The sun never really sets on summer nights in the far north, and the endless twilight makes Shishmaref, Alaska, something of a kids’ paradise.
“There’s a lot of kids,” says 8-year-old Walter Nayokpuk, emerging from a swirling kid mosh pit in a wide spot of sand between some houses. “And we can be free!”
Free to roam in this Iñupiat village of about 600 people on a barrier island near the Bering Strait, just shy of the Arctic Circle. There’s a church, a school, two stores, and around 150 houses. For kids, it is a very safe place to play, and grow up. But the paradox of Shishmaref is that it might be both one of the safest and one of the most dangerous places to live in America today: This small community is ground zero for climate change in the Arctic.
Shishmaref is the only town on Sarichef Island. And everywhere you go, you can see the waves and hear the constant roar of the ocean. The island is only about a quarter of a mile wide — and it’s getting smaller.
Waves from the Chuckchi Sea splash the seawall on the coast of Shishmaref. |
“It’s changed a lot,” says Kate Kokeok, who grew up in Shishmaref and now teaches kindergarten here. In decades past, Kokeok says, the sea ice around the island served as a kind of buffer, protecting it from the wind and waves when winter storms blew in. But these days the ice is forming later and later.
“It was always frozen at the end of October,” Kokeok says. “It no longer is.”
That means the fierce winter waves that used to break on the ice far away from shore now slam directly into the island. At the same time, the permafrost beneath the town is thawing as temperatures rise, weakening its foundation. The combined effect is a quickly receding coastline. And that’s left Kokeok with a lot of memories of places that are now under water.
“Like, where the seawall is now, that’s where we used to have our playground,” she says. “Down that way, that’s where like 10 to 15 houses were. And, like, the last house that’s there now? There was a house next to it, a road, and then another house … You can see how much land was lost there.”
A midnight sunset over the seawall in Shishmaref. |
A lot of that land was lost in a storm in 1997, and then another in 2005. People gathered in the windy darkness to get the residents out and save as many of their belongings as possible. After that 2005 storm the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a new, stronger seawall. Kokeok says that probably saved even more houses.
But the seawall is just a temporary fix. Without the barrier of the ice, eventually, the ocean is going to wash this island away.
The people of Shishmaref know they’re not safe here, and two years ago, they voted to move the village to the mainland. In fact, the community has voted to relocate three times — in 2016, in 2002, and way back in 1973. People in Shishmaref were worried about erosion even then, although, at the time, no one knew how much climate change would accelerate the process.
A flyer invites residents to a screening of “The Last Days of Shishmaref.” Someone has added a handwritten “Do Come!” to the flyer. |
They do now. According to a study conducted by a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, tiny Sarichef Island lost an average of seven and a half feet of land a year to erosion between 2003 and 2014. And as the island shrinks and the sea ice recedes, the risks steadily rise. When major storms blow in, residents have nowhere to run. Shishmaref is not connected to any roads, and in a raging storm planes or boats would have a very hard time getting here.
Of course, climate change is only adding to a problem that already existed in Shishmaref — it was always vulnerable to erosion, making it a risky place for a permanent settlement. So why was it there to begin with? It’s a question Kelly Eningowuk, who heads the Anchorage-based Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska, hears a lot.
“I’ve heard something to the effect of, ‘These dumb Eskimos, why did they build their community on a barrier island?'” Eningowuk says. “The fact of the matter is, because [that’s where] the church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built.”
Eningowuk grew up in Shishmaref and says until 100 years or so ago there was no permanent village on Sarichef Island. Her ancestors lived all along this part of the coast, and while they used the island frequently, they didn’t live there year-round.
“They were kind of semi-nomadic. We didn’t have permanent settlements.”
But all of that changed in the early 1900s when the U.S. government and the Lutheran church came to coastal Alaska and built churches and schools. It was an extension of the colonization process that had already swept through the lower 48 states. Alaska Native people were told they had to send their kids to the new schools or risk having them taken away.
So over time, the population of this part of the coast concentrated on Sarichef, and the process of “development” committed them to a spot that turned out to be very dangerous.
“They don’t have any way to get out of harm’s way right now,” says Joel Clement, a scientist and policy analyst who used to work at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “So they’re in a tough spot in the fall with the storm season — and the storm season is expanding. That’s the top-level thing I worry about.”
Clement was one of the people leading the federal government’s effort to help Shishmaref and other coastal Alaskan communities under the Obama administration. When he was hired in 2010, the federal government had already issued two reports — in 2003 and 2009 — describing the threat in no uncertain terms. The reports said more than 30 villages, including Shishmaref, were in “imminent danger.” The worst-case scenario, Clement says, is that “a storm comes in and forces them off that land this year.”
At the Department of the Interior, Clement set out to get federal agencies to help protect people in coastal Alaska from the threats of rapid climate change. Shishmaref and other towns were already engaged in planning their own solutions, but the sticking point was money — moving a whole town is a complicated and expensive affair. One federal study pegged the cost of moving Shishmaref at $179 million.
Shishmaref doesn’t have that kind of money. They barely have any kind of money. Forty percent of people here live below the poverty line and many homes don’t even have running water. But Congress was not supportive of helping with the move. Many members weren’t — and still aren’t — willing to accept that human-caused climate change is even real. So, Clement says, “finding dollars was very difficult.”
Then in 2016, President Obama signed an executive order protecting marine resources in the Bering Sea and setting up a new structure for helping Arctic communities respond to climate change. Clement was optimistic that the move would finally bring meaningful action for Shishmaref. While it came just before Obama left office, Clement was confident it would stand under the new Trump administration.
“Despite all the anti-climate change rhetoric out of these new folks, I wasn’t worried about climate change adaptation [efforts],” Clement says, because they were addressing very visible issues. “People are being directly impacted by climate change. It’s not a model, it’s not a theory, it’s fact. And, of course, I was being very naive.”
But less than four months into the new administration, President Trump revoked Obama’s executive order. The project was dead. Clement was shocked.
“It was a clear shot across the bow,” he says, “that, hey, it doesn’t matter whether you are working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or protecting people in peril. Anything that has a whiff of climate change to it has to stop.”
