The White House does not believe the Cuban government is behind the mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. personnel but plans to pull American staff out of Havana as the number of cases climbs, according to multiple U.S. sources familiar with the investigation.
“No one believes that the Cubans are responsible,” said one source, echoing comments from others who are closely involved in the situation. “All of the evidence points that they’re not.”
Sources would not say who U.S. intelligence believes is responsible.
The Trump administration will soon begin a major withdrawal of staff from the U.S. embassy in Havana after seeing the number of Americans affected by this “sonic device” rise to 25 from 21. While the first cases were reported months ago, some have surfaced in just the last several weeks, according to two sources.
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Tuesday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to discuss the attacks on American diplomats in Havana. That meeting, requested by Cuban officials, is the highest-level discussion between the two countries since Donald Trump was sworn into office in January.
While the Trump administration has been slowly rolling back the Obama-era policy changes that broke down barriers between the United States and the island nation, key components of the relationship remain in place. But the bizarre attacks have tested the relationship in new ways and raised speculation about whether Cuba was bringing back Cold War tactics or even working with a third-party government, such as Russia, which has the capability to use such technology.
U.S. and Cuban officials described the meeting as frank, but amicable. Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the State Department, said Tillerson reminded the Cuban authorities of their obligations to protect diplomats and their families under the Vienna Convention.
The Cubans promised they were taking the matter seriously, but raised their own concerns that two Cuban diplomats had been kicked out of Washington despite more proof that the government was involved. Rodriguez said they also want to resolve the matter, which could distract cooperation for the two neighbors.
“The Minister reiterated the willingness of Cuba to continue holding the bilateral dialogue on areas of common interest, based on respect and sovereign equality, despite the profound differences that exist between the two countries,” Cuban officials said, according to a readout of meeting.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans pushed back. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted Tuesday that the United States “should expel a Cuban a Cuban diplomat for every U.S. diplomat evacuated due to acoustic attacks.”
Others described it as naive to think the Cuban’s are unaware about what is happening on their island. They pointed to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan who told members of Congress that he could not say whether Cuba was involved in the attacks.
“Those of us on the Hill have been crystal clear on this issue,” said a congressional source. “Either the Cuban government is behind this or they know who did this and have been complicit in these nefarious activities.
Nauert said earlier Tuesday that there is still a lot that the administration doesn’t know. But Nauert couldn’t say whether she believes Cuba knows what actually happened.
“I don't know the answer to that,” Nauert said. “They have been cooperative. I know they have helped in terms of the investigation and provided information. They've come to us in different instances and so I don't want to get ahead of what the secretary's conversations are going to be.”
The planned staff withdrawal is not intended to punish the Cuban government but to protect diplomats and their families from the strange attacks, the U.S. sources said. The administration considered closing the embassy for a period, but is looking instead for a way to keep it open even with a skeletal staff.
In a speech to the United Nations last week, Rodriguez denied any Cuban involvement. He said the government has found “no evidence whatsoever” that could confirm the causes or the origin of the health problems reported by U.S. diplomats and their relatives and warned against politicizing the investigation.
“Cuba has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort,” he said. “Cuba has never allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose.”
Mark Feierstein, a former special assistant to Obama and NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, agreed that the issue should not be politicized. He said hardliners are likely to look at this as punishment, but he said the reality is the administration is right to put the safety of its diplomats and staff first until they know more about what is the cause.
“Any administration would have to consider the same steps,” Feierstein said.
The diplomats affected have seen doctors and had medical tests and evaluations in the United States. University of Miami officials said they had been contacted by the State Department, but wouldn’t share any details about possible treatment other than to say that school doctors have “consulted” with the department.
On Tuesday, America’s fortresslike embassy in Havana looked nearly abandoned, although guards were posted outside. Since a storm surge from Hurricane Irma caused flooding, the embassy has been offering only limited services and has advised those in need of consular and other services not to come to the embassy itself but to phone.
Cuba was first notified of the mysterious events at the embassy on Feb. 17, and Cuban authorities immediately began their own investigation, according to a recent article in CubaDebate, an official news website.
Although Cuban authorities have long denied they were responsible for the health problems of embassy personnel, exactly what is causing them reportedly baffles them as well.
"According to the preliminary results and the information we've shared with the U.S. authorities, there is no evidence so far that would confirm the causes or origin of the alleged health problems experienced by the U.S. diplomats and their family members," a source familiar with the investigation told CubaDebate.
Once Cuban authorities became aware of the health problems, CubaDebate said Cuban authorities expanded measures to protect diplomats, their family members and embassy staff and opened new direct communications channels between the U.S. embassy and the Cuban Department for the Security and Safety of Diplomats.
Mimi Whitefield contributed reporting from Havana.