Following a report yesterday that claimed US spies working under diplomatic cover were the primary target of mysterious "sonic device" attacks on US embassy personnel in Havana, American authorities have expelled 15 members of Cuba's diplomatic staff from its embassy in Washington.
It appears that the Trump administration has an opportunity to undo the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba — just like it wanted to do. Following unexplained 'covert sonic device' attacks on envoys from both the US and Canada that were stationed in Havana, the US State Department is pulling more than half of its staff out of Cuba, and warning travellers of potential danger.
In what's shaping up to be one of the strangest diplomatic incidents in recent history, the US State Department has acknowledged at least 22 members of the US diplomatic mission to Cuba have experienced symptoms that include "hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and sleeping difficulties". The fact that the State Department has kept details under wraps and the lack of substantial international press in Havana has only made it more difficult to get clarity on what's going on. Cuba has vociferously denied any responsibility for the attacks and even allowed the FBI to come investigate. The New York Times reported today that the FBI has "also visited the homes of the American diplomats and reviewed security footage, but found nothing suspicious". What's more, the paper says investigators "have been unable to duplicate in a lab the effects the diplomats have experienced".
As reports have trickled out, we've learned that some victims reported hearing "a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping" which was isolated to certain areas of a room, while others claimed to have experienced nothing out of the ordinary before their symptoms started. Additionally, the range of symptoms and the technology necessary to inflict this sort of damage with what's been variously described as a possible "sophisticated sonic weapon" or "sonic wave machine" doesn't add up.
The Associated Press, which the Los Angeles Times says is one of the few Western news outlets with offices in the Cuban capital, added an extra wrinkle to the story yesterday when it reported that US intelligence officers working undercover were among the "first and most severely affected victims". From the report:
To date, the Trump administration largely has described the 21 victims as U.S. embassy personnel or "members of the diplomatic community." That description suggested only bona fide diplomats and their family members were struck, with no logical motivation beyond disrupting U.S.-Cuban relations.
Behind the scenes, though, investigators immediately started searching for explanations in the darker, rougher world of spycraft and counterespionage, given that so many of the first reported cases involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy. That revelation, confirmed to the AP by a half-dozen officials, adds yet another element of mystery to a year-long saga that the Trump administration says may not be over.
The State Department has confirmed that the attacks have occurred as recently as August, but the AP spoke to sources that said in these most recent incidents the victims didn't notice anything out of the ordinary or hear the sounds that earlier victims experienced. This has led to suspicions that either the attacks are becoming "more sophisticated and harder to detect", or that workers are attributing "unrelated illnesses" to the attacks. The latter explanation is certainly a possibility, considering the paranoia-inducing nature of being told so many colleagues are being targeted by an invisible weapon that's outside the realm of current physics. The AP reports that the US had around 50 workers at the embassy in Havana before last week's cuts to the staff that left 27 "emergency personnel".
When it was announced that the US would pull its staff out of Havana, Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that it wasn't enough just to remove our diplomats — he believed that Cuba's envoys should be sent home as well. Today, he got his wish. The New York Times reports that the 15 Cuban diplomats who are no longer welcome have seven days to leave the US.
The State Department is framing this decision as a simple balancing of the number of diplomats on each country's soil. In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote that the diplomats must go "due to Cuba's failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention", and "this order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations". He emphasised that the US will maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba.
But as of today, the relations between the US and Cuba are entering a zombie stage just under three years after President Obama decided to renew them. Issuance of visas to Cubans had reached 20,000 a year, but will now be suspended, and US travellers have been warned not to travel to Cuba.
It appears that much of the momentous new partnership between Havana and Washington following a 54-year-old trade embargo is being undone by a sketchily detailed attack that would require science that baffles most experts. It's a brave new world.