16 May Was It an Invisible Attack on U.S. Diplomats, or Something …
The piercing, high-pitched noises were first heard by a couple of recently arrived United States Embassy officials in Havana in late 2016, soon after Donald Trump was elected president. They heard the noises in their homes, in the city’s leafy western suburbs. If they moved to a different room, or walked outside, the noise stopped. The two officials said they believed that the sound was man-made, a form of harassment. Around the same time, they began to develop a variety of symptoms: headaches, fatigue, dizziness, mental fog, hearing loss, nausea.
On Dec. 30, 2016, the Embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and his security chief, Anthony Spotti, were told what the men were experiencing. By then, a third Embassy worker who lived nearby also heard the sounds and began developing symptoms. DeLaurentis eventually sent the three for evaluation by an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, who told them they had damage to their inner ears’ vestibular organs.
Similar reports of sickness after hearing noises began trickling in from other diplomats in Havana. One of them, a foreign-service officer, told me he was awakened one morning in March by a screeching noise. “It paralyzed me,” he said. “When the sound occurred, I could not move. I couldn’t get up until it stopped.” In the days that followed, he felt extreme fatigue, heard a ringing in his ears, found himself making many mistakes at work and became sensitive to loud sounds and bright light.
That month, DeLaurentis called a meeting of his senior staff to tell them what was going on. He insisted that they tell no one else — not even their families — which had the perverse effect of heightening the staff members’ anxiety rather than calming it. Within days, DeLaurentis felt compelled to call an open meeting of the American staff. More than 60 people crammed into the Embassy’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — an inner sanctum for confidential communications. They were told about the noises and the symptoms and were offered the opportunity to be tested if they had concerns. Nearly all of those present, as well as some family members, soon asked to be evaluated.
“There was a sense of hysteria and concern,” said another government official who worked in Havana at the time. “Perhaps ‘hysteria’ is the wrong word. It really was more concern and fear: ‘Why are you just telling us about this now?’ The ambassador was doing his best to allay any fears, saying: ‘If you want to be tested, we’re going to do that. If you want to send your family home to the U.S., you’re allowed to do that.’ ”
Of the roughly 80 people tested, 12 were found by the otolaryngologist to have symptoms similar to what the first two officials experienced months earlier. But a few did not hear noises, and some who did described other, more subtle sounds, including one that called to mind the experience of vibrating air pressure in a car with a single open window in the back.
In April, DeLaurentis called a meeting with ambassadors from Canada, Britain, France and other U.S. allies. None knew of any similar experiences afflicting their officials in Cuba. But after the Canadian ambassador notified his staff, 27 officials and family members there asked to be tested. Twelve were found to be suffering from a variety of symptoms, similar to those experienced by the Americans.
By August 2017, the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel and family members reporting symptoms totaled at least 16, and some were insisting that their symptoms went beyond what could be treated by the otolaryngologist. The foreign-service worker who spoke with me, for instance, said his symptoms progressed to include vision changes, dizziness and increasing cognitive deficits. The State Department’s medical director arranged for affected individuals to be treated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair. Around the same time, the story finally went public, with news reports citing an official theory that attributed the symptoms to a sonic attack using some sort of invisible energy force — like something out of “Star Wars,” only real.
“We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks,” Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, said. Soon Tillerson ordered nearly every American at the Havana Embassy, and all family members, to depart, leaving only a skeleton crew. The United States then expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from their Embassy in Washington, issued a travel warning to American tourists and placed new limits on travel between the two countries.
The claim of an invisible weapon, fantastic as it sounded, gained scientific respectability when, in February 2018, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study by the doctors at the University of Pennsylvania. “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks,” the paper stated. Finding no obvious signs of a viral or chemical cause, the Penn group left unanswered how the injuries might have occurred. They simply assumed that the symptoms were due to an “unknown energy source associated with auditory and sensory phenomena.”
Since then, reports from major news organizations, including NBC and The Times, have focused on the “unknown energy source” theory. Most recently, “60 Minutes” aired a segment on March 17 titled “Targeting Americans.” The correspondent Scott Pelley said the diplomats had “suffered serious brain injuries” and noted that the F.B.I. is “investigating whether these Americans were attacked by a mysterious weapon that leaves no trace.” The attacks, Pelley intoned in his signature rumble, appear to be “a hostile foreign government’s plan to target Americans serving abroad.”
And yet, two and a half years after the first diplomats in Havana said they heard strange sounds…