No food, no water, no hope
The State Department has remained tight-lipped about the strange circumstances in which US diplomats to Cuba reportedly suffered permanent hearing damage from an “inaudible covert sonic device.” But new details reveal that “a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping” was also used to harass the American envoys. What’s more, the number of people who were harmed is reportedly even greater than was previously known.
According to government sources speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, at least 10 US diplomats and family members have been treated for various symptoms following the unexplained attacks that are believed to be part of a concerted harassment campaign. Five Canadian diplomats and their family members have also experienced some sort of “symptoms.” From the report:
In some of the attacks a sophisticated sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound was deployed either inside or outside the residences of US diplomats living in Havana, according to three US officials.
The weapon caused immediate physical sensations including nausea, headaches and hearing loss.
Other attacks made a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor, but the source of the sound could not be identified, the two US officials said.
The additional information that victims heard traditional, irritating sounds within the human hearing range certainly makes the reports of permanent hearing damage more understandable. And the revelation that family members were also affected makes this all sound more plausible. But still, if the sound was loud enough to cause damage, how could it possibly be so hard to identify the source? And were any neighbors in the areas that US diplomats were living not also suffering?
The fact that the psychological warfare on diplomats reportedly began in the fall of 2016 and remained secret until this month has made everything all the more mysterious. The New York Times reports that at least six patients were flown from Havana to The University of Miami at an unspecified time this year when a panicked Trump administration could not figure out what was wrong with the victims. The Times was told that “a sonic wave machine” was believed to have caused the symptoms which apparently became worse with prolonged exposure. Sources also claimed that one person had developed a blood disorder.
Steve Dorsey from CBS Radio in Washington DC was the first to ask State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert about the situation when she gave a press conference on August 9th. Nauert appeared to be taken aback by the question and stumbled to give the vaguest answers possible—only being willing to confirm an “incident” in which diplomats experienced “physical symptoms.” She also acknowledged that some American diplomats had come home and two Cuban diplomats were sent home from Washington, D.C. on May 23rd. “There was so much that harkened back to the days of the cold war that it was hard to believe at first,” Dorsey told Radio National. His initial source said at least one of the victims has been deaf for 10 months, and there are concerns it may be permanent.
Considering that President Trump has criticized the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has called it “a completely one-sided deal,” it’s easy to be skeptical of this as all being some sort of cloak and dagger stunt to make Cuba look bad. The US embassy remains “fully operational” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has only said, “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved.” For hawkish Republicans, the incident has been an opportunity to point fingers at the Cuban leadership that they never wanted to deal with in the first place. “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades.” Marco Rubio told Dorsey on August 9th. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.” Writing for Foreign Policy’s “Elephants in the Room” blog, Jose R. Cardenas declared, “Cuba is up to its old tricks again.”
But Cuba has repeatedly denied any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, setting up a special investigative unit to get to the bottom of the matter. The fact that Canadians were targeted as well certainly confuses the situation because the two nations have consistently had a good relationship since the US first cut off ties with Cuba in 1959. Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security in the Obama administration, told The New York Times “It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do.” He says that “they’ve been pragmatic about Trump,” and indeed the president has done very little to scuttle the new relationship, despite his tough talk. This leads some to believe that a third country is trying to sabotage the US/Cuba relationship.
But even if we knew who was responsible for this bizarre circumstance, we still don’t know how such an attack would work. As far as what kind of weapon could be used to damage hearing without producing an audible sound, most outlets have had to resort to very cursory speculation. When Gizmodo originally reported the incident, we reached out to several experts on hearing damage to ask if they were aware of any scientific basis for such a device. No one wanted to give their medical perspective on the record and all seemed genuinely confused by the scenario.
The US Air Force has acknowledged its testing of “Direct Energy Weapons” and acoustic weapons that “use sound across the entire frequency spectrum to kill, injure, disable, or temporarily incapacitate people.” But the results of those tests and details of the weapons remain murky. And a study from 2014, showed that the human ear does respond to low frequencies that are typically understood to be outside the human range of hearing, but it made no conclusions about potential long-term damage.
