State Dept.: ‘Health Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Went Unaddressed in Obama Era

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro listen to live music during a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC — “Health attacks” against American government personnel in Cuba likely began near the end of the Obama administration in November 2016, almost a year after the former president’s move to restore diplomatic ties with the oppressive communist nation formally took effect, U.S. Department of State (DOS) officials told lawmakers.

According to the DOS officials, the “health attacks” intensified last year, prompting U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to expel Cuban diplomats and evacuate American personnel.

The Trump administration has demanded answers from the Cuban government to no avail.

“From a security and investigative standpoint, we continue to work with Embassy Havana to aggressively counter, mitigate, and better understand who and what are causing injuries to our diplomatic staff. Unfortunately, this remains a perplexing case,” Todd Brown, a high-ranking official at State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, told a Senate panel via written testimony on Tuesday.

The Cuban government has denied any role in the health assaults, instead claiming U.S. diplomats mistook the sounds of insects for an acoustic attack.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration expelled about 17 Cuban diplomats last year “to underscore the Cuban government’s responsibility to protect our personnel” and “to underscore to Cuba its obligation to stop the attacks,” revealed Francisco Palmieri, a senior official at DOS’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, while testifying alongside Brown.

Referring to the assaults, Brown also noted that leadership from the U.S. diplomatic post in Cuba “and supporting offices in Washington believed it was likely a form of harassment by forces hostile to the United States and our presence in Cuba.”

Nevertheless, citing the Cuban government, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argues the United States has found “no evidence” that the communist country is behind the attacks.

“The Cuban Interior Ministry is saying the FBI has told them there is no evidence of a sonic attack, even though that term is being used, attack, there is no evidence of it,” Sen. Flake told the Associated Press (AP). “There’s no evidence that somebody purposefully tried to harm somebody.”

“Nothing is inconsistent with what the Cubans have said, and I think the FBI would say that,” he added, seemingly defending the communist regime.

On Tuesday, DOS officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere during a hearing titled, “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.”

Throughout the hearing, the officials described the incidents involving American government workers in Cuba as “health attacks.”

However, Brown acknowledged that the FBI’s investigation into the “health attacks” is “ongoing,” telling Senators, “After further investigative attempts and expert analysis failed to identify the cause or perpetrator, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a case in early May … the investigation remains ongoing.”

Palmieri stressed that the Trump administration has been pressuring the Cuban government to find and reprimand the culprit or culprits behind the attacks.

“As soon as we identified a pattern connecting these unusual events with certain health symptoms, U.S. officials approached the Cuban government in mid-February to demand it meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect our personnel,” he explained. “The Cubans denied involvement, offered their cooperation, and opened their own investigation.”

Announced in December 2014, the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations did not officially take effect until July 2015 when the two countries reopened their respective embassies in Washington and Havana, among other actions.

About two years after former U.S. President Barack Obama decided to deepen engagement with the Cuban government, American government personnel began showing signs “similar to what might be seen in patients following mild traumatic brain injury or concussion,” testified Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, the medical director for DOS’s Bureau of Medical Services.

“In late 2016, some members of our diplomatic community serving at U.S. Embassy Havana complained about hearing strange noises and a variety of unexplained physical symptoms. As the Department investigated, we began to see signs suggesting that these events – initially in diplomatic residences, and later, at hotels – may have begun as early as November 2016,” explained Palmieri.

There have been 24 “confirmed” American victims who have described their symptoms as “a high pitched beam of sound”; an “incapacitating sound”; a “baffling sensation” akin to driving with the windows partially open in a vehicle; or an intense pressure in one ear, revealed Dr. Rosenfarb.


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