Cuba: lots of questions, few answers

“Remember that old board game Clue?” mused a former U.S. diplomat earlier this week. “You had to solve a murder by identifying the killer, the weapon and the venue: It was Colonel Mustard, with a knife, in the ballroom.

“Well, we’ve got a victim — U.S.-Cuban relations — and a venue, various houses and hotel rooms in Havana. But we haven’t got a suspect or a weapon yet. Not to make a pun, but we don’t have a clue.”

The expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington announced on Tuesday, following a State Department decision to pull most personnel out of the American embassy in Havana, leaves diplomatic relations between the countries at half-staff.

…Nobody seems to be able to explain what happened. The United States says that over the past 11 months, 22 of its diplomats have been the victims of invisible attacks that left them nauseous, dizzy and with splitting headaches. (At least five Canadian diplomats in Havana have reported several similar symptoms.) Some of the attacks were accompanied by buzzing or thumping sounds; some were silent.

Cuba says it neither committed the attacks nor knows anything about them. And, to the surprise of many, Raúl Castro’s government permitted FBI agents to enter the country to help investigate.

…Speculation abounds, from the use of ultrasonic waves to the possibility that nothing happened at all and the diplomats fell victim to mass hysteria.

…Radio waves bounce around a lot and are relatively easy to steal. But microwave transmissions can only be intercepted by receivers directly in their line of sight. The U.S. National Security Agency promptly put a listening station on the 10th floor of the American Embassy in Moscow, where it could even listen in on phone calls made by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev from his limousine.

The listening center was so important to U.S. intelligence that, when a fire broke out in the embassy and the Moscow fire department said it needed access to the 10th floor to put it out, NSA chief Bobby Ray Inman told State Department officials, “Let it burn.”

The Russians, eventually, caught on and retaliated by aiming microwave barrages directly at the listening post. Whether they were trying to listen in on conversations inside the room (microwaves can be used to pick up sounds bouncing off glass) or simply hoping to screw up the American spying operation was never established.

But there was a side effect: Some U.S. diplomats exposed to the Soviet microwaves became ill. And though it never leaked into mainstream media, a low-key debate in medical journals continued for years about whether microwaves caused the illness.

…Historian Kaplan doesn’t believe the Soviets were intentionally trying to injure American diplomats. “The microwave beams may have had the effect of weapons,” he told the Herald. “But they were beamed for intel purposes.”

And, he added, it’s entirely possible that the entire Moscow scenario is being repeated in Havana: Cuba using leftover Russian technology of the 1970s to transmit secrets. The United States using 1970s techniques to steal them. And Cuba retaliating just as the Russians did.

Sonic attacks on diplomats in Cuba: lots of questions, few answers

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