Continued Disagreements Over What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

Many previous posts have discussed the disagreements between the U.S. and Cuba over what, if anything, happened to U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba starting in late 2016. [1] That disagreement continues.

U.S. Medical Report [2]

The latest report on these issues by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair was published in the July 23/30 issue of the medical journal, JAMA. Its abstract of the study said the following:

  • “Importance. United States government personnel experienced potential exposures to uncharacterized directional phenomena while serving in Havana, Cuba, from late 2016 through May 2018. The underlying neuroanatomical findings have not been described.”
  • “Objective. To examine potential differences in brain tissue volume, microstructure, and functional connectivity in government personnel compared with individuals not exposed to directional phenomena.”
  • “Design, Setting, and Participants. Forty government personnel (patients) who were potentially exposed and experienced neurological symptoms underwent evaluation at a US academic medical center from August 21, 2017, to June 8, 2018, including advanced structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging analytics. Findings were compared with imaging findings of 48 demographically similar healthy controls.”
  • “Exposures. Potential exposure to uncharacterized directional phenomena of unknown etiology, manifesting as pressure, vibration, or sound.”
  • “Main Outcomes and Measures. Potential imaging-based differences between patients and controls with regard to (1) white matter and gray matter total and regional brain volumes, (2) cerebellar tissue microstructure metrics (mean diffusivity), and (3) functional connectivity in the visuospatial, auditory, and executive control subnetworks.”
  • “Results. Imaging studies were completed for 40 patients (mean age, 40.4 years; 23 [57.5%] men; imaging performed a median of 188 [range, 4-403] days after initial exposure) and 48 controls (mean age, 37.6 years; 33 [68.8%] men). Mean whole brain white matter volume was significantly smaller in patients compared with controls (patients: 542.22 cm3; controls: 569.61 cm3; difference, −27.39 [95% CI, −37.93 to −16.84] cm3P < .001), with no significant difference in the whole brain gray matter volume (patients: 698.55 cm3; controls: 691.83 cm3; difference, 6.72 [95% CI, −4.83 to 18.27] cm3P = .25). Among patients compared with controls, there were significantly greater ventral diencephalon and cerebellar gray matter volumes and significantly smaller frontal, occipital, and parietal lobe white matter volumes; significantly lower mean diffusivity in the inferior vermis of the cerebellum (patients: 7.71 × 10−4 mm2/s; controls: 8.98 × 10−4 mm2/s; difference, −1.27 × 10−4 [95% CI, −1.93 × 10−4 to −6.17 × 10−5] mm2/s; P < .001); and significantly lower mean functional connectivity in the auditory subnetwork (patients: 0.45; controls: 0.61; difference, −0.16 [95% CI, −0.26 to −0.05]; P = .003) and visuospatial subnetwork (patients: 0.30; controls: 0.40; difference, −0.10 [95% CI, −0.16 to −0.04]; P = .002) but not in the executive control subnetwork (patients: 0.24; controls: 0.25; difference: −0.016 [95% CI, −0.04 to 0.01]; P = .23).”
  • “Conclusions and Relevance. Among US government personnel in Havana, Cuba, with potential exposure to directional phenomena, compared with healthy controls, advanced brain magnetic resonance imaging revealed significant differences in whole brain white matter volume, regional gray and white matter volumes, cerebellar tissue microstructural integrity, and functional connectivity in the auditory and visuospatial subnetworks but not in the executive control subnetwork. The clinical importance of these differences is uncertain and may require further study.” (Emphases added.)

U.S. Commentary on the JAMA Report

JAMA Editorial [3]  In the same JAMA issue containing the University of Pennsylvania report, two medical doctors published an editorial that cautioned readers that the relevance of the neuroimaging findings was “uncertain” and that the exact nature of the affliction “remains unclear,” adding that more scientific evidence is needed.

Washington Post Editorial [4] “The authors of the study  acknowledge it had limitations: a small sample, a control group that was not ideal, and the methods could not offer any clues about what external event caused the trauma. A fair amount of mystery still shrouds the whole episode. The FBI was brought in to investigate, but its findings are not known. There has been speculation the U.S. diplomats, and some from Canada, were attacked by a weapon or device such as a microwave beam or sonic waves, but there is no confirmation.”

