Towards the end of President Obama’s term in 2016, the newly reopened US Embassy on Havana’s seafront Malecn Boulevard was a sought-after posting, with diplomats rushing to serve in a country where foreign service officers Americans were making history as the United States and Cuba mended its long-worn diplomatic relations.
But by the end of the year, American diplomats in their homes and in hotel rooms in Havana began to experience unexplained symptoms, such as dizziness and severe headaches. These were sometimes accompanied by an unidentified “piercing directional noise” that sounded like metal scraped off the floor.
What caused their injuries remains a mystery.
The State Department report, which was obtained by the National Security Archives Research Institute through a Freedom of Information Act request, concludes that the U.S. government’s response and investigation into the so-called Havana syndrome may have been sloppy from the start.
“You see the chaos, the lack of organization, you see excessive secrecy, as the authors of the report say, all of which compromised an initial investigation assessment of what was going on,” said Peter Kornbluh, analyst principal at the National Security Archive. .
Part of the secrecy surrounding the incidents was likely due to the fact that CIA agents working under diplomatic cover were among the first U.S. officials affected by the incidents and the first to leave Havana.
According to a timeline in the State Department report, the CIA informed the State Department in September 2017 of “its decision to withdraw its personnel from Havana for the foreseeable future.”
The line is a rare public admission from a CIA station operating in a U.S. embassy, Kornbluh said.
“The CIA does not want to admit what everyone already knows, which is that it has a contingent of agents in most of the major countries where it tries to obtain intelligence,” he said. “Cuba and the United States have been in a spy-against-spy showdown since the days of the revolution.”
Two weeks after the CIA withdrew its officers from Cuba, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered a larger embassy draw, according to the State Department report.
Tillerson’s decision to reduce embassy staff “does not appear to have followed standard State Department procedures and was neither preceded nor followed by a formal analysis of the risks and benefits of continued physical employee presence. of the US government in Havana, ”the report said.
“Among the many department heads interviewed by the Council, no one can explain why this did not happen,” the report said, before offering a possibility as to why the State Department did not follow up on its recommendations. own security protocols, which is redacted in the published report. .
The cause of the diplomats’ injuries has also baffled US law enforcement, lawmakers, scientists and the intelligence community.
U.S. investigators have looked into the possibility that sonic weapons, neurotoxins, infectious disease and mass hysteria may have been the cause. Canada said some of their diplomats were suffering from similar symptoms and also ordered the withdrawal of their embassy in Havana. U.S. diplomats in China and Russia have reported similar sudden and unexplained health issues, raising concerns that U.S. government officials working overseas are widely targeted.
In December, a study funded by the US government by the National Academy of Sciences declared that “directed” microwave radiation was the most likely cause of the symptoms seen in affected diplomats working in Havana and China.
The study did not specify what type of device was able to cover diplomats with microwaves, or which countries have this type of weapon with previously unknown energy.
Cuban investigators told CNN they disagreed with the study’s conclusion. “There is no physical possibility of a microwave weapon entering hotel rooms, homes, causing brain damage without burning skin, without burning other tissue. scientific view, untenable, ”said Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, of Cuba Neuroscience Center, who coordinated a Cuban government task force on the incidents.
Independent scientists consulted by CNN said that while there may be any secret government programs they were not aware of, as far as they knew there were no energy weapons capable of causing the damage described by American diplomats.
The official Cuban position has always been that there were no attacks. “There was not a single evidence of an attack. There were symptoms,” Johana Tablada, deputy director of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, told CNN. “It is very easy to establish what didn’t happen and the attacks didn’t happen. Most diplomats then and today remain confident and feel safe.”
Cuban government officials complained that although they allowed the FBI to visit the island to investigate the matter, US officials shared little information they had gathered and, at times, , hinted that Cuba could be involved in a cover-up if an ally, such as Russia, was behind the incidents.
As a result of the incidents and Trump’s overthrow of Obama’s opening up to Cuba, the United States Embassy became “a ghost ship armed by a skeleton crew” like an American diplomat, who served there after the withdrawal and was not allowed to speak to the media, told CNN.
The diplomat said that following the incidents, foreign service officers working in Havana were living several people in one house for security reasons and generally staying there for short visits of six months or less, which made them have trouble finding your way around or developing contacts in the field. communist island.
The Biden administration has said it is reviewing all changes made by the Trump administration to Cuban policy, including the decision to remove diplomats from the embassy in Havana. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been briefed on the injuries to diplomats and will soon appoint a senior official to coordinate “continued support to affected personnel,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing. last week.
Many Cubans who have not been able to visit families in the United States since the incidents also hope that Biden will return American diplomats to the island and restore services that had been suspended.
Following the withdrawal of the Embassy in 2017, consular services in Havana were virtually cut off for Cubans seeking visas to visit or emigrate to the United States. Rather, thousands of Cubans have had to travel to third countries like Guyana to apply for visas.
Cuban illustrator Victor Alfonso Cedeo said he was refused after applying for an emergency medical visa at the embassy in 2020 so he could receive treatment in the United States for a rare cancer he suffers from.
“The response we got was that they couldn’t receive the request because the consulate was closed,” he said. “Even if it’s a medical situation, a life and death situation.
Through their lawyer, some of the American diplomats affected by the alleged incidents in Havana expressed regret that Cubans paid the price for their unexplained illnesses.
Mark Zaid, who represents eight diplomats and spouses who fell ill in Havana, said that if he thought he was the victim of some sort of action by a foreign American adversary, Cuba was probably not directly responsible.
“It’s unfortunate. I sort of regard the Cubans as second-rate victims in this case. I know my clients, the members of the State Department who were there, they have nothing but absolute praise,” he said. Zaid told CNN. “They thought things were going so well there and would not want relationships to normalize and improve again.”
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