HAVANA — Frightening 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, The Associated Press has learned.
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 with the situation said.
While the attacks started within days of President Donald Trump's surprise election in November, the precise timeline remains unclear, including whether intelligence officers were the first victims hit or merely the first victims to report it. The U.S. has called the situation "ongoing."
To date, the Trump administration largely has described the 21 victims as U.S. embassy personnel or "members of the diplomatic community." That description suggested only bona fide diplomats and their family members were struck, with no logical motivation beyond disrupting U.S.-Cuban relations.
Behind the scenes, though, investigators immediately started searching for explanations in the darker, rougher world of spycraft and counterespionage, given that so many of the first reported cases involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy. That revelation, confirmed to the AP by a half-dozen officials, adds yet another element of mystery to a year-long saga that the Trump administration says may not be over.
The State Department and the CIA declined to comment for this story.
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 21 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.
Over time, the attacks seemed to evolve.
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.
Though the State Department has called all the cases "medically confirmed," several U.S. officials said it's unclear whether all of the victims' symptoms can be conclusively tied to attacks. Considering the deep sense of alarm among Americans working in the embassy, it's possible some workers attributed unrelated illnesses to attacks.
Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear. But this is Cuba.
For decades, Washington and Havana pushed their rivalry to unprecedented levels of covert action. The former enemies tracked each other's personnel, turned each other's agents and, in the case of the CIA, even mounted a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government in the 1961 "Bay of Pigs" invasion.
There were hopes, though, that the two nations were starting to put that bitter history behind them after renewing diplomatic relations in 2015. When the attacks first occurred, the U.S. and Cuban governments were hard at work on clinching new commercial and immigration agreements. No new spat among intelligence services was publicly known.