Lawmakers investigate mysterious attacks on US diplomats in Cuba

Senate Subcommittee Chairman Marco Rubio, R- Fla., / Photo: State Department YouTube

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Lawmakers on Capitol Hill met Tuesday to further investigate the attacks on United States diplomats and their families in Cuba.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women's Issues met to evaluate oversight and response about the attacks in Cuba that may have begun as early as November 2016.

Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations established in 1961, diplomats are provided certain protections when posted within a receiving, or host, country.

“The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity,” the documents stated.

The agreement also covers the space in which the diplomat lives.

“The private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission,” the accord states.

According to State Department officials, the first reports of strange sounds began in late 2016 -- possibly as early as November. By mid-February 2017, there was a pattern of similar symptoms in reported incidents. U.S. government officials asked Cuba to adhere to the Vienna Convention and provide protection to diplomats in Cuba. The Cuban government denied any involvement and opened a separate investigation into the incidents.

Senate Subcommittee Chairman Marco Rubio, R- Fla., stated in his opening remarks as of April 2017, an evaluation was conducted of 80 members of the U.S. embassy. The examination found 16 individuals with medical symptoms similar to those you would see in patients with mild traumatic brain injury or concussion.

Some of the symptoms U.S. diplomats and their families reported were “sharp ear pain, dull headaches, ringing in one ear, vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea and extreme fatigue.”

According to the senator, in July, the State Department assembled a panel to review the cases dating back to late 2016. The panel found that “the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

The Senate Subcommittee’s Ranking Member Robert Menendez, D- N.J., called the Cuban government, specifically the Castro regime, “not a responsible actor in the community of nations.”

“The regime cannot be counted upon to uphold its international commitments or responsibilities,” Menendez said. “And most certainly the regime has no regard for individual human rights, security or dignity.”

Menendez called on lawmakers to take stronger actions to protect those in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Witness and Acting Assistant Secretary Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department Francisco Palmieri told lawmakers that U.S. government officials have communicated with Cuban officials more than 20 times since the attacks. However, the culprits behind the attack and the instrument that caused it are still unknown to U.S. officials.

During questioning, Rubio expressed concern regarding the delay in establishing an accountability and review board by the Secretary of State to further investigate the attacks in Cuba.

A review board is necessary when “a case of serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property at or related to a U.S. government mission abroad, or a case of a serious breach of security involving intelligence activities of a foreign government directed at a U.S. mission abroad (other than a facility or installation subject to the control of a U.S. area combatant commander), and which does not clearly involve only causes unrelated to security,” according to the State Department.

However, according to Rubio, as of Nov. 6, 2017, an accountability and review board was not established. The State Department went over the allotted 60-120 days permitted to form the board.

Palmieri told the committee that Secretary of State Tillerson has decided to convene a review board and attributed the delay to not identifying the perpetrator behind the attacks.

“Throughout this process, we have not been able to identify who the perpetrator of such attack was and what the means of that attack was,” Palmieri said. “It was only until late August when there was another round of attacks it became apparent to us that we should begin the process of looking at an accountability review board.”

Rubio was quick to correct him that it was not necessary to know the perpetrator; the point of the board is to examine the cause of the attacks.

Witness and Diplomatic Security Assistant Director for International Programs at the State Department Todd Brown said the department provided recording devices to staff in an attempt to document the sound.

“We have provided off the shelf recording devices that are geared to record high-frequency sounds,” Brown said. “We have successfully recorded some sounds and turned them over to investigators.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) also launched their own investigation.

“An FBI team has since visited Havana several times and met with Cuban officials. The FBI’s investigation has interviewed victims and conducted surveys of the residences and hotel rooms,” Brown said. “However, the investigation remains ongoing and we would refer all specific questions concerning the investigation to the FBI.”

The committee did express interest in speaking with the FBI about its investigation.

Witness and Medical Director of the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department Charles Rosenfarb said that many of the diplomats described the sound they heard as a “high pitched beam of sound” or like a car with partially open windows.

“All medically confirmed cases have described some combination of the following symptoms beginning within minutes to hours of the event: sharp, localized ear pain; dull unilateral headache; tinnitus in one ear; vertigo; visual focusing issues; disorientation; nausea; and extreme fatigue,” Rosenfarb said.

More persistent health problems included “cognitive problems, including difficulty with concentration, working memory, and attention; recurrent headache; high-frequency unilateral hearing loss; sleep disturbance; and imbalance walking,” Rosenfarb added.

The doctor added that they were still unsure of what the long-term effects of may be as a result of the trauma. Rosenfarb did say that 10 of the 24 patients have returned to either fulltime of part-time work and still continue to receive treatment.

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