A few months later, Clement got reassigned to a totally unrelated job for which he had no qualifications. And he wasn’t alone. He found out that dozens more senior Interior Department executives had been reassigned. “I realized … I was part of a purge,” he says.
Clement found a lawyer and filed a whistleblower complaint, which is still pending. He also wrote an op-ed in TheWashington Post and started speaking publicly about what’s at stake — not just his and his colleagues’ jobs, but the people of many coastal Alaskan communities.
“Government should be scrambling to try and find ways to get people out of harm’s way,” he says. “It’s what government does.”
And Clement says the crisis facing Shishmaref and other Alaskan villages is just a hint of what’s to come. If the federal government effectively tells these communities they’re on their own, he says, “they’ll be saying the same thing to Miami pretty soon … What happens up there in the face of climate change is an important bellwether for what’s going to happen in the rest of the coastal areas of the United States.”
“We are all American citizens,” he says, “and we have some expectation that we’re not on our own … That’s one of the things that makes this country great.”
The Interior Department did not respond to two separate requests for comment.
Children on Shishmaref play basketball late in the evening on the village’s playground. |
Clement says at least one coastal Alaskan village is likely to be wiped out within the next 10 years. It could be Shishmaref, and it doesn’t take much imagination at all to picture it — the winds wailing, the waves rising, and the frigid water rolling and crashing over the island on a dark winter night.
It’s a nightmare scenario. And it’s completely possible.
So in the absence of federal help, why don’t people just leave on their own? If not as a whole village, then at least as individuals and families? Clement says that would amount to the “cultural death” of these communities.
“Each one of these villages is its own distinct culture, [they have] their own distinct dialect,” he says. “To ask them to just assimilate into another village somewhere is to ask them to let go of their culture entirely, which I think is just a horrible thought.”
It’s hard to find anyone in Shishmaref who disagrees with this. People here want to stay together.
“Lot of us like to take care of our community first and then ourselves last, you know?” says Shishmaref Vice Mayor Stanley Tocktoo.
Rays of sunlight spill over a Shishmaref home as the midnight sun sets over the Chuckchi Sea. |
People here rely on each other for all of the essentials of life. They visit each other when they’re sick, they take care of each other’s kids. They depend on subsistence hunting to feed their families and share that food with elders and others who can’t go out and hunt themselves. And they know that their future depends on keeping those relationships intact.
“[That’s] just the way our community is, you know?” Tocktoo says. “It comes from family ties, I guess. This community’s like a real big family.”
Tocktoo is on the search and rescue team here and knows better than anyone just how bad things could soon get. He is frustrated by the indifference in Washington.
“We’re Americans too, you know,” he says. “We don’t have to be treated like a third world country.” And, he adds, “I can’t believe our president don’t believe in climate change.”
But the story of Shishmaref is more than just a story about the impacts and inequities of climate change. It’s a case study on how climate change can’t be understood in isolation from history and politics.
The community is here in large part because outsiders wanted to exert control over Indigenous Alaskans and their way of life. The U.S. government was very effective when it wanted to make people settle in this particular place, but now that it’s clear they need to relocate, it’s so far proven completely ineffective in helping them to get out.
One of the climate change buzzwords right now is resilience. That’s something the people of Shishmaref are already experts in — they’ve been practicing it for a long, long time. What they’re asking for is basically the right to keep their community together so they can continue to practice resilience.They just call it by a different name. Taking care of each other.
In the winter of 2017, the American Embassy in Havana was in a precarious state. The Embassy, a six-story tower that sits next to the seawall known as the Malecón, was built in 1953, and during the five decades in which diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were suspended it had suffered from neglect. Salt and humidity from the ocean ate away at the pins holding up the marble façade. Work crews erected a fence around the most vulnerable area, to insure that no one was impaled by shards of marble tumbling from the walls.
Audrey Lee, a career Foreign Service officer in her late forties, worked in a snug office on the ground floor. (The name is a pseudonym, which she requested in order to protect her privacy.) Her life in Havana was fascinating but orderly. She lived with her husband and their twelve-year-old twins in a quiet neighborhood full of diplomats, and drove an S.U.V. to work each morning, arriving habitually by seven-thirty. A veteran of several Foreign Service tours, she felt at ease in Cuba—except for one peculiar incident. Earlier that year, when the family returned to Havana from a vacation, they were struck by a foul stench in their kitchen. The freezer was unplugged. Lee and her husband cleaned out the rotten food, plugged the freezer in, and went back to their routine, thinking little about the fact that someone had been there while they were away.
On the evening of March 17th, Lee came home from the Embassy, made dinner, and ate with the twins in the kitchen nook. Her husband was away on business. Afterward, the kids went upstairs to play Minecraft. At around eight o’clock, Lee washed the dishes. The kitchen lights made it hard to see out the window, but she knew that there was a wooden booth outside where Cuban police kept watch. As Lee was cleaning, she felt a sudden burst of pressure in her head, then a stabbing pain worse than any she had ever experienced. Her breath quickened and she was overcome by panic. Lee had heard rumors around the Embassy of colleagues falling victim to mysterious “sonic attacks,” but no one knew what they were or what had caused them.
As the pain grew more intense, she remembered overhearing a security officer at the Embassy talking about how employees could protect themselves. “Get off the X,” he had said, which Lee took to mean move away from the site where she experienced the pain. She made her way to the family room and took a few minutes to steady herself. After checking on the twins, she went to her bedroom to lie down, but the pain kept her from sleeping.
The next morning, Lee’s head still hurt. At breakfast, her son asked her to read the ingredients on a box of cereal, and she struggled, moving the box back and forth as she tried to focus. In the coming weeks, she often felt dizzy and lost her balance, and sometimes walked into doors. She felt as if she were moving even when she was still, a sensation that she compared to walking after taking off roller skates. She was sleeping just an hour or two a night. Co-workers noticed that she was becoming forgetful. One afternoon, a colleague stopped by her office to discuss running an errand together. When the colleague returned five minutes later and said, “Are you ready?,” Lee looked up and said, “Ready for what?”
