People pose for photographs at reopening of Cuban embassy. Photo: Getty
Russia is a boogeyman once again, and the threat of nuclear war looms in the background of our daily lives, but it wouldn't be a real reboot of the Cold War unless the US was having problems with Cuba. On Wednesday, officials confirmed that two Cuban diplomats were expelled from the US embassy following an "incident" that, well, apparently involved a secret "sonic device" giving diplomats hearing loss?
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert appeared to be taken off guard at a briefing with the press pool on Wednesday. A packed room had expected questions regarding Trump's "fire and fury" comments about North Korea, but CBS News wanted clarification on the "incidents going on in Havana affecting US workers there." Nauert stumbled to give an answer with as few facts as possible. By that evening, the Associated Press, which has an office in Havana, reported an exceedingly strange situation.
According to the news agency, a number of US diplomats at the embassy in Havana began to experience hearing loss in the fall of 2016. The embassy reopened in 2015 when Barack Obama began to establish new diplomatic ties with Cuba, and many of these employees were new to the job.
Based on statements from officials with knowledge of the situation, an investigation into the circumstances of this odd phenomenon has been ongoing throughout 2017. On May 23rd, two Cuban diplomats were asked to leave the US in an apparent response to American diplomats being forced to come home for medical reasons. According to the report (emphasis ours):
Some of the diplomats' symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, officials said. After months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.
The U.S. officials weren't authorised to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Citing an anonymous government official, CNN reports that the US is still investigating the possibility this was an attack by a third country that might be trying to harm America's relations with Cuba.
According to the Associated Press, five diplomats were affected and CNN's sources claim that at least one will have to wear a hearing aid. In her cagey comments yesterday, Nauert would only refer to an "incident" in which diplomats experienced "physical symptoms." She said the department does not have any definitive answers about "the source or the cause" of these incidents, and that "some of our people have had the option of leaving Cuba as a result, for medical reasons."
As to why it has taken officials so long to do something about this, Nauert said that "it took time to figure out what it was, and this is still ongoing." She added that they are "monitoring it," and providing any necessary medical care.
On Thursday, the Canadian government confirmed to the Associated Press that at least one of its diplomats had also experienced hearing loss. A spokesperson for the Canadian government said that authorities, "are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and US diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with US and Cuban authorities — to ascertain the cause."
Nauert confirmed that two Cuban diplomats were asked to leave on May 23rd and they have since departed. When asked why the diplomats were asked to leave if there's been no determination on the cause of the incidents, Nauert avoided the question. It appeared that she was saying that because some of our diplomats came home, some Cuban diplomats had to leave as a matter of reciprocity. "I'm not going to call it as such, but we asked two people to go home."
The Cuban government itself released a statement on Wednesday in which it denied any wrongdoing and said the expulsion of its diplomats was "unjustified and baseless." The statement also said it had launched an "exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation at the behest of the highest level of the Cuban government."
President Trump has criticised the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, calling it "a completely one-sided deal." He's used sweeping rhetoric about human rights abuses in the nation but has offered few specifics about his issues with the deal. Buzzfeed News reported on Wednesday that the international community has gotten the impression Trump is really only focused on undoing anything that was started by the Obama administration. One European diplomat said, "He will ask: 'Did Obama approve this?' And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: 'We don't.'"
Gizmodo reached out to several academic researchers who study hearing loss and our questions about the potential of inaudible sound causing hearing damage were met with confusion. No one we spoke to had ever heard of a device that could do such a thing and without more information, no one felt comfortable addressing the situation from a medical perspective. This post will be updated if we learn more.
It seems that research into the effects of inaudible sound on hearing is limited. A study published in 2014, found evidence that the human ear does respond to low frequencies that would be considered outside the accepted range of hearing, but it was inconclusive about the potential of long-term damage.
At this point, all that is for certain is that an "incident" occurred that has gone unreported for months and suddenly diplomatic relations with Cuba are on the rocks. This device sure does sound sinister, though.