New Scientist did manage to get Dr. Toby Heys, Leader of the Future Technologies research center at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, to speculate on what kind of device could possibly do what’s being reported in Cuba. Heys said that sound waves below the human range of hearing could theoretically cause damage but enormous subwoofers set to extremely high volumes would be required. The only other possibility he was aware of is directing ultrasound into the ear cavity, but he says this would have to be highly targeted with a clear path from the device to the victim’s ear. “It is all very Philip K. Dick territory,” Heys told New Scientist, acknowledging the tinfoil hat-nature of the circumstances.
If some nation really does have a weapon that causes hearing damage using inaudible sound, it would signal a new, terrifying chapter in psychological warfare. And it’s quite understandable that the US government would want to keep every detail of that situation secret. Generally, Heys is skeptical of the stories surrounding this incident but acknowledges, “we are living in a fairly surreal world right now.”
The unannounced visit to Cuba earlier this week by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, apparently to pay homage to the late Fidel Castro, has rekindled criticisms about the the Cuban government’s strong influence on Venezuela’s crisis.
“Mr. Maduro traveled secretly last night to Cuba. Why did he go? He’s been to Havana more than Maracaibo or San Cristobal,” Venezuelan opposition leader and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles wrote in Spanish on a Tweet posted Monday.
“Why did Mr. Maduro go?” Capriles added in a video posted Wednesday on Periscope. “To hand over more of our oil? To commit our armed forces even more, asking for reinforcements from the Cuban military so they can continue … to command the Venezuelan military?”
In the midst of the deepening political crisis in Venezuela, opposition activists in both countries have stepped up their complaints about what they allege to be the noxious influence of Havana over domestic affairs in the South American country.
“The Castro government tests and applies all its repressive technology in Venezuela,” said a declaration signed by 42 Cuban government opponents. “Havana designs the strategy for installing a totalitarian regime, and sends the agents necessary to carry out those objectives. The Chavista regime, plagued by corruption and drug trafficking, has been the perfect ally.”
The declaration signers — including prominent Cuban dissidents Berta Soler, Guillermo Fariñas, José Daniel Ferrer and Antonio Rodiles — added that Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and his son Alejandro, as well as Maduro and his No. 2., Diosdado Cabello, “should be held equally responsible for the disastrous situation in the sister nation.”
For the Venezuelan opposition, the issue of alleged Cuban interference is of such importance, that in a declaration criticizing President Donald Trump’s recent mention of a possible U.S. military intervention in their country, the Caracas-based Mesa de la Unidad (Democratic Unity Coalition) alleged that “military and political interference by Cuba has not only affected our sovereignty and independence but is one of the main causes for the government’s violence and repression.”
Maduro’s trip to Cuba and meeting with Raúl Castro, kept secret until it was confirmed by the Cuban news media Wednesday, highlighted a frequent criticism of the Venezuelan president: that he accepts too much political advice from Havana.
“I believe the proposal for a new Constituent Assembly was created in Cuba,” said Cuban author Carlos Alberto Montaner. “Under the current constitution they could not carry out a communist revolution. They needed a tighter model because the experience of the Cuban government is that if they build a system for defending the political model, they survive.”
Raúl Castro recently congratulated Maduro for ordering the Constituent Assembly in a letter that appeared to sum up his advice to Caracas: resist and appeal to “the unity of the people.”
“Experience shows that each act of terrorism lifts the morale of the people, each attack makes it stronger, each blow strengthens unity,” Castro wrote.
Castro also predicted “days of powerful struggles, of international harassment, of blockades, of restrictions. But they will also be days of creativity and work for revolutionaries and the entire Venezuelan people which, like today … will have us Cubans on the first row of militant solidarity.”
