Experts still confounded by source of attacks against U.S. embassy staffers in Havana

Former Republican presidential primary rivals Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, pictured in a January 2016 debate, worked together to rewrite U.S.-Cuba policy.
Former Republican presidential primary rivals Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, pictured in a January 2016 debate, worked together to rewrite U.S.-Cuba policy. AP

State Department officials said Tuesday that experts are still investigating the source of the mysterious attacks against at least 24 U.S. embassy officials and their family members in Havana, including possibly ultrasound and viral, which Sen. Marco Rubio concluded must be the product of a rogue element within the Cuban government or another nation-state like Russia operating with Havana’s knowledge.

“Though these events were associated with an acoustic element, we were still looking at other possibilities,” said Todd Brown with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. “I don’t know that I would rule it out entirely, the acoustic element could be used as a masking piece. I do know that other types of attacks are being considered in connection with this. There’s viral, there’s ultrasound, there’s a range of things the technical experts are looking at as could this be a possibility.”

Brown’s comments during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday came after the Associated Press reported that an unreleased FBI investigation into the Cuba attacks casts doubt on the possibility of a “sonic attack” against U.S. officials in Havana.

“If the FBI has determined that is not the case … that doesn’t mean that an acoustic element couldn’t be part of another style of attack here and I do know that other types of attacks are being considered in connection with this,” Brown said, adding that a viral attack would include someone intentionally planting a virus that affects cognitive function.

Rubio and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., repeatedly pressed Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Francisco Palmieri over the timing and scope of the State Department’s response in Havana, and Rubio argued that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should have set up an Accountability Review Board within 60 days of the U.S. government learning about serious injuries suffered by U.S. government officials.

“By my calculation, if by early May we knew that at least one if not several … suffered serious injury, by early July in the 60-day period and certainly by early September if you run the whole 120-day period, an Accountability Review Board should have been set up,” Rubio said.

Palmieri replied that Tillerson has decided to convene an Accountability Review Board and that a congressional notification will be sent shortly. An Accountability Review Board is an independent reviewer of security-related incidents set up by the State Department used in response to incidents like the 2012 attack on the U.S. government facilities in Benghazi.

Rubio also asked Palmieri whether former Secretary of State John Kerry, former President Barack Obama and the Donald Trump transition team were made aware of the attacks against U.S. officials, given that they began in late 2016. Palmieri said he wasn’t aware of whether Kerry, Obama or Trump officials had been briefed.

Palmieri also said he couldn’t answer in a public setting whether the State Department made contact with the Russian government regarding the attacks, saying that information was better suited for a classified briefing.

“We don’t know the methodology that was used,” Rubio said. “I think that lends credence to my argument, which is this is an attack that is so sophisticated against 24 Americans that it had to be conducted on behalf of a nation-state, whether it was rogue elements of the Cuban regime, the regime itself or a third-party country.”

Cuban President Raúl Castro has denied involvement in the attacks, and Cuba’s Foreign Ministry tweeted after the hearing that it was “regrettable to see officials of the State Department using the word attacks with ZERO evidence to prove it happened.”

“We have an obligation to the men and women of the foreign service when we send them abroad to ensure for their safety,” Rubio said. “What I heard today is that when you are sent to Havana you are told the only thing you can do to protect yourself is if you hear something strange, move out of the way. That is not very reassuring.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who publicly cast doubt on the “sonic attack” theory over the weekend, was present at the hearing but left for an immigration meeting at the White House before it was his time to question officials.

“Whatever happened to these officials is the result of some sophisticated technology that quite frankly is so sophisticated that we don’t understand it,” Rubio said. “I think it’s fair to say that whoever did this, did this because they wanted there to be friction between the U.S. and the Cuban government.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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