Wary of being seen as a burden, Lee didn’t mention her condition to her superiors, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Embassy’s chief of mission, and his deputy, Scott Hamilton, but they already knew that something strange was happening. Between December 30, 2016, and February 9, 2017, at least three C.I.A. officers working under diplomatic cover in Cuba had reported troubling sensations that seemed to leave serious injuries. When the agency sent reinforcements to Havana, at least two of them were afflicted as well.
All the victims described being bombarded by waves of pressure in their heads. Unlike Lee, though, the C.I.A. officers said that they heard loud sounds, similar to cicadas, which seemed to follow them from one room to another. But when they opened an outside door the sounds abruptly stopped. Some of the victims said that it felt as if they were standing in an invisible beam of energy.
The Americans suffered from headaches, dizziness, and a perplexing range of other symptoms. Later, specialists studied their brains and determined that the injuries resembled concussions, like those suffered by soldiers struck by roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were no signs of impact. One of the specialists said it was as if the victims had a “concussion without concussion.” Douglas Smith, who oversaw a team that examined the victims at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “None of us have ever encountered anything like this before.” Experts at the C.I.A. were baffled by what they saw as an alarming new threat, one of the most confounding medical and espionage mysteries to involve American personnel overseas since the Cold War. The affliction didn’t have a name, so some of the victims started to refer to it simply as the Thing.
The reconciliation had been at least four years in the making. In February, 2012, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who had long favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, had met with Raúl Castro in Havana. “Wouldn’t it be nice if our grandchildren could grow up in a world where our countries no longer treat each other as enemies, and our grandchildren could travel and study and learn to get along together?” Leahy said. A Cuban diplomat who attended the meeting recalled that Castro replied, “Tell Obama that we shouldn’t leave this situation to our children, that we have to solve this before I go.”
Not long after Obama was reëlected, in November, 2012, he asked Benjamin Rhodes, one of his closest national-security advisers, to lead secret negotiations with the Cubans. Rhodes knew little about Cuba and barely understood Spanish, so Ricardo Zúñiga, a National Security Council official who had previously served in Havana, was called in to work with him.
Obama saw a diplomatic opening with the Cubans as something that would be “nice to have,” rather than something that “he had to have,” a former Administration official said. The stakes were significantly higher for Raúl Castro. In the past decade, Cuba’s economy had depended on subsidized oil, provided by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. But Chávez was dying of cancer, and the Cuban leadership was desperate for new sources of revenue. When Raúl Castro chose his son, Alejandro, to serve as his intermediary with the Obama Administration envoys, Zúñiga felt assured that the Cubans were serious about negotiating an agreement.
Before the first meetings, in June, 2013, Rhodes asked U.S. intelligence analysts to give him as much information as they could about Raúl and Alejandro Castro’s backgrounds and intentions. Public sources noted that Alejandro had degrees in engineering and international relations, and that he had published a book, “Empire of Terror,” about what he saw as the United States’ imperialist history. He was a colonel at the Interior Ministry who was sometimes known as El Tuerto, or One-Eye; rumors held that he had lost vision in one eye during Cuba’s military incursion into Angola. The analysts said that he was “likely” the country’s third most powerful figure, after his father and his uncle Fidel; according to reports, Raúl had assigned him to oversee Cuban counterintelligence. But the analysts could tell the negotiators little about internal Cuban deliberations. A former intelligence official who worked with Rhodes and Zúñiga said, “We were flying blind.”
The negotiators met in Ottawa and Toronto. Rhodes and his advisers found that these discussions advanced surprisingly quickly, given the obstacles. In addition to the underlying tension between the two countries, the Americans assumed that Russian intelligence agencies would find out about the negotiations and try to interfere. “The Russians would have every interest in fucking with us in Cuba,” Rhodes said. The U.S. and Russia were increasingly at odds over Ukraine, and Rhodes guessed that Moscow was thinking, “You’re in our neighborhood, and we’re going to mess around in yours.”
In January, 2014, Rhodes and Zúñiga were meeting with Alejandro Castro at a hotel near the Toronto airport when a young couple approached them in the lobby, thrust smartphones in their faces, and snapped pictures. Rhodes and Zúñiga surmised that they were Russian operatives, sending a message from Moscow: “We know what you’re up to.” Rhodes waited for the Russians to leak the information in order to derail the talks, but it never happened.
As the negotiators honed an agreement, Rhodes and Alejandro Castro needed to talk more often. Rhodes had access to secure communications links in the Situation Room, in the basement of the White House. But the Americans couldn’t share those channels with the Cubans, whom many in the U.S. security establishment viewed as formidable adversaries. Castro came up with an unorthodox solution. He created two Skype accounts—one for Rhodes and one for himself—using American-sounding fake names. From then on, his Skype calls were piped directly into the Situation Room.
In December, 2014, when Obama and Raúl Castro announced that their countries were reëstablishing diplomatic relations, ordinary Cubans were excited, but there were signs of disquiet inside the country’s bureaucracy. The Americans concluded that most Cuban officials were only now learning that the negotiations had been held and felt that they had been snubbed. U.S. officials said these Cubans likely suspected that Obama, despite his talk of a fresh start, had the same objective as his predecessors: regime change in Havana.
In the United States, anti-Castro politicians were also upset about the secret negotiations. Just before the announcement of the rapprochement, White House officials notified Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. At a classified briefing about the agreement, Rubio, a vociferous critic of the Cuban government, argued that it would embolden the country’s dictatorial rulers, who, he believed, wanted to ease Cuba’s financial difficulties without loosening their grip on power. But Rubio did see one benefit in reopening the Embassy in Havana: it would create opportunities for the C.I.A. to expand its intelligence-collection efforts on the island, where Russia and China were increasingly influential. In a recent interview, Rubio declined to comment on the closed-door session, but he said, “I had no practical ability to change the Obama policy once it was made. Therefore, I am often in the business of making lemonade out of lemons.”
The U.S. compound in Havana resembles a miniature version of the United Nations headquarters; it was designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, the New York firm that also helped design the U.N. In the main building, known as the chancery, the chief of mission has an office on the fifth floor, with a balcony overlooking the ocean. When DeLaurentis started in the job, he enjoyed bringing guests onto the balcony to admire the view, until engineers advised him that the crumbling façade made it too dangerous.
