Senator Marco Rubio pointed to Russia or groups within the Cuban government itself as possible perpetrators of alleged attacks on diplomatic personnel in Havana, during the first public hearing on Tuesday.
“There were injured people and the Cuban government knows” who could be behind the attacks that have affected 24 confirmed victims, Rubio said. The senator said that possibly it was the intention to “create friction between the United States and Cuba.” Groups within the Cuban government did not agree with the process of normalisation of relations or that Russia could be the instigator of the incidents that have not yet been clarified, he suggested.
Officials of the State Department did not rule out that the government of Cuba could be involved in the alleged attacks.
“There is a long history and a pattern of harassment by Cuba towards [US] diplomats in Havana. It is entirely possible that they could have escalated this trend, “said Francisco Palmieri, deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere. “In any case, they are responsible for protecting those diplomats.”
On more than one occasion Palmieri said that “it was very difficult” to believe that the Cuban government had absolutely no knowledge of who or what caused the attacks due to the intense security and control it maintains on the little island.
The Cuban government has repeatedly denied any connection with the attacks and has doubted that these even occurred.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry wrote the following message on the social network Twitter, after the end of the hearing: “It is regrettable to see the officials of the State Department using the word Attacks with ZERO evidence to prove what happened.
Ignoring the essential aspects of the subject, including the opinions of specialized agencies in the USA and Cuba, is not the correct way to do it. “
In their statements, State Department officials hinted that the agency can not fully protect future staff remaining in Havana.
“We can not guarantee that we can say categorically that they can be safe from this,” said Todd Brown, assistant director of diplomatic security. The official said, the agency does not take specific security measures to protect the residences of diplomatic personnel in Havana beyond general measures.
Most of the reported attacks occurred in residences, all owned by the Cuban government.
Charles Rosenfarb, medical director of the medical services bureau of the State Department, said that personnel in Havana receive information about the risks and that the only active measure to mitigate them is to “limit exposure” to abnormal events. “Move from there as quickly as possible, the less exposure, the better,” he said.
This is “rídiculos” Senator Bob Menéndez described those tips, which he compared with those offered in case of nuclear aggression in the 50s- “get under the table.”
Rubio also questioned the State Department’s performance in handling the alleged attacks and insisted that the agency did not follow the law by taking more time than it should to establish an Accountability Review Board, an internal investigation that must be done in cases in which US personnel or property abroad have suffered damage.
Questioned several times in this regard, Palmieri announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had made the decision on December 11th to form one of those panels, but that it had not been made public because it had not been approved by Congress .
According to the different testimonies and a summary read by Rubio, the security personnel of the embassy in Havana was notified of the first strange events at the end of December.
The first victims were treated in mid-January.
More assessments were conducted in Havana by Dr. Michael Hoffer of the University of Miami, who examined 80 diplomats and family members. Between March and April more attacks occurred and then they stopped until mid-August.
More assessments were conducted in the summer at the University of Pennsylvania. In September, two other cases were confirmed.
Among the most common symptoms in the victims are headaches, loss of hearing, nausea, fatigue and mild brain trauma.
According to Rosenfarb, the US doctors ruled out that it was a case of collective hysteria, as the Cuban government has suggested. In July, an academic panel that evaluated the cases determined that “the pattern of the affectations is consistent with a trauma caused by sources that are not natural.”
Rubio said it was “unfair” to say that officials and their families did not suffer an attack, even when the details were unknown, in reference to comments made by Senator Jeff Flake while he was in Havana. He also insisted that a history of the AP agency that indicates that the FBI ruled out an attack with sound as probable cause, does not rule out the use of other weapons. Brown said the investigation has considered the possibility of an attack with a virus or ultrasound.
Several questions remained unanswered during the hearing, including when then-President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, were informed of the incidents.
Palmieri said that answers to these and other questions-for example, if the US government has discussed the issue with Russia-could be offered in a classified hearing.