The stability of the Maduro government is vital to Cuba because Venezuela has been its biggest trade partners and provides the island with highly subsidized oil. Although the oil shipments have dropped significantly in recent months, Maduro remains committed to a level of supply that has kept the Cuban economy from total collapse.
he Venezuelan opposition has been denouncing the Cuban presence in the country for years. After the alliance between Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Cuba gained a powerful influence over the South American nation, including its national identification system, the PDVSA oil monopoly and many government ministries. In 2012, opposition activist María Corina Machado demanded an investigation of the Cuban military’s Cooperation and Liaison Group (GRUCE) in Venezuela, led by Gen. Ermio Hernández Rodríguez.
“As OAS Secretary General, Luis Almargo, said at a Senate hearing on July 19th, there are approximately 15,000 Cuban regime military and security forces who are acting ‘like an occupation army from Cuba in Venezuela,’ ” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fl.
“…The world needs to know and stand up against the occupation of Venezuela by the Cuban regime and it needs to support the appeals of the Venezuelan people for democracy and basic human rights,” Díaz-Balart added.
The U.S. government has not taken a clear position on the issue, although it has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan government officials and is drafting new regulations expected to ban U.S. companies from doing business with companies controlled by the Cuban military.
The State Department declined to answer questions about the Cuban meddling in Venezuela. But CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently said that U.S. concerns over the Venezuelan crisis were justified by the presence of Cuba and hostile countries like Russia and Iran.
“The Cubans are there. The Russians are there. The Iranians and Hezbollah are there,” Pompeo said in an interview with the Fox TV network. “This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place. So, America needs to take this very seriously.”
Jason Poblete, a lawyer in Washington who follows U.S. policies for the Western hemisphere, said Cuba is trying to support the Maduro government at all costs because it is desperate to continue receiving Venezuelan oil.
“Cuba wants to protect the oil,” he said. “If you want to resolve the Venezuelan problem, you have to resolve the Cuba issue.”
Powerful Venezuelan lawmaker may have issued death order against Rubio
One of Venezuela’s most powerful leaders may have put out an order to kill Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a fervent critic of the South American country’s government, according to intelligence obtained by the U.S. last month.
Though federal authorities couldn’t be sure at the time if the uncorroborated threat was real, they took it seriously enough that Rubio has been guarded by a security detail for several weeks in both Washington and Miami.
Believed to be behind the order: Diosdado Cabello, the influential former military chief and lawmaker from the ruling socialist party who has publicly feuded with Rubio.
At a July 19 Senate hearing, the same day he was first spotted with more security, Rubio repeated his line that Cabello — who has long been suspected by U.S. authorities of drug trafficking — is “the Pablo Escobar of Venezuela.” A week ago on Twitter, Cabello dubbed the senator “Narco Rubio.”
The death threat was outlined in a memo to several law enforcement agencies disseminated last month by the Department of Homeland Security. The memo, designated “law enforcement sensitive” but not classified, was obtained by the Miami Herald.
The memo revealed an “order to have Senator Rubio assassinated,” though it also warned that “no specific information regarding an assassination plot against Senator Rubio has been garnered thus far” and that the U.S. had not been able to verify the threat. That Cabello has been a vocal Rubio critic in Venezuelan media was also noted, a sign federal authorities are well aware of the political bluster complicating the situation.
According to the memo, Cabello might have gone as far as to contact “unspecified Mexican nationals” in connection with his plan to harm Rubio.
The U.S. believes Cabello controls all of Venezuela’s security forces. Rubio, a Republican, has President Donald Trump’s ear on U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington declined to comment Saturday. Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information said Sunday it could not respond to media queries until Monday. Messages sent to some of Cabello’s email addresses were not immediately returned.
Rubio declined comment through a spokeswoman. His office had previously sent reporters’ questions about the security detail to Capitol Police, which did not respond Saturday but has in the past also declined comment.
Capitol Police “is responsible for the security of members of Congress,” Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said in a statement. “It would be inappropriate for DHS to comment on the seriousness of the threat.”
Lawmakers have been on heightened alert since a June 14 shooting in Virginia targeted Republican members of Congress practicing baseball. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of California was critically injured. He was protected by Capitol Police officers — who ultimately killed the shooter — only because he is a member of congressional leadership.