One floor above DeLaurentis’s office was the C.I.A. station, which occupied the most restricted area in the building. Compared with C.I.A. stations in Mexico City and Bogotá, the one in Havana was tiny, often composed of just three intelligence officers. The biggest threat facing the Embassy was espionage. The perimeter of the facility was secured by a force of Cuban guards, who were vetted by the government. Similarly, most of the local employees who worked inside the Embassy were handpicked Cuban nationals. The Americans assumed that many were informants, so, to prevent bugs from being slipped into sensitive offices, even cleaning and maintenance crews were forbidden to go above the second floor, unless they were escorted by one of the Marine guards who controlled access to the chancery.
The compound on the Malecón was closed in 1961, after Fidel Castro seized power and the United States severed diplomatic relations. In 1977, when Jimmy Carter was President, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement establishing the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which operated under the formal protection of the Embassy of Switzerland.
After Obama and Raúl Castro reached their agreement to reopen their embassies, the Americans asked the Cubans to ease restrictions on the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel allowed to work in Cuba. The Cubans pushed back. A larger staff at the Embassy would create new opportunities to bring in spies and human-rights officers who would work with dissidents. Benjamin Rhodes tried to reassure the Cubans. “Allowing more diplomats into Cuba, and letting them get out of Havana, will allow them to meet with a wider variety of Cubans, and not just dissidents,” he said. Eventually, the Cubans agreed to let the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel increase from fifty-one to more than seventy. However, Republicans in Congress, who opposed reëstablishing diplomatic relations, blocked funding for the additional positions. As a result, only fifty-four of the agreed-upon slots could be filled.
The Cubans were even more suspicious when the State Department said that it would need to send large shipments of supplies to the Embassy. The chancery was last renovated in the mid-nineties and was “in desperate need of a total rehab,” Patrick Kennedy, who was then the Under-Secretary of State for Management, said. Finding supplies in Havana was impractical. There was little to buy, and, more important, the Americans suspected that Cuban intelligence would slip listening devices into almost everything they purchased on the island. To avoid penetration, even the furniture had to be shipped in. State Department officials told the Cubans that they needed to send several large steel containers by sea, and that they wanted them to be exempt from inspection.
The request became a crucial sticking point in the negotiations. Much of the wrangling fell to Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “In nonpermissive environments, you have to be able to send a container that they won’t be able to look inside,” she explained. “When we built our new Embassy in China, they gave us an unlimited quota for secure containers.” The Cubans argued that history had left them apprehensive, she recalled: “They said to us, ‘You used your secure containers in the past to bring in materials for counter-revolutionary groups.’ Which is true—but we hadn’t really been doing that for some time. The thing is, you’d give a fax machine to a dissident and it would be seized the next day, so it was kind of pointless anyway.” After six months of negotiations, the Cubans grudgingly agreed to allow one container into the country without an inspection. American officials are vague about its contents, but say that it was full of electronics, including secure communications gear.
On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba formally reëstablished diplomatic relations. A few weeks later, Secretary of State John Kerry presided over a flag-raising ceremony in Havana, attended by three retired American marines, who had lowered the flag when the Embassy closed, half a century before. Outside the compound, Cuban security men kept an eye on several hundred locals, who had gathered to cheer and to wave little Cuban and American flags.
A few weeks later, an unmarked U.S. government plane landed at an airstrip in Havana, carrying the last person in the world the Castros might be expected to welcome: John Brennan, the director of the C.I.A. Brennan was there to meet with Alejandro Castro and discuss increasing intelligence coöperation between the two countries. Brennan considered Cuba’s spy agencies the most capable in Latin America, and hoped to work with them against drug cartels andterrorist networks.
Brennan’s enthusiasm wasn’t universally shared in the U.S. intelligence community. Some officials feared that Cuba could exploit any openings to expand its operations against the United States. Others, though, saw the idea of greater coöperation as an embodiment of the old adage “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” The C.I.A., which prides itself on being the world’s best intelligence service, doesn’t advertise the fact that it has repeatedly been outplayed by the spy networks of an impoverished Caribbean state. But, over the years, Cuba’s intelligence officers have been remarkably successful at recruiting Americans. “They’ve penetrated just about anybody that the agency has ever tried to run against them,” James Cason, who was the head of the U.S. Interests Section in the two-thousands, said. “They basically beat us.”
After the Cold War ended and Russia more or less abandoned Havana as a military outpost, the C.I.A. concentrated less on Cuba. But Cuban intelligence agencies never took their eyes off the U.S. “Everything that they did focussed on us,” Cason said. At one point, Cuban security services assigned a battalion of intelligence officers—estimates range from hundreds to thousands—to monitor the U.S. Interests Section. John Caulfield, a former head of the Interests Section, used to tell his counterparts, “Frankly, I think you have vastly overestimated my capability of destabilizing your society.”
Brennan’s talks with Alejandro Castro took place at a discreet government guesthouse, where a day of formal negotiations was followed by a banquet featuring a spit-roasted pig. The Cuban government has long cast the C.I.A. as the ultimate enemy, dedicating large portions of a museum, the Denouncement Memorial, to railing against the agency’s purported offenses (“637 conspiracies to assassinate the commander in chief”). Nevertheless, U.S. officials said that, during the talks, Cuban leaders made it clear that they respected the C.I.A., and, in fact, found it more reliable than the State Department, which, during George W. Bush’s Administration, had aided programs intended to undermine the Cuban government. Rhodes sometimes joked with Alejandro Castro, “Who thought that the C.I.A. would be the agency which the Cubans would trust!”
Brennan and Alejandro Castro agreed on a series of steps to build confidence. One called for the Cubans to post an officer in Washington to act as a formal liaison between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
In the end, the Cubans didn’t send a liaison officer. American officials speculated that Alejandro Castro had been undermined by hard-liners in his system who opposed improving relations. Alejandro, in turn, complained that the C.I.A. didn’t follow through with its commitments, and said that he believed Brennan was impeded by Cuba hawks at the agency. “The American and Cuban publics overwhelmingly support more engagement,” Rhodes said in an interview. “But there are antibodies embedded in both governments that don’t want to let go of the conflict.”
