The U.S. government announced Tuesday that it's ordering 15 staff members from Cuba's embassy in Washington, D.C., to leave the country following months of mysterious "health attacks" affecting American personnel in Havana.
"The decision was made due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement Tuesday. "This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations."
The announcement comes just days after the U.S. pulled roughly 60 percent of its embassy staff from Havana, the Cuban capital, after the string of "sonic attacks" against U.S. diplomats, according to CNN.
The attacks started within days of President Donald Trump’s election in November, yet the precise timeline remains unclear, including whether intelligence officers were the first victims hit or merely the first victims to report it, according to an Associated Press report. The U.S. has called the situation “ongoing.” The government expelled two other Cuban diplomats in May.
The AP has learned that the attacks on U.S. personnel in Havana struck the heart of America’s spy network in Cuba, with intelligence operatives among the first and most severely affected victims.
It wasn’t until U.S. spies, posted to the embassy under diplomatic cover, reported hearing bizarre sounds and experiencing even stranger physical effects that the United States realized something was wrong, individuals familiar told the AP.
What kind of attacks?
The first disturbing reports of piercing, high-pitched noises and inexplicable ailments pointed to someone deliberately targeting the U.S. government’s intelligence network on the communist-run island, in what seemed like a bone-chilling escalation of the tit-for-tat spy games that Washington and Havana have waged over the last half century.
But the U.S. soon discovered that actual diplomats at the embassy had also been hit by similar attacks, officials said, further confounding the search for a culprit and a motive.
Of the more than 20 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed, said several U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the investigation and demanded anonymity. They heard an unsettling sound inside and in some cases outside their Havana homes, described as similar to loud crickets. Then they fell ill.
In many of the more recent cases, victims didn’t hear noises and weren’t aware an attack was occurring, identifying the symptoms only later. That has raised concerns among investigators that the attacks may be getting more sophisticated and harder to detect, individuals briefed on the investigation said.
Who's behind the attacks?
In a meeting with Tillerson on Tuesday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez denied that Cuba's involvement in attacks on diplomats and said the U.S. was politicizing the incidents, according to CNN. He said his government would continue to work with U.S. authorities investigating the attacks.
Blame for the attacks has not been placed on the Cuban government, but the Trump administration has stated that Cuba has a responsibility for stopping them, according to McClatchy.
Other important information
The U.S. has not identified the device used for the alleged attacks, and FBI sweeps have turned up nothing, the AP reported.
On Sept. 29, the State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.
Also, on Friday, the Trump administration issued a travel warning for Americans. The warning states that "attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens." It will no longer be issuing non-emergency visas.
“This move does not signal a change of policy or determination of responsibility for the attacks on U.S. government personnel in Cuba. We are maintaining diplomatic relations with Havana,” a State Department official said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters, Politico reported. “The decision on expulsions was taken due to Cuba’s inability to protect our diplomats in Havana as well as to ensue equity in the impact on our respective operations.”