After conceding that the new study reported in JAMA “does not solve” the issues, the Post editorial asserts that study “does require that it be pursued. . . .The [U.S.] must continue to demand accountability for whoever did this, and the first step is to find out who, and why.”

According to the editorial, service in Cuba “clearly was not safe for the diplomats who suffered brain trauma. Cuba has a pervasive security service. Surely it knows what really happened. Instead of urging everyone to look the other way, Cuba’s government should get to the bottom of this and make public the findings. The [U.S.] must demand no less.”

New Yorker Article [5] Adam Entous, a staff writer for The New Yorker, interviewed Dr. Douglas Smith, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair, about its study. Smith said that the study revealed tangible neurological changes that “are not like anything we’ve ever seen before.” But it “is clear that something structural in the brain was affected, but we don’t know what that is and what caused the effects.”  Nevertheless, Dr. Smith added, the “mass-hysteria hypothesis is debunked by very obvious neurological findings that you can’t imitate, you can’t mimic.” The study validated “that there are signs of brain damage.”

Dr. Smith also told Entous that the 40 patients also included CIA officers and that the study included imaging data for 36 of the 40 patients; the other four “were unreachable by any mode of communication,” presumably because they were CIA officers who are now operating under new covers in other countries.

According to Entous, although there still is no “hard scientific evidence about what caused the injuries, U.S. intelligence agencies still think the victims were attacked, most likely by Russia, which had ‘the means, motive, and opportunity,’ a second senior U.S. official told me. The official cautioned, however, that it was highly unlikely, at this late stage in the investigation, that U.S. spy agencies would uncover direct evidence, such as intercepted communications of Russian operatives admitting their culpability. The [unnamed] official said, ‘You almost never have it direct from the horse’s mouth, saying, ‘It was us. Great job, comrade!’ ”

Slate Article [6] After publication of the previously mentioned report, Slate published the following list of the suggested potential causes for the problems of these U.S. diplomats “ranked in highly unscientific order from least likely to most likely:” (1) noise; (2) microwaves; (3) viral infection; (4) previous trauma; (5) crickets or cicadas (partially); and (6) “it’s all in their heads.”

Cuba’s Reactions [7]

 At a July 30, 2019, press conference in Havana, Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdés-Sosa, General Director of Cuba’s  Neurosciences Center, on behalf of the Cuba’s Expert Committee, presented reactions to the University of Pennsylvania’s report.

Dr. Valdés-Sosa said that this report does not allow clear scientific conclusions to be drawn. The medical results are confusing and contradictory, of special concern given the numerous questions already raised by the international scientific community, which have not been satisfactorily answered.

The article does not prove that the diplomats suffered brain damage during their stay in Cuba, contrary to speculation and what was raised in tan August 2018 article in JAMA. More specifically the Cuban expert asserted the following:

“1-The authors themselves acknowledge that the study is inconclusive and that they have no explanation for their findings.

2-The changes described are small, very diverse, inconsistent, and do not indicate a coherent pattern. This is not only the opinion of the Cuban medical group, but of recognized experts in the field of neuroimaging, who have stated that these results are not consistent.

3-It is common that in neuroimaging studies, as in other medical fields, there are effects noted in small samples, which are not replicable. They originate by chance. Some of the changes reflect a slight change toward the abnormal, but others are slightly hyper normal.

4-The degree of to which the two groups’ data overlap is not shown in the article.

5-The differences between diplomats and controls, if any, may be related to how the control group was selected. Any pre-existing illness in a group of diplomats, which is absent in the controls (and vice versa) could give rise to a difference in the images.

6-The measures of functional connectivity networks used are very nonspecific and are altered by the psychological state of the subject, as recognized in the article itself and by the scientific community.

7-There is no discernible relationship between the alterations detected in the neuroimages and the symptoms reported by diplomats.

8-There is no coherence between the findings reported in this article and those from the previous one. For example, in the previous piece, from the same research group at the University of Pennsylvania, alterations of executive functions in neuropsychological tests were described. In this work no functional connectivity alterations are found in the executive subnet.

9-Alterations noted in neuroimages, if any, may have originated before the subject’s stay in Cuba or due to a disease unrelated to the ‘directional’ phenomena of strange sounds and other sensations described by diplomats.