As Obama prepared for his visit, in March, 2016, U.S. diplomats started to brief the Cubans on the army of security men, transport aircraft, and armored limousines that would descend on the island. To Cuban hard-liners, “it probably looked like their long-feared invasion,” John Caulfield said.
The Americans were thrilled with the pageantry. On March 22nd, Obama gave a speech about democracy and human rights, which was televised uncensored in Cuba. “I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” he said. During a baseball game attended by the two countries’ Presidents and thousands of Cubans, Rhodes introduced Alejandro Castro and his young daughter to Obama, a public gesture of good will.
The détente brought some rapid changes to the island, including a surge in American tourists—from ninety thousand in 2014 to six hundred thousand last year. Companies from Europe and the U.S. rushed to invest, and Miami-style bars and restaurants opened in Havana. Rihanna went for a photo shoot. The makers of the “Fast and Furious” movies filmed a rambunctious race scene on the Malecón.
Audrey Lee arrived in June, 2015, six weeks before the Embassy formally reopened. She was excited about her assignment. She had previously worked in Africa and Asia, and when the State Department had asked her where she wanted to go next she requested Havana. Lee and her husband were fascinated by the country’s history and its music; their twins had grown up hearing their great-grandfather’s stories about his time on the island as a Navy seaman. “We just thought it would be the perfect place for us,” she explained.
Lee and her family settled into an airy Spanish-style house, with a formal dining room and a back yard filled with tropical flowers and mango trees. Along the fence, her husband planted tomatoes and chili peppers. At the Embassy, an optimistic mood prevailed. Lee loved working alongside the Cuban staffers in the consular section. Some of them came with her to one of Obama’s appearances in Havana, and wept when he shook their hands.
After Obama’s visit, however, U.S. officials took note of a distinct backlash. Fidel Castro published a wary letter in the Communist Party daily, Granma, that reprised his long years of conflict with American Presidents. “Nobody should be under the illusion that the people of this noble and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained,” he wrote. Despite years of financial privation, Fidel, who was approaching ninety, insisted that isolation was preferable to engagement with a longtime enemy. “We do not need the empire to give us anything,” he wrote. Three weeks later, at a Communist Party congress, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, the foreign minister, described Obama’s visit as “an attack on our history, culture, and symbols.” At a military parade in Havana, soldiers chanted an ominous message: “We are going to make war if imperialism comes.” Shouting Obama’s name, they threatened to “give you a cleansing with rebels and mortar, and make you a hat out of bullets to the head.”
If Cuba’s Communist traditionalists feared that Obama’s overtures had been a pretext for increasing the United States’ influence, Raúl Castro seemed unconcerned. When the Foreign Ministry asked foreign ambassadors in Havana to attend a briefing, the Americans weren’t sure what to expect. Despite Fidel’s rhetoric, Cuban officials at the briefing declared Obama’s visit a success. One attendee said that the Cubans seemed to want to send dual messages: one to domestic hard-liners, who were hostile to the U.S., and another to international audiences, who supported normalization.
Like virtually everyone else, Raúl Castro assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election and carry on Obama’s policies, including the rapprochement with Cuba. Then came a series of events that upended the politics of the two countries. On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the election. Seventeen days later, Fidel Castro died.
Obama issued a measured statement. “At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” he wrote. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” Trump reacted more brusquely, with a statement that read, “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” Two days later, Trump threatened to roll back diplomatic relations. “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate [the] deal,” he tweeted.
Mari Carmen Aponte, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led a U.S. delegation to Havana to see her Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, in order to tie up loose ends before Trump took office. Aponte sensed Vidal’s anxiety about dealing with the new Administration. “Josefina, I share your concerns,” Aponte told her. “These people are not like us at all.” Aponte suggested that the Cubans send Trump a signal of interest in continued normalization. At the end of the meeting, she hugged Vidal and said, “Good luck.” Soon afterward, she met with members of Trump’s transition team, and emerged saying to herself, “Cuba is in trouble.”
On December 30, 2016, Patient Zero in the Cuba crisis visited the Embassy health office. The patient, a C.I.A. officer who was operating under diplomatic cover, told a nurse that he had experienced strange sensations of sound and pressure while in his home, followed by painful headaches and dizziness.
Officials described the man as an experienced spy, who, like his colleagues, was trained to recognize signs of counterintelligence operations. Since arriving in Havana, he had been subjected to constant surveillance, intrusions into his home, and obvious tampering with his belongings. These actions were annoying but not unexpected. Cuban intelligence knew where all the U.S. diplomats lived and watched them closely to try to discern who worked for the C.I.A. or with dissidents.
Vicki Huddleston, who led the U.S. Interests Section from 1999 to 2002, noted in a memoir that her house was surrounded by lavish mansions, three of which had no occupants. “One was used as a set for a local soap opera broadcast on Cuban television,” she wrote. “The other two were strategically located, with video and listening devices pointed at my residence.” When Americans were away from home, Cuban “entry teams” sometimes broke in. Mostly, they left no trace, but sometimes they wanted their targets to know that they were being watched. Jason Matthews, who in the late eighties was the C.I.A. station chief in Havana and now writes spy novels, said that he woke up some mornings and found cigarette butts in an ashtray in his living room. Sometimes Embassy employees came home to find feces left in their toilets. There were perennial rumors among the Americans of family pets being poisoned.
But C.I.A. officers knew that the Cubans—unlike the Russians and, increasingly, the Chinese—were careful not to cause them physical harm. When the first victim reported his strange incident, it seemed as if the rules had changed. The C.I.A. station chief in Havana briefed Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and they agreed that there had been an unacceptable escalation in harassment. DeLaurentis notified two senior officials in Washington about the officer’s condition, but they weren’t sure how seriously to take it; as far as anyone knew, it was an isolated case.
