Monday, January 08, 2018

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack--Injured Canadian Children and Spats Within the Republican Party in Congress

One of the most interesting aspects of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has been the pace of its development.  It has tended to show up ion news cycles at several weeks intervals, to lie dormant between short sharp bursts of public attention. In November 2017, I suggested the economic effects of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attacks--its intermeshing with economic policy and political objectives beyond  a determination of culpability for injury to the individuals affected (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: Collateral Effects and Costs on Cuban Efforts to Rejoin the International Financial Community; and here). In December the media coverage again revived and amplified the Soviet connection and contemporary Cuban foreign policy (the trajectory of which works against U.S. interests) (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: Collateral Effects and Costs on Cuban Efforts to Rejoin the International Financial Community).  

But then the beginning of 2018 was marked by change (as has not been unusual over the course of the history of the post 1959 governmental system in Cuba.  I noted the visit of E.U. officials seeking to implement a new trade and cooperation arrangement with Cuba  that appeared to take up the renewal of relations where those of the United States veered off in early 20'17 (The EU to the Rescue of the Cuban Economy? the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA)).  This appeared to provide cover for the recent efforts by Cuban authorities to pull back from "reform and opening up" as they tighten control over to contain the size of the private sector (Under Cover of the Sonic Weapons Attack: The Cuban Private Sector as Collateral Damage as Cuba Retreats Toward Central Planning).

But Congress has also become involved in the Affair--and in the process raised the political profile, shifting emphasis from the administrative bureaucracies of the Executive branch to the political sensibilities of Congress (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: And now the U.S. Congress Becomes Interested in a Public Sort of Way).  

This post picks up two strands of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attacks through which the Affair is currently being carried forward (Marie-Danielle Smith, Canadian children were among those affected by sonic attacks in Cuba, documents suggest, National Post 4 Jan. 2018).  The first touches on the medical evidence of injury and the second amplifying political activity in Congress (Francisco Ordoñez, Rubio calls Cuba sonic attacks a “documented fact” after GOP colleague questions evidence, Miami Herald 7 Jan. 2018).   The Associated Press report includes link to a recording of what some U.S. embassy workers heard in Havana.

The issue of the extent of the Sonic Weapons Attack remains unclear.  The reporting from early January serves to remind its readers that the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack might not be merely another localized expression of bad behaviors between the Cubans and the U.S.  Including the Canadians within the Sonic Weapons Attack broadens the implications and makes it difficult to easily dismiss  the attacks as another example of American paranoia or of opportunism as a cover for changes of U.S. policy. But as interesting, it suggests the hesitations and difficulties of the Canadian position between Cuba and the U.S. for a government that might have preferred for this not to have happened.  Even more interesting, perhaps, is the omission of any particular coordination between the U.S: and the Canadians. On the other hand it is as likely that neither country was eager to expose the nature and extent of coordination, specially as Canada was eager to preserve  what it considered it relationship with the Cubans.  Yet the reporting was useful in two respects.  First it served to increase the sympathy factor-- those affected included children.  And Second, it appeared to add evidence of the reality of the occurrence of the attacks and of the physical harm sustained especially by the vulnerable.  One builds here the foundation for asserting liability for violation of international norms and perhaps of international law as well.  The reporting from Canada follows.

Marie-Danielle Smith, Canadian children were among those affected by sonic attacks in Cuba, documents suggest, National Post 4 Jan. 2018

OTTAWA — Children were among those affected by a series of mysterious and still-unexplained attacks on the health of Canadian and American diplomats in Cuba last year, documents from the Canadian government have revealed.

Correspondence from diplomats in Havana, apparently detailed but heavily redacted when obtained by the National Post under access-to-information law, show officials at Global Affairs Canada learned as early as April that Canadian embassy staffers and their families in Cuba were reporting mysterious health problems. In May, they scrambled to determine whether the severe symptoms they were reporting — including, the documents say, the loss of memory, hearing and even consciousness — could be psychosomatic. It appears to have taken weeks before Canadian doctors officially examined those affected.

August saw the first media reports about the alleged attacks. The Associated Press reported that American diplomats in Havana had heard loud, jarring noises that seemed to be audible only in specific rooms or even in very specific parts of rooms, mostly in their homes and at night. They then began suffering hearing loss and other physical symptoms. After those reports, the U.S. confirmed to media that 24 of its own had been affected. In September, AP reported that about 10 Canadian families had been affected and that both countries had deployed criminal investigators.

* * *
Months earlier, officials in Ottawa had first been made aware of U.S. allegations. A late April email to officials in Ottawa is fully redacted but titled “Attacks on US Personnel.” About two weeks later, on May 11, the Canadian mission in Havana sent Global Affairs Canada colleagues a formal request for assistance in “determining next steps” for Canadians experiencing symptoms.

A message to Ottawa May 16, approved by Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, detailed a concern that whatever Canadians were experiencing might be psychosomatic. Officials knew “confirmed incidents” at the time were isolated to U.S. diplomats.

* * *

Lines of communication didn’t appear clear over the first few weeks. One diplomat from Canada’s Washington, D.C. mission mentioned “broken telephone” issues on May 18.

By May 23, Canada was aware that two Cuban diplomats were being expelled from the U.S. as a “measure of reciprocity” after five American diplomats had to be evacuated from Havana, according to a report. At that time, there were “no answers” to questions around who or what was behind the attacks.

Still, it appears to have taken weeks before Canada’s government dispatched medical personnel to assess the Canadians’ symptoms.