10-Although the article’s title refers to so-called ‘directional phenomena,’ the work does not show any relationship between the findings in the images and these alleged phenomena. This is important, given the scientific community’s widespread skepticism regarding theories of sonic or microwave attacks.”

Therefore, the Cuban experts believe “the only way to clarify the health status of those affected is through transparent scientific discussion and the exchange of open, unbiased information.”

These experts observations were previewed by Cuba Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. He tweeted, “There isn’t the least evidence or scientific explanation supporting deliberate actions against diplomats in [Havana]. The article published by JAMA corroborates that. The [US] government lies are targeted against [Cuba]. The manipulation of this issue should stop.”

Conclusion

It is totally amazing that after nearly three years after the first U.S. diplomats in Cuba reported various medical problems, there still is no definitive public verdict on whether and why some diplomats (and CIA personnel) have suffered medical problems.

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[1] This blog has published many posts about this situation. See the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” and “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2019” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. 

[2] Verma, Swanson, Parker, et al., Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel With Possible Exposure to Directional Phenomena in Havana, Cuba, JAMA (July 23/30, 2019); Lederman, Doctors find differences in brains of U.S. diplomats who alleged mystery attacks in Cuba, NBC News (July  23, 2019); Health incidents in Cuba and China; an explainer, Center Democracy in Americas (Mar. 15, 2019)

[3] Muth (MD) & Lewis (MD), Editorial: Neurological Symptoms Among US Diplomats in Cuba, JAMA (Mar. 20, 2019).

 [4]  Editorial, The U.S. must demand accountability for what happened to diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (July 28, 2019).

[5] Entous, Brain Scans Shed New Light on Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats and Spies in Cuba, New Yorker (July 29, 2019).

[6] Paulus, A Comprehensive List of All the Potential Causes of the Cuban “Sonic” Attacks, Slate (July 26, 2019).

[7] No clear scientific evidence exists on alleged sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats in Cuba, Granma (Aug. 5, 2019); Rodriguez, Tweet (July 24, 2019); Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study, BBC (July 24, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Yorker Report on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

The November 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker has a lengthy article about the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats in Cuba starting in late 2016 (and after the U.S. presidential election). [1]

The conclusion, however, is the same as previously reported: some U.S. personnel did suffer injury and the U.S. Government has publicly stated it does not know the cause or perpetrator of these injuries.[2]

But the article does provide greater details about many of the victims having been CIA agents and about the U.S.-Cuba interactions over these incidents.

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[1] Entous & Anderson, Havana Syndrome, New Yorker at 34  (Nov. 19, 2018).

[2] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Update on Spain’s Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuits of El Salvador

Spain’s National Court (Audicencia Nacional) since November 2008 has been conducting a criminal case regarding the murders of six Jesuits priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. This lead in January 2009 to the Spanish equivalent of indictments of 14 former Salvadoran military officials and soldiers for murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism. In May 2011 the court added six indictees and issued 20 international arrest warrants. Thereafter in November 2011 Spain issued requests for extradition of these men to Spain to face the charges. [1]

However, in August 2011 El Salvador’s Supreme Court refused to enforce the Interpol arrest warrants for 13 of the indictees who were living in that country and in May 2012 denied the requests for their extradition on the ground that the country’s constitution prohibited extradition of its citizens. Another indictee, Inocente Orlando Montano, had been living in the U.S. and now is in U.S. prison after pleading guilty to lying multiple times to U.S. immigration officials. (One indictee, former Colonel René Emilio Ponce, died during the prior proceedings.)

Just this October the Spanish court’s Criminal Chamber, en banc, decided that the court did have jurisdiction over all of the charges: murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism.

Almudena Bernabeu
Almudena Bernabeu

Last week Almudena Bernabeu, CJA’s International Attorney and Transitional Justice Program Director and the lead private attorney for the prosecution in this case, was in El Salvador to discuss the case in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary of these horrible crimes. [2]

First, she reported that the case is now at a standstill because none of the suspects is physically present in Spain.

Inocente Orlando Montano
Inocente Orlando Montano

Next year, however, she hopes this will change. In April of 2015, Senor Montano will complete his incarceration in the U.S. [3] By then the U.S. must decide whether it will honor Spain’s request to extradite Montano to Spain.