Around January 9, 2017, the same C.I.A. officer reported a second incident to the medical office. Still, it was hard to discern a pattern. “It’s like serial killers,” a former State Department official said. “It usually takes three or four before police conclude, ‘Wait a minute, these are connected.’ ” More than three weeks passed with no new cases, and the few officials who knew about the incidents wondered if the phenomenon had run its course. Then, in early February, two other C.I.A. officers reported feeling the same strange sensations while in their homes. Seemingly the entire C.I.A. station was affected, except for the station chief. The officers appeared seriously afflicted, and the Embassy nurse was unsure how to help them. DeLaurentis and his deputy, Scott Hamilton, told their superiors in Washington that they suspected something was targeting C.I.A. officers.
In Donald Trump’s White House, Cuba wasn’t a priority. When he had spoken about Cuba during the campaign, it was mainly to criticize Obama for his policy of engagement. But when the two men met privately at the White House, during the transition, he reversed his position. Obama aides briefed on the meeting recall that Trump said, “Look, there are certain things you say during a campaign. But I agree with your approach.”
Once Trump was in office, he offered his N.S.C. staff little guidance on Cuba, except to “make Rubio happy.” After the Inauguration, Craig Deare, the council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, convened the council’s first meeting on Cuba, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. According to attendees, Deare started by asking the two dozen officials in the room for a show of hands: “How many of you agree with the policy as it stands now?” Nearly every hand shot up. “Of course,” Deare said. “You all participated in the development of this policy.” Deare made it clear that he didn’t want to entirely discard the agreements that Obama had made. “We are where we are, and the region is happy,” he said, referring to support among U.S. allies in Latin America. “So we’re not going back.” Instead, he instructed officials to draw up some ways that Trump could amend the deal. “Park those feelings aside and give me some real options, because, if you don’t give me something, then there’s a real possibility that he might say, ‘What is this bullshit? Where is the “Let’s go all the way back” option?’ ” Deare said.
Alejandro Castro seemed eager to continue the opening. After Trump’s Inauguration, he spoke with Deare, in a Skype call beamed into the Situation Room, and emphasized the importance of expanded intelligence and security coöperation. Deare, surprised by the overture, tried to brief Michael Flynn and K. T. McFarland, who were then among Trump’s top national-security advisers, but he couldn’t get on their schedules. Deare wasn’t able to follow through, because he was soon fired, after a news organization published off-the-record remarks he had made at a think-tank event, in which he criticized the President.
Deare’s interim replacement, Fernando Cutz, shared his interest in protecting relations with Cuba. When Cutz chaired the N.S.C.’s second meeting on the subject, three options were presented. The first called for leaving Obama’s policies unaltered. The second made mostly superficial changes. The third called for terminating the normalization process and increasing pressure on Havana. The officials who drafted the options were using an old Army staff officer’s trick: they wrote the first and the third options to be obviously undesirable, leaving only one viable choice. At the meeting, Virginia Boney, the N.S.C.’s official responsible for legislative affairs, recognized their tactics. “The President told Marco Rubio that he will make him happy,” she said, according to an official in attendance. “What you guys are discussing here is completely a light-year away from what will actually make Rubio happy.” A former Trump Administration official said, “For a lot of people in that room, it was the first time they had to come to terms with Trump being President. That was the moment when we all realized it’s not going to stay the same.”
DeLaurentis and the Havana station chief had been pressing their superiors for permission to confront the Cubans. With at least three intelligence officers now in severe distress, the C.I.A. and the State Department agreed. On February 17th, DeLaurentis visited Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, who was then the director-general of the U.S. division at the Foreign Ministry. He described the strange incidents and demanded that the harassment stop. Because U.S. intelligence agencies had no clear evidence that the Cubans were involved, DeLaurentis was instructed to tell Vidal that her government was culpable for failing to uphold the Vienna Convention requiring host governments to provide for the security of embassy personnel. Vidal reacted with disbelief, arguing that Cuba had always fulfilled its obligations to protect foreign diplomats. She found it “very suspicious” that DeLaurentis waited to report the incidents until mid-February, some seven weeks after the first American came forward.
On February 21st, DeLaurentis accompanied a visiting congressional delegation to the Presidential Palace for a meeting with Raúl Castro. Afterward, Castro asked DeLaurentis to meet with him privately. According to a former State Department official, Castro insisted that Cuban security was not responsible. “It’s not us,” he said, adding, “We need more information from your government to help solve it.”
It was highly unusual for a Cuban President to meet one-on-one with an American chief of mission. Security officials in Washington interpreted Castro’s involvement to mean that the Cubans were profoundly concerned about being blamed. (Johana Tablada, the deputy director-general of the U.S. division at the Foreign Ministry, argued instead that it showed the Cubans were acting in good faith and “had nothing to hide.”)
In April, Alejandro Castro had a Skype call with Cutz and other N.S.C. officials, in which he denied that his government was involved. “He was adamant—he was passionate,” a former Trump Administration official said. DeLaurentis, like others who had worked on Cuban issues under Obama, was willing to give Raúl and Alejandro the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t think it made sense for the Castros to authorize measures that could jeopardize their signature achievements: the diplomatic opening and the increased revenues that came with it.
But, if the Castros were not responsible, who was? Intelligence agencies began to inventory “who it could be and who had an interest in essentially driving us out,” a former senior Trump adviser said. One leading theory was that Cuban hard-liners, who were loyal to Fidel Castro, decided to act covertly against the C.I.A. station. These hard-liners might have acted alone, or they could have conspired with a foreign adversary, which supplied them with the technological means to cause the injuries. Another theory was that the Cubans, alarmed by the influx of people and communications equipment, were deploying a new type of spy gear, designed for surveillance or harassment, which inadvertently caused harm.
Raúl Castro stoked suspicions that a foreign country had been involved. During his February 21st meeting with DeLaurentis, he said a “third country” might be to blame, and he urged the Americans to share any intelligence they found so that he could intervene. (The Cuban government denies that Castro raised this possibility.) American officials—including H. R. McMaster, who was Trump’s national-security adviser at the time—thought that the most likely culprit was Russia. “Who else has secret weapons programs?” a former Trump Administration official said. “Who else has the ability to conduct an operation like this? It fits their pattern, their style.” A senior American official with experience in Cuba concurred. “If it was the Russians, of course, you can’t do it without the Cubans knowing—but you can if it’s the right Cubans,” he said. “And what better way to fuck with Raúl and Alejandro, if you thought they were going too far, than by fucking directly with us?”
