The US government is still baffled by the “perplexing” injuries resembling concussions affecting two dozen US diplomats in Cuba over the last two years, State Department officials told senators at a hearing on Tuesday.
But the agency pushed back against the idea, suggested by some scientists and amplified by Cuba, that the cause was psychological.
Medical tests showing concussion-like symptoms, ranging from recurring headaches to lost hearing and balance, “suggest this is not an episode of mass hysteria,” State Department chief medical officer Charles Rosenfarb said at the hearing.
“There is still much we do not know, including who or what is behind the injuries to our personnel,” the State Department’s Francisco Palmieri told the Senate Foreign Relations committee, chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a critic of closer ties to Cuba. "We have not been able to identify who the perpetrator was, or the means of the attacks,” Palmieri said.
Although the State officials stopped short of describing the injuries as more than “mild traumatic brain injuries or concussions,” Rubio used sharp language and blamed a “rogue element” in Cuba, or perhaps Russia, for the attacks.
“People were hurt and the Cubans know who was responsible,” Rubio said. “They are just not telling us.”
Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal Ferreiro rejected the charges in a statement released late on Tuesday. "I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever in the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats," she said.
Starting in 2016, those two dozen US diplomats and their spouses in Havana reported the injuries, with news accounts blaming “sonic attacks” and reporting concussion-like symptoms, such as nausea, vertigo, and loss of hearing in one ear, among diplomats. The incidents led the US to cut its staff in half in Cuba last year and expel 15 Cuban diplomats, with State Department chief Rex Tillerson saying Cuba could have stopped “targeted attacks” on them.
Initially, in December of 2016, State Department security thought the attacks were just noises meant to annoy staff, State Department security official Todd Brown said at the hearing. The agency only began to take it seriously when more serious symptoms emerged, sending affected diplomats to an acoustic injuries expert at the University of Miami medical center in February.
Rubio criticized the State Department as being too slow to take the attacks seriously and for inadequate protection for diplomats today.
Cuban officials have denied any responsibility for the injuries, which followed the reopening of diplomatic relations with the US in 2015. A University of Pennsylvania medical study of the diplomats’ injuries requested by the State Department has not been released to the public.
“Mission personnel describe a multitude of symptoms, many of which are not easily quantifiable and not easily attributable to a specific cause,” Rosenfarb said.
Descriptions of the precipitating event ranged from “a high pitched beam of sound” to an “incapacitating sound,” to a “baffling sensation” akin to driving with the windows partially open in a car, to just an intense pressure in one ear. Of the 24 affected diplomats and spouses, 10 have returned to duty, and all have recovered to varying degrees, some after therapy. Another eight diplomats have asked to return from Cuba because of the attacks.
“We are unable to state whether the injuries will result in long term damage,” Rosenfarb added.
Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico noted that Canada, which reported at least one diplomat with similar injuries in 2016, has not withdrawn its staff from Havana, and did not kick out any Cuban diplomats, pressing officials on whether Tillerson’s decision had benefited the US or Cuba. (Later in the hearing, Rubio followed this line of questioning, suggesting the attacks were meant to drive a wedge between US and Cuban reconciliation efforts, which has, in fact, been their result.)
Over the weekend, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the US had found no evidence of an attack on its diplomats in Cuba, according to the Associated Press. The FBI has not released its report on the injuries, made after repeated inspections of the diplomats’ residences. State Department officials refused to comment on the report at the hearing, suggesting it would be discussed at a later, classified hearing.
Acoustics experts consulted by BuzzFeed News said that a silent “sonic” attack on the diplomats — suggested in some news reports — was physically impossible. Cuban scientists last month declared that a “collective psychogenic disorder,” or mass hysteria, explains the injuries, according to Science magazine. They ascribed the noises heard by injured diplomats to cicadas.
Alternate explanations for the injuries have ranged from mass hysteria to poison to tropical illnesses, but this is all speculative, experts say, until more information is publicly released. Aside from the claims of mild brain injuries, where the evidence has not been released, "symptoms like fatigue and memory loss are among the most commonly reported in outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness, while vertigo and partial deafness are common," medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew told BuzzFeed News by email.
Questions about whether Russia was somehow responsible for the attacks were deferred by State Department officials to the future classified hearing.
The story has been updated with the statement from Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, and comment from medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew.