WASHINGTON — A senior federal law enforcement official told NBC News on Thursday that several U.S agencies are investigating allegations that Cuban officials directed some kind of ultrasound energy at American diplomats in the Havana embassy that left several with damaged hearing.
The official said the State Department’s office of Diplomatic Security is leading the investigation. The FBI has one person in Havana, a legal attaché with the American embassy, who can help. The FBI may be asked to provide technical assistance in the probe.
One State Department official confirmed reports that the “incidents” involved symptoms of hearing loss. And a Cuban government official told NBC News that the Americans had complained of an acoustic “incident.”
The State Department has also left open the possibility of a third country being involved. Iran, North Korea and Russia all have a significant diplomatic presence in Cuba.
“We don’t have any definitive answers about the source or the cause of what we consider to be incidents,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Wednesday.
She said that there are a “variety of physical symptoms in these American citizens who work for the U.S. government. We take those incidents very seriously, and there is an investigation currently under way.”
Cuban officials have denied directing any actions against the diplomats and have launched their own investigation.
“Cuba has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families,” the Cuban foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday. “It reiterates its willingness to cooperate in the clarification of this situation.”
Also on Thursday, Canadian officials said one of their diplomats in Cuba was treated for hearing loss. The Canadian government is “aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with US and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause,” a spokesperson told the Associated Press.
The U.S. first learned of the health issues toward the end of 2016, more than a year after the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana.
Nauert said the Americans working in Cuba had returned stateside for “medical reasons.”
Two Cuban officials in Washington were asked to leave the U.S. in May as a result of the incidents.
The development threatens to set back relations between the two countries, but the U.S. embassy in Havana remains open.
The Cuban government has a responsibility and an obligation under the Geneva Convention to protect our diplomats,” Nauert said. “That is part of the reason why this is such a major concern of ours, why we take this so seriously…in addition to the protection and security of Americans.”
“What this requires is providing medical examinations to these people,” Nauert said. “Initially, when they’d started reporting what I will just call symptoms, it took time to figure out what it was, and this is still ongoing. So we’re monitoring it.”
A U.S. government official said several colleagues at the U.S. embassy in Havana were evacuated back to the United States for hearing problems and other symptoms over the past six months. Some subsequently got hearing aids, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Washington, D.C. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said the alleged incidents violated international norms: “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades. This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement. Personal harm to U.S. officials shows the extent the Castro regime will go and clearly violates international norms.”
Washington and Havana re-established diplomatic relations in 2015 after more than five decades of hostilities, re-opening embassies in each other’s capitals and establishing a new chapter of engagement between the former Cold War foes.
President Donald Trump rolled back part of his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy toward Cuba, but has left in place many of the changes, including the re-opened U.S. Embassy in Havana.