Analysts at the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency pored over intelligence reports and intercepted communications, looking for clues; perhaps someone had bragged about the operation. But Cuban leaders and intelligence officers are notoriously skilled at evading eavesdropping, and the search turned up nothing definitive. The C.I.A. and the N.S.A. typically had more luck intercepting the communications of Russian spies and officials, who often wanted adversaries to know what they were up to. After months of snooping, officials said, they found nothing directly linking the incidents to the Russians. In fact, aside from the victims’ accounts, there was no conclusive evidence that anyone in Cuba was attacked at all.
At the beginning of the crisis, C.I.A. and State Department doctors thought that the victims’ symptoms—pain and ringing in the ears, dizziness, and cognitive problems—suggested damage to parts of the inner ear that control hearing and balance. The U.S. Embassy’s medical unit lacked the specialized equipment needed to handle these sorts of injuries, so the C.I.A. began to organize a medical response, in consultation with the State Department. The Cuban government runs a well-equipped hospital for foreigners in Havana, but the C.I.A. assumed that the doctors would relay information about the victims’ condition to the intelligence services, who could then cover their tracks or improve the effectiveness of whatever was causing the injuries. The agency began to look for specialists in the U.S.
In early February, 2017, Michael Hoffer, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Miami, received a call from a State Department doctor, who told him, “We have a problem.” Hoffer—who had worked with the military to treat head traumas, and had kept his security clearance—agreed to help. He soon saw one of the victims, and in the following months others flew to Miami. Hoffer ran a battery of tests, which confirmed that the C.I.A. officers had sustained serious injuries.
In late March, DeLaurentis convened a town-hall-style meeting for staff at the Embassy. “We want to make sure everyone is O.K.,” he said. “If you have any doubts about anything, step forward and we’ll have you evaluated.” Audrey Lee stood near the back of the room and kept quiet. A week had passed since her painful experience, and her condition wasn’t improving. But, unlike the others who had been afflicted, she hadn’t heard any sounds, and she convinced herself that she must have experienced something different. “I’m not one of the victims,” she told herself.
Several of Lee’s colleagues came forward to report that they, too, had been exposed. Not long afterward, another State Department official reported a similar incident, at the Capri Hotel, where he was staying temporarily. At the end of April, DeLaurentis’s personal assistant said that she had heard strange sounds, two nights in a row, while sitting on the couch in her twenty-first-floor apartment. She told DeLaurentis that the experience had left her too dizzy and exhausted to think clearly.
Some State Department officials still believed that the C.I.A. station was the real target. They theorized that diplomats were being mistaken for intelligence officers, possibly because they were living in residences previously occupied by spies, or by diplomats who worked with dissidents. “They were always trying to figure out who was who,” an official said of Cuban intelligence agents.
Security officers briefed Embassy staff members on how to protect themselves, even though they had no idea what they were protecting themselves against. Lee recalled being told to find a concrete wall and take shelter behind it.
In early May, Hoffer flew to Havana to evaluate the Embassy’s staff members and their families. DeLaurentis encouraged everyone to get checked, even if they felt fine. Lee made an appointment, and told Hoffer about her headaches, but she didn’t mention how they had started. As part of her examination, she wore goggles that tracked her eye movements while she watched a virtual-reality display. (The goggles are often used to assess race-car drivers after head injuries.) She struggled during the test, but Hoffer told her that she otherwise didn’t meet the criteria he was using to identify victims.
By late June, Lee had barely slept for three months. She tried to cover the circles under her eyes with makeup. “She looked like a zombie,” her husband said. “She physically couldn’t function.” Still, she hesitated to come forward. She was afraid that she would be told to leave Havana, and that acknowledging her condition would “let everybody down,” she said. Finally, at her husband’s urging, Lee told an Embassy medical officer about her experience, and was added to the list of diplomats who were seeking treatment.
The C.I.A. and the State Department have a complicated relationship. Diplomats and spies work closely together in foreign countries, but often to different ends: diplomats are there to represent the U.S. and, if possible, to cultivate relationships, while spies operate in secret to extract information. During the crisis in Cuba, a former Trump Administration official said, “it was almost as if they weren’t playing on the same team.” The State Department’s priority was to protect the progress in normalizing relations. The C.I.A. had less to lose by pulling its officers out; Cuban intelligence made it nearly impossible for them to recruit and meet with sources on the island.
To complicate matters, the crisis in Havana coincided with one of the most chaotic Presidential transitions in U.S. history. The Trump State Department was particularly troubled. Rex Tillerson became Secretary of State after a long career in the oil business, and showed little appreciation for diplomacy. He often announced that the security of U.S. personnel was his first priority, but officials said that he didn’t receive a formal briefing on the crisis until late April, nearly four months after the first case was reported. Rubio said that he suspected information was “suppressed,” possibly by staffers who wanted to protect the policy of normalization. State Department officials denied this. They argued that the response was slowed by the remote management style of Tillerson and his staff—which one congressional official said had “paralyzed” communications within the department—and by inexperience among interim leaders.
The transition at the C.I.A. was more orderly. Mike Pompeo was sworn in as director in January, 2017, and received his first briefing on the incidents later that month. Pompeo, a former congressman, had risen to prominence by criticizing Hillary Clinton over the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed. Now his own people were at risk. By that spring, there were sixteen cases, nearly half of which involved C.I.A. officers. By the end of the summer, the number of C.I.A. victims had risen to nearly ten. The agency had no answers about who was responsible for the injuries, so the Administration decided to press the Cubans. “They have a very capable intelligence service,” McMaster said. “And, even if they’re not doing it, they should know who the hell is doing it and be able to protect our diplomats.”
The C.I.A.’s new leadership believed that the cost of keeping officers in Havana outweighed the benefits. But, if the agency’s officers withdrew and the diplomats stayed, it could reveal who the spies were. In meetings, Pompeo’s representatives suggested a solution: closing the entire Embassy. For longtime officials, the agency’s push to get out of Cuba was surprising. “I’ve never seen the C.I.A. run away,” a former senior State Department official said. “Typically, it’s the State Department that gets out first.” Officials at State believed that if diplomats left the island it would only reward those who were responsible for the incidents. But, as the number of victims grew, the argument for staying became more difficult to make.
