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Ailments that plagued diplomats in Cuba puzzle investigators

September 14, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Headaches, nausea, tinnitus, even brain swelling have mysteriously afflicted more than 20 U.S. diplomats in Cuba since late 2016. It’s been difficult for investigators to figure out the cause of these symptoms. Could Americans and Canadians be victims of spy games gone awry? Hari Sreenivasan is joined by Josh Lederman of the Associated Press to discuss how the FBI is investigating.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Headaches, nausea, ringing in the ears, even brain swelling, all symptoms of unexplained illnesses that have afflicted more than 20 American diplomats in Cuba since late 2016.

Some have been left with speech, memory and hearing impairment. Were they victims of some spy games gone awry? No one seems to know, but the FBI is on the case. Cuba’s government is reportedly cooperating, and denies any involvement.

For more on this Cuban mystery, I’m joined by Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Josh Lederman.

Thanks for joining us.

I mean, are those descriptions pretty accurate of the people that you have been speaking with?

JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press: Those descriptions of symptoms that have been experienced by diplomats in Cuba are accurate.

But what we have to emphasize is, they’re not consistent. That isn’t the set of symptoms that all of these people have had. And that’s why this is such a difficult puzzle for investigators to crack.

There’s inconsistencies. Some people heard things. Some people felt vibrations. Some people felt and heard nothing at all. Some people heard — had symptoms like mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, nausea.

But without a clear pattern where you can say, OK, in this circumstance, this happened, investigators are really at a loss to be able to reverse-engineer what might have caused this and try to stop it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Was there any consistency on where it happened? Did it happen in their office? Did it happen in their home, a hotel?

JOSH LEDERMAN: Well, we know that many of these diplomats had these incidents take place in their homes in Havana where they live with their spouses and families.

But new details that we’re reporting at the AP today show that also there was at least one incident in a Havana hotel, the Hotel Capri, which is a Spanish-run hotel in downtown Havana.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And did this also happen to Canadian diplomats? So it’s not just the U.S. that were targeted?

JOSH LEDERMAN: We know there were several Canadian diplomats that were confirmed to have some type of incidents. Some of them went back the Canada for treatment. Others were treated in Havana.

It doesn’t appear that the Canadian incidents were as severe as some of the American incidents. But the fact that Canadians were hit, despite the close ties that Canada has long had with Cuba, has really made it more difficult for investigators to try to figure out, what was the motive for this attack?

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have heard about technologies like sound cannons before that militaries have used, but when you talk to scientists, what could cause something like this?

JOSH LEDERMAN: That’s really the mystery here.

Nothing they have been able to point to could cause most of this or really all of it. There are sound cannons. There is something called an LRAD, which beams sound at long distances, high-powered, in narrow directions.

But it creates really irritating noises to try to disperse people. It doesn’t cause traumatic brain injury. Actually damaging brain tissue is something that researchers say isn’t really you can do with sound waves. And that’s why the initial explanation of a sonic weapon has become so much less fathomable now that we know that there were people that experienced mild traumatic brain injury or concussion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And this wasn’t over a large area at the same time? One of the things that you describe in the report is that people almost felt like they can walk into and out of it?

JOSH LEDERMAN: This is the part that really feels like it’s ripped from a sci-fi novel.

We had investigators telling us that patients would say, I would wake up in bed. I would hear this grounding, excruciating noise. I would jump out of bed. Two feet to the left, I wouldn’t hear anything. It would disappear. I would move back, and then, bam, there it is again, as if there was some type of invisible wall that was separating part of the room from another part of the room.

So, that really casts doubt on the typical speaker that you would think of in a room, where the sound would go everywhere.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This also was only made public months after the incidents took place. What’s the administration doing about it now?

JOSH LEDERMAN: The administration is not doing anything different than they were doing before. The U.S. knew about this at least since late last year.

They first raised it with the Cubans in February. They have been trying to get to the bottom of it. They have offered that if American diplomats don’t feel comfortable serving in Havana while this is unsolved, they can have a different job elsewhere.

But, meanwhile, they’re continuing to staff the embassy. They’re continuing to have a full mission there. And people are going about their business while investigators continue to search every avenue to try to get to the bottom of it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Josh Lederman from the Associated Press, thanks so much.

JOSH LEDERMAN: Thanks.

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