Although the U.S. is not legally required to consult with El Salvador on this issue, as a matter of inter-state courtesy the U.S. probably would do so, she said. Therefore, Bernabeu has conferred with officials of the Salvadoran government, who have confirmed that there is absolute willingness to collaborate with the Spanish process for the extradition of Mr. Montano from the U.S.  Thus, it is important to know that when the U.S. faces the decision whether to extradite Montano, the government of El Salvador has decided not to interfere.

Second, upon such an extradition and Montano’s arrival in Spain, the Spanish case would be re-activated to prepare the case for trial, presumably within 30 days.

Third, if, however, the U.S. deported Montano to El Salvador, the Salvadoran courts probably would refuse to extradite him in light of their prior refusal to extradite to Spain other indictees in the case who are Salvadoran citizens. In that event, the case in Spain could not proceed further.

Fourth, Bernabeu said she unsuccessfully has tried three times to have former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani added as a defendant and indictee because she believes the evidence shows he ultimately was responsible for the crime committed by the military’s High Command and was an accessory to the killing. Indeed, she said that the testimony of two former Salvadoran military officials and documents, including declassified U.S. documents from the CIA, FBI and Department of Defense, show that Cristiani knew of the plan to kill the Jesuits before the murders happened. Whatever the reasons, the Spanish court has been reluctant to join a former foreign president as a defendant. [4]

Fifth, she said El Salvador’s General Amnesty Act of 1993 was a major problem for this case and others like it. This was so even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December 1999 decided in the Jesuits case that the Amnesty Law violated the American Convention on Human Rights and ordered El Salvador to declare it null and void and even though the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in December 2012 in another case (the El Mozote Massacre) ordered El Salvador to repeal the Amnesty Act. [5] That has not yet happened, but the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court sometime soon is expected to rule on the constitutionality of that Act.

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[1] The Spanish court has jurisdiction over the case under Spain’s statute for universal jurisdiction over the most serious crimes of international concern. This statute is an implementation of the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction whereby a state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator.  A detailed summary of the Jesuits case along with some of the court documents and other materials is available on the website of the non-profit Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) based in San Francisco, California. CJA, the sponsor of the case in Spain. It is an international human rights organization dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress. It uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.

[2] This account of Bernabeu’s comments is based upon Castillo, 25 Yrs After El Salvador Priest Killings, Groups Press for Justice, NBC News (Nov. 13, 2014); Labrador & Fatima, The government of El Salvador has decided not to hinder Montano’s extradition to Spain, El Faro (Nov. 14, 2014); Jaminez, Await Extradition of Montano, DiarioCoLatino (Nov. 15, 2014); Dalton, Cristiani knew at time of slaughter of Jesuits in El Salvador,” El Pais (Nov. 17, 2014). El Faro also recently published (a) a collection of articles from other Salvadoran newspapers evidencing the right’s hatred of the Jesuits before their murders; (b) biographies of the murdered priests, their housekeeper and her daughter and the six Salvadoran military personnel who were prosecuted for the crime in El Salvador (with only two convicted and then subsequently released from prison on the basis of the General Amnesty law); (c) an article describing how that Salvadoran prosecution for this crime was impeded by their attorney general; (d) an archive of U.S. diplomatic cables and other documents about the crime; and (e) a hyperlinked collection of El Faro’s prior articles about the Jesuits case.

[3] The U.S. legal proceedings against Montano are discussed in prior posts and comments: Comment [to “Spain Requests Extradition” post]: Ex-Salvadoran Military Officer [Montano] Indicted for Alleged Violations of U.S. Immigration Laws (Feb. 12, 2012); Comment [to “Spain Requests Extradition” post]: Former Salvadoran Military Officer [Montano] Pleads Guilty to Lying to U.S. Immigration Officials (Sept. 15, 2012); Former Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano To Serve 21 Months in U.S. Prison (Sept. 5, 2013).

[4] On December 16, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador sent a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State. It reported that earlier that month senior officials of the Salvadoran government went to Spain and met with its attorney prosecuting the Jesuits case and with other top-level Spanish government officials, who said they were embarrassed about the case’s seeking to add Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador’s former president, as a defendant. The Spanish prosecutor also promised support and cooperation to the Salvadoran officials.

[5] Yet another post reviewed the decision in the El Mozote Massacre case by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.