Capitol reporters first noticed police officers trailing Rubio almost a month ago. When he was interviewed last week by Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4, Rubio’s security included at least one Miami-Dade County Police officer. MDPD was one of the law-enforcement agencies asked to help protect Rubio.
President Donald Trump on Friday said he would not rule out a “military option” in Venezuela.
“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary,” Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf club on Friday.
The president did not answer a question about whether American troops would lead that potential operation.
“We don’t talk about it. But a military operation, a military option, is certainly something we could pursue,” he responded.
The Trump administration has issued sanctions against Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro, whom it calls a “dictator,” and more than two dozen other former and current officials. The U.S. accuses Maduro’s regime of violating human rights and subverting democratic processes.
At least one Canadian diplomat in Cuba has been treated for hearing loss following disclosures that a group of American diplomats in Havana suffered severe hearing loss that US officials believe was caused by an advanced sonic device.
Brianne Maxwell, Canadian government spokeswoman for global affairs, said officials “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.”
Maxwell added that officials did not have any reason to believe Canadian tourists and other visitors could be affected.
Canada helped broker talks between Cuba and the United States that led to restored diplomatic relations.
In the autumn of 2016 a series of US diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case. Several of the diplomats were recent arrivals at the embassy, which reopened in 2015 as part of President Barack Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Some of the US diplomats’ symptoms were so severe they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, officials said. After months of investigation US officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon 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 US officials weren’t authorised to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US retaliated by expelling two Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington on 23 May. She did not say how many US diplomats were affected or confirm they had suffered hearing loss, saying only that they had “a variety of physical symptoms”.
The Cuban government said in a lengthy statement late on Wednesday that “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception”.
The statement from the Cuban foreign ministry said it had been informed on 17 February of the incidents and launched an “exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation at the behest of the highest level of the Cuban government”.
It said the decision to expel two Cuban diplomats was “unjustified and baseless.”
The ministry said it had created an expert committee to analyse the incidents and had reinforced security around the US embassy and US diplomatic residences.
“Cuba is universally considered a safe destination for visitors and foreign diplomats, including US citizens,” the statement said.
US officials told the Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved. The FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating.
Cuba employs a state security apparatus that keeps many people under surveillance and US diplomats are among the most closely monitored people on the island. Like virtually all foreign diplomats in Cuba, the victims of the incidents lived in housing owned and maintained by the Cuban government.
However, officials familiar with the probe said investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.
Nauert said investigators did not yet have a definitive explanation for the incidents but stressed they take them “very seriously,” as shown by the Cuban diplomats’ expulsions.
U.S. diplomats serving in Cuba have been experiencing health problems, and the cause is a mystery.
It began last year — in Havana. More than a dozen staffers at the U.S. Embassy experienced unexplained ailments that included symptoms like headaches and sleeplessness.
Sources say some suffered permanent hearing damage and some had to return home.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert addressed the report in a Thursday press briefing.
“We don’t know exactly where this came from,” Nauert said. “We cant blame any one individual or a country at this point yet.”
But so far, the investigation has shown that the culprit is likely a high-tech sonic device that can’t be heard by humans, but clearly can be harmful.
Officials believe it was operating in or around the homes of Embassy workers.
The question is: Who put it there and why?
“It’s audio but it’s beyond the range of our ears,” said Vince Houghton, an intelligence historian and curator at the International Spy Museum.
He says Cuba, or even the Russians, could have been carrying out an intelligence operation that went south.
But Houghton and other intelligence experts say it could also have been a routine intimidation campaign taken to another level.
“This could be new technology that had a side effect that no one had expected,” Houghton told CBS News. “On the other hand, it could have been designed … to harass, to make people feel uncomfortable.”
To retaliate, the U.S. kicked out two Cuban diplomats in May.
The Cuban government called the expulsions “unjustified” and “baseless” on state-run television Wednesday night.
The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it “has never, nor would it ever, allow … the Cuban territory [to] be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families.”
There are indications that diplomats are still being affected, and it’s not just the U.S. Canada says at least one of its diplomats suffered severe hearing loss. The FBI and State Department continue to investigate.