Leon Neal / Getty Images file
Few details have been released but the Associated Press, quoting officials, reported that some embassy employees reported they experienced bizarre, unexplained and physically uncomfortable noises or vibrations at their residences before they were afflicted.
John Caulfield, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2010 to 2014 and who is now retired, said he knows one of the affected staffers.
“This person’s spouse noted that the person was turning up the volume of the TV and radio very high and it was irritating and the spouse said you need to get your hearing checked,” Caulfield said. “They went to the doctor, who said ‘You have permanent hearing loss, you need a hearing aid.'”
The American Foreign Service Association, the union for diplomatic staff, said it spoke with 10 employees who experienced “damage to their health.”
“Diagnoses include mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption, and brain swelling,” AFSA said, calling on the U.S. to “do everything possible” to protect embassy workers.
Two of the embassy workers were living at the Hotel Capri at the time of the incidents; there were no complaints from anyone else staying at the downtown Havana hotel.
The government in Havana has denied it’s responsible and even took the remarkable step of inviting the FBI to Cuba to investigate, according to Cuban sources. Nevertheless, the U.S. expelled two Cuban diplomats in late May on the grounds that an agreement to keep embassy personnel safe had been breached.
It wasn’t until three months later that officials in Washington revealed what had happened. At the time, they said 16 staffers had been affected and that the phenomenon had stopped in the spring. But earlier this month, they said another incident had been reported at the end of August and the number of employees and relatives was up to 21.
That prompted the diplomat who complained on social media to accuse the government in a new post of “rampant negligence.”
“Make America great again one brain injury at a time,” he wrote. “Let’s keep in mind that this is happening in people’s homes and this is a family post.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a briefing last week that affected staffers can leave Havana, return to the U.S. and take a posting elsewhere, though it’s not clear how many have done so. Employees have been treated in Cuba and in Miami.
“They continue to undergo tests,” said Nauert, who has repeatedly stressed that getting to the bottom of the mystery is a “huge priority” for the agency.
The medical sleuthing has not helped authorities pinpoint
the nature of the disturbances. Tillerson called them “health attacks” while a Cuban government source said the U.S. complained about “acoustic” incidents.
Just as elusive: a motive.
Caulfield, who is not privy to details of the investigation, said when he first heard about the incidents he assumed they were eavesdropping attempts using a new technology that had gone wrong.
“They obsessively try to listen into us,” he said of the Cubans, based on his own experience in Havana. “Twenty-four hours a day, in my house and my car, every which way they could track.”
However, two State Department officials told NBC News that it was possible the point was to harm the targets.
Complicating the question of why the American diplomats were targeted is the fact that some Canadian embassy staff reported similar symptoms. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police team was dispatched to Havana to investigate, according to Cuban sources.