sonic attacks
January 9, 2018

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the "attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba," but senators can't even agree that some 24 U.S. diplomats were actually attacked. The FBI, which is investigating the mysterious symptoms reported by U.S. and some Canadian diplomatic staff in Cuba, said in a Jan. 4 report that it has found no evidence of sonic attacks, the initial theory to explain the concussion-like symptoms, The Associated Press reported Monday. Cuba insists there were no attacks.

In response to the mysterious incidents, President Trump recalled all nonessential U.S. personnel from Cuba and expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington, arguing that Cuba could have prevented any attacks. Canada, as flummoxed as the U.S. by the incidents, has not recalled any embassy staff. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told AP he doesn't have any plans to send U.S. staff back to Havana until Cuba can assure their safety. "I'd be intentionally putting them back in harm's way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them?" Tillerson said. "I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuba critic who called Tuesday's hearing, tweeted that it's a "documented fact" U.S. personnel were "victims of some sort of sophisticated attack," but Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) disagreed. "There are some people with symptoms happening that are unexplained," said Flake, who favors closer U.S.-Cuba ties. "The Cubans bristle at the word 'attack.' I think they are justified at doing so. The FBI has said there is no evidence of an attack. We shouldn't be using that word."

A U.S. medical team examined the U.S. personnel in Cuba who reported symptoms, but the State Department has held up publication of their report, now slated for eventual release in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Miami Herald reports. Peter Weber

December 6, 2017

Mysterious "sonic" attacks targeting American diplomats in Cuba are so unlike anything State Department and FBI officials have ever seen that the Cuban government's claim that the high-pitched whirring sounds reported by U.S. Embassy staff are just cicadas seems almost plausible. Doctors treating victims of the attacks, though, have now found visible, perceptible damage to patients' brains, marking the first solid evidence that the sophisticated weapon described by embassy staff is entirely real, The Associated Press reports.

The futuristic attacks began last fall when U.S. diplomats abruptly started to lose their hearing. Eventually, at least 24 people reported symptoms including "mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, severe headaches, and brain swelling," The New York Times reports, adding that "the FBI has been unable to duplicate the effects the diplomats have experienced in a lab." The United States pulled approximately 60 percent of its staff off the island as a safety precaution. In November, evidence arose that a USAID officer working out of Uzbekistan experienced a similar attack, giving credence to the theory that Russia is responsible.

American doctors discovered that the attacks led to changes in the white matter tracts of the brain — the material that allows brain cells to communicate with each other. Some officials cautioned that the attacks might not be "sonic" at all, and rather the sounds heard by victims are "the byproduct of something else that caused damage," AP writes. Sound waves have never before been known to cause damage to white matter tracts.

While many of the embassy victims have recovered from their symptoms, about a quarter experienced persisting issues. Either way, AP writes that "epidemiologists, who track disease patterns in populations, will monitor the 24 [American victims] for life." Jeva Lange

November 3, 2017

On Thursday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said the Trump administration was "deliberately lying" about purported sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats and spies in Havana, using the mysterious health issues "as a political pretext for damaging bilateral relations and eliminating the progress made" while Barack Obama was president. Starting last November, 24 U.S. officials or their relatives in Havana were attacked somehow by unknown culprits, the Trump administration says, with many of the diplomats reporting a strange noise before falling ill. In response, the U.S. pulled 60 percent of its diplomatic staff from Cuba and expelled two-thirds of Cuba's diplomatic staff in Washington.

Cuban officials up to and including President Raul Castro have insisted Cuba had nothing to do with the sounds, and the U.S. only accuses Havana of failing to protect the U.S. diplomats. In his press conference Thursday, Rodriguez said Cuba doesn't have any such sonic weaponry and argued that the range of symptoms reported — hearing loss, headaches, even concussions — could not have been caused by a single device.

Acoustics experts broadly agreed with that assessment, telling The New York Times in October that the "sonic weapons" theory is "more appropriate to a James Bond movie" than real life. Infrasound — frequencies to low for humans to hear — are hard to focus and mostly just annoying to humans. Ultrasound — frequencies too high human ears — is a possible culprit, but isn't known to have been weaponized and would be neutered by such things as walls and distance.

"I believe those people got something that hurt them," Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University, told the Times. "But it could be something in the environment," like a virus or bacteria, or other toxins. Timothy Leighton, a professor of ultrasonics at Southampton University, suggested another possible culprit: "If you make people anxious that they're under attack from an ultrasonic weapon, those are the symptoms you'll get." Peter Weber

October 3, 2017

The United States has ordered two-thirds of Cuba's diplomatic staff in Washington, D.C., to return to their country in response to mysterious, ongoing sonic attacks on American personnel in Havana, The New York Times reports.

The U.S. pulled 60 percent of its diplomatic staff from the Cuba embassy last month over the futuristic attacks, which began last fall when American diplomats mysteriously started to lose their hearing. The U.S. launched an investigation and determined that the diplomats had been attacked by a weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and was covertly placed either inside or outside their homes. At least 21 people have been injured, with intelligence officials especially targeted. Symptoms include "mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, severe headaches, and brain swelling," The New York Times reports.

Although a third country — perhaps North Korea or Russia — is potentially behind the attacks, a State Department official told The New York Times that the Cuban staff would not be allowed to return to the Washington embassy until it became clear the sonic attacks would not continue. The 15 diplomats to be expelled from Washington have a week to return to Cuba.

"This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday, adding that "we continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks." Jeva Lange

October 2, 2017

Mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats living in Havana initially singled out American spies living in the country, The Associated Press has learned. Officially, the Trump administration has described the victims as being "members of the diplomatic community," although "behind the scenes … 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," AP writes.

In September, the U.S. announced plans to pull 60 percent of its staff off the island in response to the high-tech attacks. The futuristic assault began last fall when U.S. diplomats mysteriously started to lose their hearing. The U.S. launched an investigation and determined that the diplomats had been attacked by a weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and was covertly placed either inside or outside their homes. At least 21 people have been injured with symptoms including "mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, severe headaches, and brain swelling," The New York Times reports.

AP has floated the possibility that a third party, such as Russia or North Korea, is responsible for the attacks: "The most obvious motive for attacking Americans in Havana would be to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba," AP writes. "If that's the case, the strategy appears to be succeeding." Read the full report here. Jeva Lange

September 29, 2017

In response to the mysterious, ongoing sonic attacks on American diplomats in Cuba, the United States is pulling approximately 60 percent of its staff off the island and ceasing visa processing indefinitely, people familiar with the decisions told The Associated Press. American citizens have also been urged against visiting the nation.

The futuristic attacks began last fall when U.S. diplomats mysteriously started to lose their hearing. The U.S. launched an investigation and determined that the diplomats had been attacked by a weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and was covertly placed either inside or outside their homes. At least 21 people have been injured with symptoms including "mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, severe headaches, and brain swelling," The New York Times reports.

Cuban President Raul Castro has appeared to be as bewildered by the attacks as Americans, and even went as far as to invite FBI agents to his country to investigate. Some suspect a third country, such as Russia, could be to blame. Curiously, "the FBI had visited the homes of diplomats in Cuba and had not been able to detect anything," the Times adds. "The FBI has also reviewed security footage of the homes and found nothing suspicious. The FBI has been unable to duplicate the effects the diplomats have experienced in a lab."

A new travel warning issued Friday said that some of the attacks have taken place at hotels and that tourists could be exposed during trips to Cuba. The United States will also stop sending delegations to Havana, although diplomatic talks and meetings will continue in Washington. Cubans looking to obtain U.S. visas "may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries," AP writes.

The decisions reported Friday avoid a full embassy shutdown, which was one option reportedly considered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump during discussions. Jeva Lange

September 15, 2017

Cuban President Raul Castro expressed concern and confusion over ongoing, sophisticated sonic attacks on American diplomats living in Havana, going as far as to invite FBI agents to the country to investigate, The Associated Press reports. The extremely rare gesture — and lack of an "indignant, how-dare-you-accuse-us response" — has led American authorities to believe Castro might not be responsible, and that a "rogue faction of Cuba's security forces" could be to blame, AP writes.

The futuristic attacks began last fall when U.S. diplomats mysteriously started to lose their hearing. The U.S. launched an investigation and determined that the diplomats had been attacked by a weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and was covertly placed either inside or outside their homes. This spring, Canadian diplomats reported similar symptoms: nosebleeds, nausea, headaches. Because Canada and Cuba are on friendly terms, the attack was befuddling — American authorities believe it might have been an attempt to throw off investigators.

Now new reports by AP detail even more concerning incidents:

Some [diplomats] described bizarre, unexplained sounds, including grinding and high-pitched ringing. Victims even recounted how they could walk in and out of what seemed like powerful beams of sound that hit only certain rooms or even only parts of rooms …

News reports finally prompted the State Department to publicly acknowledge “incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms” and were still under investigation. The AP learned they included concentration problems and even trouble recalling commonplace words. [The Associated Press]

"There is a struggle going on for the soul of [the Cuban] revolution," said Michael Parmly, the former head of the U.S. diplomatic post in Havana. He hypothesized that "it's entirely possible there are rogue elements" operating in Havana and that such "elements" could even be working with Russia or North Korea to hurt U.S. officials.

The most recent attack was on Aug. 21; so far, there have been 21 victims. Read the full report at The Associated Press. Jeva Lange

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