WHEN THE first attacks on U.S. diplomats occurred in Cuba in late 2016, the causes were mysterious and the circumstances strange. Cuban authorities said they had no idea what was causing the odd noises nor the ill effects that followed. The speculation was equally thin — was it an acoustic weapon, or something else? Recently, a similar set of circumstances has emerged in Guangzhou, China, and yet another case been confirmed in Cuba. The causes are still unknown. But the continued reports of injury require a no-holds-barred, urgent investigation and response.
The fact of a parallel occurrence in China makes this look less like an inadvertence or a malfunctioning piece of equipment, as some had speculated, and more like a deliberate campaign to harm the diplomats. The United States termed the Cuba event a “health attack,” and it has now issued two separate health warnings to Americans in China. Anyone experiencing “any unusual, unexplained physical symptoms or events, auditory or sensory phenomena, or other health concerns,” the State Department said, should seek medical care, urging Americans to be on guard against symptoms including “dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, ear complaints and hearing loss, and difficulty sleeping.” In all, 25 U.S. diplomats and family members have been affected in Cuba, along with 10 Canadians who reported similar symptoms. In China, one U.S. employee from the consulate in Guangzhou was found on May 16 to have suffered similar injuries, and an undisclosed number of other consular staff and family members have been evacuated for further tests. The diplomats reported hearing odd noises such as marbles dropping and rolling on a floor, the sound of crickets, static, and the reverberations felt when a car window is open, followed by illnesses, including minor traumatic brain injury or concussion. But they did not hit their heads. There is still one more case from Havana that is under evaluation but not yet medically confirmed.
Diplomats abroad routinely face dangers and health risks — it comes with the territory. But the United States cannot and should not tolerate a campaign of harm against its employees. The FBI and medical experts have been involved in the investigation, and so far no one has found the cause. Two published studies were inconclusive. Separately, a University of Miami researcher and colleagues have pointed to signs of possible inner-ear damage among the diplomats. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he has formed an interagency task force to deal with the incidents.
All expertise in the U.S. government, including forensic, medical, engineering, intelligence and sleuthing, must be deployed to figure out what is happening. The hosts, Cuba and China, are authoritarian regimes with heavy surveillance systems. They hear the sound of a pin drop. They must be pressed for genuine cooperation. If a third country is carrying out the attacks, it must be found and held to account.