Just days after the Associated Press reported that the State Department planned to withdraw most of its personnel from the Cuban embassy in Havana, the wire service is returning with another revelatory scoop about the mysterious “sonic attacks” that have caused injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening in 21 embassy personnel: Many of the diplomats targeted were US spies, partly explaining the State Department's reluctance to discuss the attacks.
Frightening attacks on U.S. personnel in Havana struck the heart of America’s spy network in Cuba, with intelligence operatives among the first and most severely affected victims, The Associated Press has learned.
It wasn’t until U.S. spies, posted to the embassy under diplomatic cover, reported hearing bizarre sounds and experiencing even stranger physical effects that the United States realized something was wrong, individuals familiar with the situation said.
However, the AP’s government sources refused to confirm a timeline for the attacks, or provide other basic details, underscoring the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
While the attacks started within days of President Donald Trump’s surprise election in November, the precise timeline remains unclear, including whether intelligence officers were the first victims hit or merely the first victims to report it. The U.S. has called the situation “ongoing.”
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.
The revelation that some of the victims were spies adds another dimension to the mystery; however, the motivations behind the attack remain as murky as the attackers’ identity. It’s unclear, according to the AP, whether the attacker intentionally targeted spies. Though if it were true, the attacks would represent an unprecedented escalation of the long-running spy games between the US and Havana.
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 and the CIA declined to comment for this story.
The first disturbing reports of piercing, high-pitched noises and inexplicable ailments pointed to someone deliberately targeting the U.S. government’s intelligence network on the communist-run island, in what seemed like a bone-chilling escalation of the tit-for-tat spy games that Washington and Havana have waged over the last half century.
But the U.S. soon discovered that actual diplomats at the embassy had also been hit by similar attacks, officials said, further confounding the search for a culprit and a motive.
If disrupting US-Cuba relations was the attack’s intent, then they have clearly succeeded: The US quietly expelled two Cuban diplomats in August. And by withdrawing most of its embassy personnel and warning travelers to stay away from the island, the US is signaling a chill in travel and trade that could prevent Cubans from visiting family members in the US. The reduction in embassy staff means visa processing has been suspended indefinitely.
Of the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed, according to the AP’s sources. Many of the victims provided similar descriptions to US authorities: They described hearing something that sounded like loud crickets before falling ill. However, in many of the more recent cases, victims didn’t report hearing the noises. Instead, they identified the symptoms later on, raising concerns among investigators that the attacks may be getting more sophisticated and harder to detect.
To be sure, while the State Department told the AP that all cases have been “medically confirmed,” several officials said it’s unclear whether all of the victims’ symptoms can be conclusively tied to attacks. Considering the deep sense of alarm at the embassy, it’s possible that some wrongly attributed symptoms to the attacks.
So far, the US has been unable to identify the weapon used in the attacks. Initially, the State Department gave diplomats the option of leaving Havana, but many, including some of the attack victims, opted to remain.
For his part, Cuban President Raul Castro has denied responsibility for the attacks, expressing equal alarm and promising to aid in the investigation in any way possible.
When President Raul Castro denied any culpability in February, he did so on the sidelines a meeting in Havana with five visiting U.S. members of Congress, the AP found. The U.S. had raised complaints about the attacks to Cuba just days earlier through diplomatic channels.
But the visiting lawmakers knew nothing of the attacks taking place in the country they were visiting.
Nor did they know that Castro had used the occasion of their meeting to pull aside Jeff DeLaurentis, then the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, to say privately that his government was equally alarmed and willing to help.
But if the Cubans aren’t responsible for the attacks, who is? The list of possible state actors has more than a couple names: Venezuela, Russia and China are all probably suspects. But until the US can determine the nature of the weapon used, intelligence officials can only speculate.