.”

JAMA Editorial About the Report [3]

An accompanying JAMA editorial by Drs. Christopher C.Muth and Steven L. Lewis emphasized caution in interpreting the data of this report. It stated, “although the patients were united to some extent by the common locations in which their symptoms first developed, there was some variability between patients in terms of the symptoms that each experienced. The precise time course over which each individual’s symptoms evolved was not provided. Given that evaluations were conducted a mean of 203 days after onset, it remains unclear whether individuals who developed symptoms later were aware of the previous reports of others. Furthermore, the quantitative results for specific tests (eg, neuropsychological tests) are not yet available for all affected patients, so independent assessment as to the scope and severity of deficits among all individuals remains challenging.”

This JAMA editorial also listed several limitations in this case study that “should also urge caution in interpreting the findings.” It concluded, “Before reaching any definitive conclusions, additional evidence must be obtained and rigorously and objectively evaluated.”

Another Reaction to the Report [4]

Another medical expert offered comments. C. Edward Dixon, a professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the research, said, “The study was conducted by the top concussion research team in the world utilizing state-of-the-art methods” and the findings suggest “a significant brain insult.”


[1] The problems of these diplomats have been discussed in previous posts listed in the “ U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-2018” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] Drs. Swanson, Hampton, McKenzie, et al., Neurological Manifestations Among U.S. Government Personnel Regarding Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana Cuba, JAMA (Feb. 15, 2018); Assoc. Press, Report Details Harm to Cuba Diplomats, but Offers No Cause, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2018); DeYoung, Doctors find neurological damage to Americans who served in Cuba, Wash. Post (Feb. 14, 2018).

[3] Drs. Muth & Lewis, Editorial: Neurological Symptoms Among U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, JAMA (feb. 15, 2018). 

[4] Kolata, Diplomats in Cuba Suffered Brain Injuries. Experts Still Don’t Know Why, N.Y. Times (Feb. 15, 2018). 

Perplexing Status of U.S. Travel to Cuba 

Three recent news reports have muddied the waters about U.S. visitors to Cuba .

First, last year was a record year for tourism in Cuba with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the country’s struggling economy. Travelers from the U.S. rose to 619,000, which is more than six times the pre-Obama level.[1]

However, as a result of Hurricane Irma’s hitting the island last September and the Trump Administration’s hostility towards Cuba, including travel restrictions, U.S. visitors to Cuba dropped 30% last month according to Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of the Cuban state travel agency. Visitors from other countries also have decreased, but not as much as the U.S. This happened event though Cuba has fixed its tourism facilities over the last several months.[2]

Second, to  counter this recent drop in U.S. visitors to the island, on January 29, a score of US companies linked to the tourism sector met  in Havana to proclaim  that Cuba is a safe destination to which U.S.  citizens can still travel legally. The meeting was organized by InsightCuba, a pioneer in organizing and promoting trips to the island.[3]

An executive of American Airlines, which operates nine daily flights to Cuba, said, at the gathering, “We see many opportunities in Cuba, especially on the Havana-Miami route,” and “we have requested permission for 17 additional flights.” The president of the Association of Tour Operators of the United States, Terry Dale, added, “The message is that Cuba is open to business, safe, wonderful and legal for travelers from the United States” Another U.S. businessman said, “The reality is that Americans can continue to travel to Cuba almost as they did before the new regulations.”

Third, also on January 29 the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs told the Nuevo Herald of Miami that 19 U.S. citizens who had visited Cuba after September 2017 had reported medical symptoms similar to those of some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed there. [4]

The Department’s  spokeswoman did not say whether US citizens reported hearing strange noises – as did some of the 24 diplomatic victims so far confirmed – nor whether they would have stayed at the Nacional or Capri hotels in Havana that previously had been identified as sites of some of the “attacks.” .Nor did it clarify whether U.S. doctors and investigators could have determined whether these travelers would have suffered the same kind of attack as diplomats. It encouraged “those who are concerned to seek medical attention.” For reasons of “privacy”, the Department will not disclose where the alleged attacks occurred or their symptoms or even what cities they had visited.


As explained in a prior post, the U.S. still has 12 general license categories that permit U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Thus, it is legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. In addition, the latest revision of the State Department’s travel advisory system does not advise citizens not to travel to Cuba; rather, it suggests that citizens reconsider plans to travel to the island (Category 3 of the new advisory system) and only tells them to avoid Havana’s Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri, where some of the alleged “attacks” on diplomats occurred.

