The search for answers behind the strange sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba has all the makings of a Cold War thriller — one that looks to be far from its concluding chapter.
A mysterious sound piercing the walls of the popular Hotel Capri just steps from Havana’s iconic waterside promenade and other locations has allegedly caused brain injuries and hearing loss for 25 diplomats and personnel.
The official version of what happened to the diplomats over the course of the year has raised so many unanswered questions that it has left investigators chasing narratives. After seeking forensic evidence in Havana and looking at everything from electromagnetic weapons to dysfunctional spy equipment, they still don’t know the source or method of the attacks.
The Cuban government vehemently denies responsibility and has accused the United States of slander. Some scientists believe the injuries may even be psychosomatic.
While not an official White House position, most people in the administration don’t think the attacks were done at the behest of the Cuban government, according to multiple U.S. sources familiar with the investigation. That has led to increasing suspicion of a third party that includes some of America's best-known adversaries — including Iran and China. But more attention is now being paid to Moscow, which has grown closer to Cuba in recent years, has a bone to pick with the United States and is a leader in sonic technology, according to multiple U.S. sources familiar with the investigation.
“A prevailing view is that it may have been Russia working with rogue elements of the Cuban government,” said a U.S. source familiar with the thinking inside the administration.
Among top adversaries, Russia has the greatest access to Cuba and the type of relationship that would be necessary to work with Cuban intelligence to carry something of this magnitude off.
Mike Carpenter, who until January served as deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for the Russia portfolio, said Iran has the motivation but not the connections with Cuba. It’s also more likely to mess with the United States in the Middle East, he said. China wouldn’t want to risk the improving relationship.
“As a Pentagon guy, when I evaluate a threat, I look for intent and capabilities,” Carpenter said. “I can easily come up with a story that explains why Russia would have an interest in seeing U.S.-Cuban relations deteriorate and why they might want to test this sort of weapon on American diplomats.”
The Russians are at the top of the list for several reasons noted by Washington insiders. The Kremlin has the motive and the opportunity. Moscow is competing with the United States openly for influence in Cuba. There’s also a still-simmering anger about America’s response to Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
Several years ago, as tensions rose between the United States and Russian President Vladmir Putin, Moscow announced plans to begin working with the Castro regime to re-open a Cold War-era signals intelligence base in Lourdes, Cuba.
Russia has made several other inroads in Cuba, including in nuclear energy, train repair and air traffic control technology.
Cuban President Raul Castro visited Moscow two years ago to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II and the Red Army’s role in the conflict.
There are those within the State Department — and on Capitol Hill — who feel the Cuban government is involved or at least is not sharing all it knows about a third party actor such as Russia.
That sentiment has been exacerbated as the meetings have come to light.
The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met with Josefina Vidal, director general of the U.S. division of the Cuban foreign ministry, just weeks after two Cuban officials were expelled from the United States. Ryabkov later met with Cuban ambassador to Russia Emilio Lozada Garcia as the State Department confirmed the investigation.
Last month, just days before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was to meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez to discuss the attacks, Rodríguez had a “confidential” conversation with the Russian foreign minister on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly gathering.
Adding to the intrigue and concern, U.S. tourists are now reporting similar, unexplained symptoms after visits to the island.
Mark Feierstein, the White House National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama, urged caution about unsubstantiated reports that could stoke unnecessary fears, noting an AP report of a South Carolina tourist who cut his trip short after feeling numbness spread through his body after getting in bed at the Hotel Capri.
The State Department has not accused Cuba of being behind the incidents. But officials say Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration kicked nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States after pulling many their own diplomats from the US embassy in Havana.
President Donald Trump said after that he believed Havana was responsible for the attacks.
The Cubans responded forcefully, accusing Washington of lying.
Cuban officials told Reuters in Havana that some 2,000 investigators and scientists were assigned to uncover the mystery behind alleged sonic attacks.
Lt. Col. Jose Alazo, head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation unit, said the Cuban team of criminologists, audiologists and mathematicians found no evidence to back up U.S. claims.
“It’s impossible. We are talking about science fiction,” Alazo said.