On June 6 the mission was urgently requesting that a ministerial letter be sent to the national defence department, so as to get Canadian military doctors on the ground. A meeting for the same day was being arranged in Havana to “advise of the increased threat level.”

An attached report included a request for clarification on the ages of children involved, though according to prepared media lines from August, Canadian officials were instructed not to reveal to the public whether any children had been affected.

The report also detailed symptoms Canadians were experiencing: “headaches, dizziness, nausea, hearing loss, nosebleeds, cognitive functions including loss of short term memory.” It predicted “follow-up treatment, care and rehabilitation may be required,” and listed “begin preparing for any more wide-ranging plans to evacuate Canadian staff and/or their dependants” as a next step.

In a June 8 report, the list of symptoms expanded to include loss of consciousness, blurred eyesight, lack of balance and ear pain. “Many have heard strange noises in their residences and have experienced symptoms that they have not had before in their lives,” it said.

On June 9, the head of mission was requesting a medical adviser come to Havana “as soon as possible” to screen all families of all Canadian diplomats there. Travel for a Health Canada doctor was approved for the following week. An email that day says mission operations would be affected by absences. “Surge support may be required,” and “non-essential travel and visits to Havana may need to be postponed.”

A few days later, emails show local guards posted at Canadian residences 24/7 had been “put on notice to increase their patrols around the properties and to be extra vigilant in reporting any (unusual) vehicles or activity.” The June 12 report notes the ambassador to Cuba was to extend key messages to Cuban officials, including requests for additional security patrols and “any additional technical security measures that could be preventative.”

By June 16, a to-do list still included seeking advice on “sound blocking devices” and “recording equipment,” and briefing incoming Canadian diplomats “about the threat and risk.”

The Health Canada doctor arrived June 18 and held a town hall with Canadian staff June 21, during which he emphasized “symptoms and findings are similar to the U.S.’s experience,” and “high incidence of cases in multiple neighbourhoods demonstrates that it is an ongoing problem.”

Objectives for a meeting between Cuba, foreign officials and the Privy Council Office, which supports the prime minister and cabinet, were attached to a July 6 email. It says to “encourage closer collaboration on fact-finding” and specifically includes a note to “express Canada’s long-standing and ongoing commitment to the Canada-Cuba relationship.”

By August it appeared the situation was not yet resolved. A Health Canada medical adviser suggested in an Aug. 11 email that “routine audiometry,” which measures individuals’ hearing sensitivity, could be conducted as a baseline for Canada-based staff headed on posting to Havana.

* * *

This week also picked up an important strand in the politics of the Affair fo the Sonic Weapons Attack. Here one confronts a very real political battle between different factions of the ruling Republican majorities in Congress.  On the one hand, one has Marco Rubio--former aspirant for the U.S. presidency and an influential driver of American policy toward Cuba continuing to push aggressively for action on the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack. On the other side one hears Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona who dismisses the whole affair. "The Cubans told Flake the FBI has told them that, after four trips to Cuba, its agents have found no evidence that mysterious illnesses suffered by U.S. diplomats were the result of attacks." (Rubio To Hold Hearing On ‘Sonic Attacks’ On U.S. Diplomats In Cuba)

Senator Rubio already accepts the "fact" of the attack, and draws from that the conclusion that the Cubans bear responsibility--for which U.S: responses are necessary (beyond those already taken). Flake appears convinced by the Cuban position, Rubio takes the opposite approach. On Tuesday June 9th, these positions will likely be debated before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by Senator Rubio.
The goal of the hearing is to establish the facts surrounding the attacks and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.

Three State Department officials are scheduled to testify. Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary for the western hemisphere; Todd Brown, diplomatic security assistant director for international programs; and Charles Rosenfarb, medical director of the Bureau of Medical Services. (Rubio To Hold Hearing On ‘Sonic Attacks’ On U.S. Diplomats In Cuba)

Whatever the outcome, the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack will continue to be int he news and will drive, to some extent, the future of American foreign policy in the region (and potentially also with Russia). The reporting of the dispute follows. 


Sen. Marco Rubio pushed back Sunday against comments from a Republican colleague that the United States has found no evidence of “sonic attacks” in Cuba.

The Florida Republican charged the attacks were a “documented fact.”

In a series of tweets Sunday, Rubio dismissed comments by Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime advocate for improving ties with Cuba, stating that any U.S. official briefed on the mysterious events in Havana “knows full well that while method of attack still in question, that attacks and injuries occurred isn’t.”

“It’s a documented FACT that 24 U.S. govt officials & spouses were victims of some sort of sophisticated attack while stationed in Havana,” Rubio tweeted.

Flake said Saturday that he has seen no evidence that American diplomats who suffered health symptoms while in Havana were “attacked,” according to the Associated Press.

After meeting with high ranking Cuban officials, Flake said classified briefings from U.S. officials had given him no reason to doubt Cuban officials who said there was no evidence any health symptoms were a result of an attack.

Rubio countered calling it impossible “to conduct 24 separate & sophisticated attacks" on U.S. government personnel without Cuban officials knowing.

The back and forth between the two senators sets up a potentially explosive hearing Tuesday at a highly anticipated Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing chaired by Rubio. Members are expected to press State Department officials for more answers about the mysterious events.

The Trump administration has already pulled much of the U.S embassy staff from Havana and expelled 15 of their Cuban counterparts working in Washington.

The State Department continued to call it an “attack” on Sunday despite not knowing the source or cause of the events.

“The investigation is ongoing,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The State Department continues to be deeply concerned about the safety and security of our personnel. We continue to remind the Cuban government of its obligations under the Vienna Convention to take all appropriate steps to protect our diplomats.”

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