Trump considering closing US embassy in Cuba, Tillerson says
· Secretary of state: diplomats’ health problems ‘a very serious issue’
· ‘Sonic attack’ among theories for hearing loss, concussions and more
A 2015 photo shows the US embassy in Havana. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
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Associated Press in Washington
Sunday 17 September 2017 12.40 EDTLast modified on Monday 18 September 2017 11.57 EDT
The Trump administration is considering closing the recently reopened US Embassy in Havana following a string of unexplained incidents harming the health of American diplomats in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.
Botched surveillance job may have led to strange injuries at US embassy in Cuba
“We have it under evaluation,” Tillerson said. “It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered. We’ve brought some of those people home. It’s under review.”
Tillerson’s comments were the strongest indication to date that the US might mount a major diplomatic response, potentially jeopardizing the historic restart of relations between the US and Cuba. The two former foes reopened embassies in Washington and Havana in 2015 after roughly a half-century of estrangement.
Of the 21 medically confirmed US victims, some have permanent hearing loss or concussions while others have suffered nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. Some are struggling with concentration or common word recall, the Associated Press has reported.
Some victims felt vibrations or heard loud sounds mysteriously audible in only parts of rooms, leading investigators to consider a potential “sonic attack”. Others heard nothing but later developed symptoms.
Tillerson once called the events “health attacks” but the state department has since used the term “incidents” while emphasizing the US still does not know what has occurred. Cuba has denied any involvement or responsibility but stressed it is eager to help the US resolve the matter.
The US has said the number of Americans affected could grow as more cases are potentially detected. The last reported incident was on 21 August, according to a US official briefed on the matter but not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.
Tillerson spoke on CBS’ Face the Nation as world leaders and top diplomats descended on New York for annual United Nations general assembly meetings. Donald Trump will give his first speech on the major global platform this week. Cuba is also represented at the UN, but it is not expected Trump will meet with any Cuban leaders or officials during his visit.
The US has not identified either a culprit or a device. Investigators have explored the possibility of sonic waves, an electromagnetic weapon, or an advanced spying operation gone awry, US officials briefed on the probe told the AP. The US has not ruled out that a third country or a rogue faction of Cuba’s security services might be involved.
Lawmakers have been raising alarm over the incidents, with some calling for the embassy to be closed. On Friday, five Republican senators wrote to Tillerson urging him to not only shutter the embassy, but also kick all Cuban diplomats out of the US – a move that would have dramatic diplomatic implications
“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” said the lawmakers, who included Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a prominent Cuban-American, and the No2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas.
The incidents have frightened Havana’s tightknit diplomatic community, raising concerns about the potential scope. At least one other country, France, has tested embassy staff for potential sonic-induced injuries, the AP has reported.
How could the ‘sonic attack’ on US diplomats in Cuba have been carried out?
If an acoustic weapon is responsible for the ‘attacks’ on US diplomats it is likely to be ultrasonic, but chemical causes must first be ruled out, say experts
The US State Department claims that at least 16 individuals have been affected by unexplained health problems at their Havana embassy. Photograph: Alejandro Ernesto/EPA
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Friday 25 August 2017 13.14 EDT
Last modified on Monday 28 August 2017 06.22 EDT
The mysterious “sonic attack” on US diplomats based in Cuba raises questions about what form an acoustic weapon might have taken and the prevalence of such devices in the military.
The US State Department claims that the “attacks” started in autumn 2016 and ended in April this year and had affected at least 16 individuals. Officials said that the symptoms, including hearing loss, headaches and loss of balance, appeared to be the result of sophisticated devices operating outside the range of audible sound. No device nor any perpetrator has been discovered, however.
A sonic weapon operating outside the human hearing range implies one emitting either very low (infrasound) or high (ultrasound) frequencies. In the second world war, the German military considered deploying an infrasound device, called the Wirbelwind Kanone (Whirlwind Cannon), aimed at knocking enemy bombers out of the sky using a vortex of sound. Targeted at people, infrasound can resonate with the stomach cavity, causing people to suddenly feel anxious or nauseated.
However, low frequencies are difficult to target and the symptoms in the Cuban case do not appear consistent with infrasound attacks.
Robin Cleveland, a professor of engineering science at the University of Oxford, said: “What’s probably happening in the Cuba situation, is ultrasonic – higher frequencies above above 20 kHz.”
Tim Leighton, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at University of Southampton, agreed: “If you want to produce a tight beam of energy that you can point at someone, ultrasound is the one to go for.”
There is good evidence that hearing loss can result from long-term exposure to ultrasound, based on studies of people working in factories where ultrasound is used to weld plastic parts.
Cleveland said that building an ultrasound emitter would not be hard. “You can buy transducers on the internet that emit these frequencies,” he said. “Anybody with a bit of engineering background could put one together.”
A device the size of a kitchen matchbox could emit high enough amplitudes at close range to induce feelings of anxiety or difficulty concentrating.
However, putting together something powerful enough to affect hearing would be more challenging as it would require a large amplifier, may require a focused beam, and would need to be placed in the close vicinity of the target. High frequency sound does not travel well through barriers such as walls, curtains, or even human skin.
“If you want to put a lot of power into it so you could produce a beam that could go through windows, it starts to look more like a suitcase,” said Leighton. “In order to generate hearing loss at 50 metres away, you’d be looking at a car-sized device.”
Another ethical issue, specific to ultrasound weapons, is that they are difficult to target and tend to affect women and to a far greater degree children, more severely than middle-aged men.
US media reported this week that the medical records of some of the diplomats showed they had been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury. However, scientists were sceptical about the potential for an ultrasonic device to be capable of causing permanent brain damage.
“That’s a little harder for me to believe,” said Cleveland. “The sound would have to enter the brain tissue itself, but if you’ve ever had an ultrasound scan you’ll know they put gel on. If there’s even a tiny bit of air between the sound and your body it doesn’t get through.”
One possibility is that this diagnosis is a result of to the range of symptoms experienced, which might include migraines, tinnitus, loss of balance and problems concentrating. However, these effects would normally be temporary.
Leighton, who has studied the safety of ultrasound and measures to avoid its potential adverse effects on humans, said he would like to see more “prosaic possibilities” such as drugs or poison ruled out before being persuaded of the sonic weapon theory.
• This article was amended on 28 August 2017 to clarify the nature of Tim Leighton’s area of study.