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Officials studying Cold War Soviet technology in suspected Cuba attacks

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials are closely studying Cold War-era Soviet technology as they seek to determine whether an electronic weapon was used to disorient and injure 24 American officials in Cuba earlier this year.

Two intelligence officials tell POLITICO they’re confident that the attacks were conducted with an “energy directed” or “acoustic” device, possibly similar to one used by Soviet intelligence in Havana more than four decades ago, but remain unsure of its exact nature.

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That has officials combing classified files and even contacting retired intelligence officers for clues to a mystery that has triggered a diplomatic crisis less than three years after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Havana.

“We’re trying to talk to guys as far back as the 1960s,” said one of the intelligence officials.

The sweeping, government-wide search for answers — spearheaded publicly by the State Department — has pulled in expertise from intelligence agencies, science and weapons development offices and health officials. Still, answers remain elusive. “It’s baffled the entire community,” the intelligence official said.

While investigators remain unsure of who, exactly, was behind the apparent attacks, one former U.S. intelligence official says their leading theory holds that it was the work of Cuban intelligence — possibly even a rogue faction of Cuban spies hoping to derail the restored diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington. Moscow is another prime suspect, though U.S. officials are undecided whether the Russians might be the main aggressors or accomplices, or absent altogether.

The attacks against US officials — including CIA officers — in Cuba began shortly after Election Day in fall of 2016, and continued periodically until at least August of 2017. Affected personnel reported hearing high-pitched sounds and exhibited symptoms reflective of a concussion, including dizziness, nausea and memory issues.

Of particular interest to federal officials is the former Soviet technique of using radio waves, like microwaves, to target US signals collection in Cuba. In the 1970s, amid escalating spy tensions between the United States and Russia in Cuba, the Soviets targeted the U.S. embassy in Havana with radio microwaves in an effort to disrupt US radio surveillance of Russian interests in a post Cold-War Havana, according to multiple Cold War-era recountings. The incident, known as the “Moscow Signal,” was never formally solved — after the US embassy installed screens in its Havana compound, the issue went away.

The use of energy waves or sound as weapons can be a particularly nasty form of covert attack. Not always audible to the human ear, the mysterious devices have surfaced in rumors periodically in Cold War spy history. Answers have remained as ambiguous. As far back as the 1970s Moscow Signal incident, medical professionals suspected the use of such mysterious weapons could lead to brain damage, blood disorders and hearing impairments in exposed personnel — symptoms nearly identical to what targeted U.S. officials are experiencing now.

But intelligence officials are split on what might have motivated the use of an energy device now: Was it meant to harm U.S. diplomats — or could the injuries be an unintended side effect of a surveillance operation?

The affected US officials were targeted at their homes and in hotels, one of the intelligence officials said, leading some to conclude that the attacks were intended to harm, not surveil, US personnel. Tracking when and where US personnel were staying in hotels suggests a more narrow, intentional targeting, the official said.

At least five Cuba-based Canadian officials have experienced similar symptoms—some of them during vacation stretches on the island, according to two of the intelligence officials, further raising suspicion that the presumed attacks were not related to surveillance.

The affected Havana-based US diplomats are still undergoing medical observation and treatment.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

The restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana was one of President Barack Obama’s proudest foreign policy achievements. But the end of nearly six decades of animosity was not universally celebrated: many Cuban government hardliners still harbor festering anti-Americanism.

If the attacks are indeed the work of a renegade Cuban intelligence faction, the former U.S. intelligence official said, that might be a sign that Castro’s grip on power — he succeeded his late brother, Fidel, as president in 2008 — may not be as strong as many outsiders assume.

But while the intelligence community is primarily focused on the role of Cuban intelligence, officials are closely examining the possibility that a third-party — likely Russia — is involved, in part because of strong denials by Cuban president Raul Castro.

“The Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever in these incidents which are said to have affected the US diplomats,” Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said at Washington DC’s National Press Club in early November.

Just as some Cuban hardliners opposed Obama’s diplomatic overture, their longtime allies in Moscow feared that a Cuban-U.S. rapprochement might jeopardize their intelligence presence on an island less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland.

Of the nearly half-dozen current and former US officials POLITICO spoke with, none even entertained that Moscow — a longtime ally and patron of the Cuban intelligence services — was not somehow involved, or at least aware of the attacks.

“They’re trained by the SVR. They’re dirtier than the SVR,” one recently departed counterintelligence official said, referring to Moscow’s foreign intelligence service. “It would surprise me greatly if the Russians didn’t know about it.”

Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

Even as U.S.-Cuban relations have thawed in recent years, Russia has stayed close to its historic ally. Just before a January 2015 historic visit by a U.S. Congressional delegation, Moscow docked a high-tech spy ship in Havana. More recently, the Kremlin reportedly reached an agreement with Havana to reopen its sweeping Lourdes signals collection base near that city.

The lack of answers is starting to rankle U.S. policymakers. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce wrote to the State Department Monday, asking for more details on State’s investigation into the incident and the status of the affected diplomats.

“While many Members hold different views on U.S. policy towards Cuba, we all agree that the health and safety of our diplomats and their families is vital to the national security of the United States,” the letter says.

The letter asked whether the State Department has “new evidence or analysis to suggest the source of these attacks,” asking whether “at least some element of the Cuban government has knowledge of the source of these attacks.”

For now, the answer to that question remains a mystery.

Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.

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