The apparent inability of the U.S. Government after 14 months of investigations here and in Cuba to identify the cause or culprit of the so-called “attacks” on U.S. diplomats and now apparently some ordinary U.S. citizens is at best “perplexing” as State Department officials recently testified at a Senate Subcommittee hearing.[5]

We all need to continue to pay close attention to ongoing developments on these issues.


[1] Rodriguez, Tourism booming in Cuba despite tougher new Trump policy, Wash. Post (Jan. 19, 2018).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Tourism Slides in Wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan. 29, 2018)

[3]  Tourism companies in the United States say Cuba is a safe destination, CubaDebate (Jan. 29, 2018).

[4]  Torres, 19 visiting Americans  report symptoms of attacks in Cuba, Neuvo Herald (Jan. 29, 2018); Valencia, U.S. citizens in Cuba Suffered Similar Symptoms Experienced by Diplomats in Havana, State Department Says, Newsweek (Jan. 29, 2018); Nineteen tourists from the US have reported symptoms of attacks in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 30, 2018).

[5] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017”     section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.


U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”


Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.


[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).

No Evidence of ‘Sonic Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 6 in Havana U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) said there was no evidence of “sonic attacks’ on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.[1]

After a meeting that day with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Interior Ministry officials, Flake said that they had told him the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had made four trips to Cuba and had informed Cuban officials that the FBI had not found any evidence of such alleged attacks. Here are the Senator’s actual words to the Associated Press:

  • “The Cuban Interior Ministry is saying the FBI has told them there is no evidence of a sonic attack, even though that term is being used, ‘attack,’ there is no evidence of it. There’s no evidence that somebody purposefully tried to harm somebody. Nobody is saying that these people didn’t experience some event, but there’s no evidence there was a deliberate attack by somebody, either the Cubans or anybody else.”

Flake, a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, a frequent visitor to Cuba and an advocate for normalization of U.S. relations with the island, added that previous classified briefings from U.S. officials have left him with no reason to doubt this Cuban briefing.


[1] Assoc. Press, US Senator Says No Evidence of ‘Sonic Attacks’ in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 6, 2018).

More Details on Medical Problems of Canadian Diplomats in Cuba         

Newly disclosed Canadian government documents reveal more details about medical problems experienced by their diplomats and members of their families in Cuba.[1]

In May 2017 one of those diplomats in a message to the government in Ottawa reported that some diplomats and members of their families, including children, had symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, hearing loss, nosebleeds and cognitive issues including loss of short-term memory. “Many of the symptoms are similar to signs of extreme stress, and there is the possibility that there could be mental health effects caused by the fear of being targeted. Either way, testing should help to rule out cases and reassure personnel that we have the means to be able to provide duty of care. There are no answers. We are left to (sift through) what we know about … the targets and possible suspects.”

By June 9, the Canadian mission was underscoring the need for help from a Canadian federal medical adviser and stressing that new diplomatic personnel bound for Cuba should be made aware as soon as possible of the strange ailments affecting staff. In the meantime, local guards were asked to increase their patrols around the residential properties of Canadian staff and to be extra vigilant in reporting. This report also mentioned additional symptoms: loss of consciousness, blurred eyesight, lack of balance and ear pain. “Many have heard strange noises in their residences and have experienced symptoms that they have not had before in their lives.”

On June 18  Dr. Jeffrey Chernin of Health Canada went to Cuba to meet concerned staff individually and take part in a townhall-style meeting a few days later. The doctor found that symptoms, experience and recovery varied, but he seemed to rule out viral causes such as the flu or hearing loss due to age. He also found that the symptoms were similar to those experienced by U.S. personnel in Cuba.

Subsequently Privy Council Office and Global Affairs Canada officials held a meeting with Cuban counterparts to encourage “closer collaboration” on fact-finding, explore the possibility of greater security in areas where Canadian diplomats were living “to discourage further attacks” and express Canada’s ongoing commitment to good relations.

By August, however, it appeared the situation was not yet resolved. A Health Canada medical adviser suggested in an August 11 email that “routine audiometry,” which measures individuals’ hearing sensitivity, could be conducted as a baseline for Canada-based staff headed on posting to Havana.


[1] Bronskill, Trudeau Government Sent Doctors To Cuba To Examine Canadian Diplomats With Mysterious Ailments: Records, HuffPost (Jan. 4, 2018); Smith, Canadian children were among those affected by sonic attacks in Cuba, documents suggest, Nat’l Post [Canadian newspaper] (Jan. 4, 2018). Previous posts about the medical problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba have mentioned the similar problems of Canadian diplomats; they may be found in a search of posts mentioning “Canada and Cuba.”