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.

Why don’t I believe this was an attack intended to harm diplomats?

First, I don’t think the timing or diplomatic atmosphere accords with such hostile action by the Cuban government.  U.S. and Canadian diplomats reported their symptoms in the fall of 2016.  At that time, the Obama Administration had relaxed diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Obama was the first U.S. President to visit the island only months before.  During the early to mid-fall, most observers assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidential election and continue the warming of relations with Cuba.  If the operations began shortly after the US presidential elections, it would have been irrational for Cuba to start out relations with the incoming administration in this manner.  Further, I suspect if the Trump Administration believed Cuba sought to purposely harm U.S. diplomats, they would have reacted in a more aggressive and public manner.  Indeed, the Cubans who were asked to leave the U.S. were not kicked out “persona non grata” as is usually the case when countries have on-the-ground diplomatic or espionage disagreements.  Conspicuously, the two Cuban diplomats were not prohibited from ever returning to the U.S., and the door was left for them to return depending on the outcome of the FBI/State investigation.

Finally, and more significantly, we have seen too many similar technical “attacks” around the world which caused unintended harm. These efforts, while designed to further surveillance and eavesdropping and not to cause malicious damage, nevertheless risked or resulted in residual physical harm to U.S. diplomats.

During my time overseas, I have had personal experience with several of these “attacks.”  In the 1980s and 1990s, the Soviet and then Russian intelligence services deployed doses of nitrophenyl pentaden (NPPD) against American diplomats whom they suspected of managing espionage operations against Russian interests.  This so-called “spy dust” was an invisible electromagnetic powder with a customized chemical identifier.  It was smeared onto door handles, furniture and cars of suspected American spy handlers.  It was a tagging agent used by Russian security elements to covertly monitor their own community by revealing unreported (and potentially espionage related) contacts between Russian and American officials.  It was somewhat ingenious. After deploying the invisible material on a suspected U.S. intelligence officer, Russian counter-intelligence would snoop after-hours through the offices of Russian government employees looking for traces of the material.  Discovery of the powder in the office of someone who had not reported contact with the American provided significant proof of suspicious activity.

What was not ingenious, however, were the threats to human health. There were concerns at the time that the material was carcinogenic and could be harmful to American diplomats.  Following studies, the United States determined there was no specific evidence of a threat to the U.S. diplomatic community since it was only used against a handful of people.  As someone who was “dusted,” that explanation didn’t really make me feel much better.  However, the substance was at least a step up from earlier Russian tracking devices like radioactive nails hammered into the tires of U.S. diplomatic vehicles, allowing Russian surveillance vehicles to hang back unseen and follow along by using special equipment to track targets’ tire residue.

The Russian security services were also known to flood the U.S. embassy in Moscow with electromagnetic radiation.  They would beam concentrated microwaves and electronic pulses at the Embassy in an attempt to eavesdrop on U.S. typewriters and conversations.  In the 1970s, a U.S. Ambassador contracted and died of a blood disease that many assumed to be a result of the attacks.  The State Department detected high levels of radiation in the embassy staff, and provided hazard pay to personnel who worked in Moscow.  A variety of electronic attacks continued over the years to include mobile Russian vans that acted as a giant x-ray that could be directed at diplomats all over town.  In a similar fashion, high frequency devices can be used to pulse other devices, perhaps turning on or off collection devices in homes or offices.

Similarly, the Russian security services undertook a massive effort to bug the new embassy building in Moscow with all sorts of technical gear, some of which could potentially affect the health of Americans.  Indeed, the new embassy construction was even abandoned in 1985 due to the sheer volume and sophistication of electronic eavesdropping equipment that was found throughout the walls, concrete floors and underground.  A second attempt to improve the security of the building also faltered when the United States found an equally aggressive and sophisticated attack, which included building listening devices directly into the steel beams holding the building upright.  Even the sidewalks and streets throughout the neighborhood were embedded with electronic collection gear which was designed to turn the embassy building into a giant antenna.  The United States lost hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix the problems, and eventually tore off the top several floors of the Embassy and rebuilt it with specially imported materials put together by American-only labor – an effort the U.S. called the “Top Hat” solution.  The decades-long process displayed the remarkable expertise of the Russians in the use of technical sensors and surveillance gear.  Russian technology was consistently underestimated by the U.S.  and often our best scientists had difficulty understanding what the Russians were up to.

On the U.S. side, the FBI has also deployed sophisticated tracking efforts to monitor foreign spies.  During the waning days of the Cold War, the FBI deployed sophisticated monitoring gear on bridges and highways around Washington to track Russian spies.

The arrest of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen also uncovered an elaborate effort by the FBI and NSA to tunnel under the Russian embassy in Washington and place surveillance gear, bugs, and receivers in an effort to attack the embassy’s telecommunication gear.  The U.S. team employed cutting edge technology including directing laser beams through the steel support columns to pick up electronic emanations, and aiming energy beams at the embassy windows to “read” the vibrations in the glass and pick up conversation.  A less high-tech component of the attack reportedly included using a dwarf to scale inside the embassy wall and emplace listening devices.

Given this historical practice, I suspect what happened in Havana was unfortunate but probably a collection/counterintelligence attack gone wrong rather than a directed attack intended to hurt diplomats. As Senator Rubio correctly pointed out, the Cuban government has long harassed U.S. representatives, and engaged in intrusive tracking of our representatives in Havana. However, we have never seen them try to do serious harm to our diplomats perhaps for fear that we could do the same).  Deployment of a weapon across these different times and locations by a third party is possible but highly unlikely without the direct assistance of the Cuban government.  If Cuba or another country was hoping to use a dangerous and sophisticated attack to achieve some goal or send a message, it doesn’t sound like the message was received either. Usually the simplest explanation is the most likely.  Either way, the Cuban government has an obligation under existing treaties to protect foreign diplomats, and harmful effects, whether they result from surveillance or not, should be condemned.

There is also another lesson here. Our diplomats overseas often work in difficult places, sometimes facing harassment, surveillance and other challenges.  That is why President Donald Trump’s thoughtless comments about our diplomats (and by extension their families) in Moscow go over so poorly with our public servants around the world.  Despite the obvious hardships of being away from the United States in difficult environments, there are often hidden or untold challenges which potentially include being monitored day and night and serious health risks from invisible corners.

The story emerging out of Cuba is simply not as bizarre as it might seem at first blush. It is unfortunately all too familiar to those who serve our country in hostile and risky environments.


Photo Credit: Marcos Radicella/Getty Images
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally published at 6:20AM on Aug. 21, 2017 without modification since.]