2019-11-08 16:28:14 UTC
Official emails and diplomatic telegrams marked as sensitive reveal for the
first time how the British government scrambled to understand a series of
alleged “sonic attacks” on US diplomats who became ill in mysterious
circumstances while on duty in Cuba.
The US government ordered all non-essential staff at its embassy in Havana to
return home after dozens of diplomats and family members developed headaches,
dizziness and problems with balance, concentration and sleeping in a wave of
illness that struck between 2016 and 2018.
Many reported falling ill in their homes or hotels after hearing penetrating
sounds, described variously as grinding, buffeting or cicada-like chirps. The
case reports fuelled speculation that the diplomats had been targeted with an
acoustic weapon or some other novel device. No evidence of any such attack
has been found.
The events prompted a dramatic breakdown in relations between the US and Cuba
less than two years after Barack Obama had sought to reestablish normal
diplomatic ties between the nations.
Documents released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act shed
light on how the British embassy in Havana and senior Foreign Office staff in
London desperately sought to make sense of the unfolding events.
Though most are heavily redacted on grounds of national security and
international relations, they show how staff pored over press reports,
official statements and other communications to understand a situation that
one overnight update from August 2017 said was being presented by the media
as “a bizarre cold war-style confrontation”.
The update, copied to Anthony Stokes, the British ambassador to Cuba, noted
that the press “broadly buy the veracity” of a Cuban statement that
declared it had no involvement in the affair, and were now asking: “If it
wasn’t the Cubans who did it, who did?”
On the same day the update was sent, a brief for Alan Duncan, then minister
of state for Europe and the Americas
(https://www.theguardian.com/world/americas), described the continued
“fallout from the apparent sonic attacks”. In response to the then US
secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, declaring he might close the embassy in
Havana, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, called Tillerson directly
to state he had no knowledge of the source and express his determination to
Two months later a diplomatic telegram sent from Havana to London, marked as
sensitive, described the expulsion of nearly all Cuban diplomats from the US
and the withdrawal of roughly two-thirds of US diplomats from Havana.
“Both the US and the Cuban embassies will now be neutered, just two years
after reopening,” the telegram pointed out. The same telegram described
Rodriguez as “combative in tone and delivery” during a press conference
held within hours of the US announcement to expel the Cuban diplomats, and
said he stopped “just short of accusing the US of making it all up”.
Further correspondence between British officials in London and Cuba suggests
they had no fresh insight into what happened to the diplomats. Over a number
of months they shared media reports that the strange sounds were caused by
crickets, and that the wave of illness might be psychosomatic and triggered
by the stressful conditions under which the diplomats operated.
The FCO released the emails and telegrams, spanning from June 2016 to June
2018, after the Information Commissioner’s Office said the department may
be held in contempt of court if it failed to comply with the Guardian’s
Some of the documents were completely blacked out.
More than two years after the diplomats fell ill, doctors are still no
clearer about what happened. Two US medical studies that assessed some of
thse affected found they had concussion-like symptoms
on-us-diplomats-flawed-say-neurologists)and possible brain abnormalities
staff-to-cuba-show-abnormalities), but independent medical specialists have
criticised both studies. In arecent report
(https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/19007096v1)that has not yet been
peer-reviewed, Canadian scientists suggest excessive fumigation with
pesticides to keep mosquitoes under control may be to blame.
Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, the director of the Cuban Centre for Neurosciences,
who was part of a Cuban investigation into the incidents, said that without
more data it was difficult to draw any firm conclusions.
“But I am very sure what did not happen,” he said. “There is absolutely
no evidence for a mysterious weapon causing a new syndrome characterised by
brain damage and much less inner ear damage.
“Some diplomats may be ill due to natural causes, and we have not yet
tested the idea of insecticides causing intoxication in some cases, but the
results of what has been published tells us that there is no homogenous set
of symptoms or lab findings.
“And whatever has been found overlaps very much with several frequent
medical conditions. The only common factor in most cases is a government
telling employees they were attacked, and a media barrage that has largely
reinforced this idea.”