Reports of “health attacks” in Cuba which left several American and Canadian diplomats with health problems and hearing loss has led to wide and dramatic speculation.  Several stories have hyped possible “acoustic attacks” that may be related to weapons used by police for riot control, or even weapons developed by the U.S. Navy.  The Associated Press reported that “after months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences…” 

Florida Senator Marco Rubio issued a statement condemning what he concluded was a blatant and intentional attack.  According to Rubio, the Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel for decades and, “this has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.  Personal harm to U.S. officials shows the extent the Castro regime will go and clearly violates international norms.”  Scary indeed.

There has been no shortage of theories as to the reasons for the attacks, some speculating that it was payback against specific individuals, a possible operation by third parties (the Russians?) to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba, or a means by Cuba to send some sort of message to Washington.

If so, the message is mighty garbled.  No report has provided anything definitive as to what happened, and how.  To date, the State Department has remained relatively mum, only commenting that the administration has an “active investigation” to determine the source of the health problems, many of which resemble concussions.  The affected U.S. diplomats have returned home from Havana. In May, the State Department asked two Cuban diplomats to leave Washington though did not publicly announce this expulsion at the time and has since specifically declined to call it an act of reciprocity.

While I have not served in Cuba, my experience in a number of similar hostile, high counterintelligence threat countries suggests that this is more likely a surveillance effort gone wrong, than the use of an offensive sonic weapon.  We have very little experience anywhere in the world with directed attacks designed to physically harm to our diplomats.  However, the use of intrusive technical collection and surveillance which sometimes causes harm in its own right, is consistent with past practice in Cuba and elsewhere.

Source: Just Security

Analysis: The author, former CIA agent John Sipher, goes onto note that he is not convinced this was an acoustic attack because he doesn’t believe the timing or diplomatic atmosphere is conducive to one. He further notes that American and Canadian diplomats reported their symptoms to superiors in October 2016, at a time when then-President Obama had relaxed diplomatic relations with Cuba, even being the first U.S. president to visit the island nation a few months earlier. 

After providing ample, detailed examples of how the Soviet, then Russian, intelligence services employed spying techniques aimed at monitoring suspected American espionage agents that were physically harmful (though not meant to be), Sipher explained such is the way of the espionage world. Thus he suspects the Cubans may have been employing surveillance technology that simply had deleterious health side-effects.