In late April, an American government doctor arrived in Havana and checked in to the Capri Hotel. The doctor worked for the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services, a division that looks after intelligence officers around the world. These doctors aren’t spies, but they often travel under assumed names, because they meet with C.I.A. officers in the field.
At the Capri, a receptionist directed the doctor to a room decorated with photographs of Havana during its heyday, when mobsters and Hollywood stars mingled at the rooftop bar. While the doctor was in his room, he heard and felt something strange, and was stricken with symptoms similar to the previous victims’. Before then, the incidents had taken place at C.I.A. officers’ homes, whose locations were presumed to be known to Cuban intelligence. The doctor had arrived unannounced, but the perpetrators seemed to be aware of when he was coming and precisely where he was staying. Officials said that the incident increased pressure on the State Department to respond in a more tangible way. DeLaurentis met again with Josefina Vidal. “Come on,” he told her. “Who knew? You guys and us.”
A few weeks later, on May 23rd, Thomas Shannon, the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, summoned the Cuban Ambassador in Washington to the State Department. In their meeting, Shannon demanded that two officials at the Cuban Embassy leave the U.S. He wanted the Cubans to understand that every time an American suffered harm in Havana their mission in Washington would lose someone, too.
On July 6, 2017, Charles Rosenfarb, the State Department’s top medical official, convened a meeting of academic and government experts to review Hoffer’s findings. As the experts discussed the victims’ auditory problems, they noted a constellation of additional symptoms, which could resemble those found in cases of concussion. The experts concluded that the victims had suffered brain injuries, and proposed sending them to a specialized center for neurological examinations. The State Department contacted Douglas Smith, the director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair, at the University of Pennsylvania.
Before the victims arrived, in August, Smith convened a meeting of specialists at the university. Some of them were skeptical and wondered if the symptoms were psychosomatic. But their skepticism vanished when they saw the patients. “There was not one individual on the team who was not convinced that this was a real thing,” Smith said.
On August 20, 2017, Lee was flown to Philadelphia. For three days, she was subjected to a battery of tests, including MRI scans and exercises in which she stood on a moving platform and tried to keep her balance as it tilted. She fell nearly every time.
Lee and her doctors didn’t know what to call the mystery condition, so some of them referred to it as the Thing. (Smith said other names came later, including Immaculate Concussion and Havana Syndrome.) At the end of the testing, Lee told one of the specialists that she didn’t think she had the Thing. The specialist replied, “Oh, it’s definitely the Thing.”
In Havana, Raúl and Alejandro Castro proposed that Cuba and the U.S. collaborate on an investigation. DeLaurentis was wary, but he told his colleagues in Washington, “It’s worth testing this.” C.I.A. officers pushed back, warning that information shared with Havana might be used by the perpetrators to improve their operations. In the end, the idea foundered.
Instead, the F.B.I. began looking into the incidents, but the investigators were caught between the C.I.A. and the State Department. Even within the U.S. government, the agency had been reluctant to reveal which officers had been afflicted, because it wanted to keep identifying details from leaking out. Historically, American officials say, Cuba shared intelligence about C.I.A. officers with other U.S. adversaries; if an officer’s cover was blown in Havana, he might not be able to work in similar capacities elsewhere. The investigators were further hobbled by rules designed to protect the privacy of government employees’ medical records. A joke circulated in diplomatic circles: “The Cubans are being more open about this investigation with the F.B.I. than the C.I.A. is.”
The secrecy came in part because the Administration wanted to keep the incidents hidden while investigators figured out what was happening. If the news leaked, officials knew, there would be political pressure to retaliate, even if no culprits had been identified. But the story was hard to contain. An American with inside knowledge of the incidents approached Marco Rubio to complain about the government’s response. “We received information, independently of the State Department,” Rubio said in an interview. Based on what the whistle-blower said, Rubio concluded that “the State Department got a very slow start” in responding to the threat. “When we send men and women on behalf of the United States government to work in another place, our No. 1 obligation to them is their safety and their security,” he said.
Rubio began to drop hints in meetings that he knew what was happening in Cuba. Administration officials feared that he would leak the information at any moment. Finally, during a press briefing on August 9th, Steve Dorsey, a CBS News reporter, asked a State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, about the phenomenon. “My understanding is that it has only affected State Department employees,” she said, omitting the intelligence officers’ cases in an attempt to maintain their cover.
In public remarks, Nauert was careful to refer to “incidents” in Havana, rather than using stronger language. Behind the scenes, Tillerson was increasingly frustrated by the situation in Cuba. A former colleague recalled that he said, “Why are we even there? We don’t know what’s happening. Our people are really suffering. Why run this risk?” In a televised address on August 11th, he said that the Americans had suffered “health attacks.” White House officials were caught off guard by the change in rhetoric. “It wasn’t coördinated,” a former Trump Administration official said.
During the summer, another incident increased the pressure to withdraw. In mid-August, a C.I.A. officer flew to Havana and checked in to the Hotel Nacional—two hundred yards from the Capri, where the agency doctor had been sickened four months before. Since its opening, in 1930, the Nacional has been a favorite for visiting politicians and celebrities. A graphic in the lobby shows that Winston Churchill stayed in Room 240, a few doors down from where Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner spent the night. The officer was given a room on the eighth floor. Like the doctor who stayed at the Capri, she was in her room when she was afflicted. Soon afterward, the State Department, dropping the ambiguity about the nature of the incidents, said that twenty-one Americans had “been targeted in specific attacks” and ordered fifteen Cuban officials to vacate the Embassy in Washington.
In 2017, officials in both governments began to worry that the Thing was spreading. Cuban security officials were alarmed when one Western diplomat, who complained of hearing problems, visited the Cuban-run hospital that treated foreigners. The doctors put the diplomat through an unusually thorough battery of tests. Her ailment turned out to be an ordinary infection, picked up on a flight.
DeLaurentis started briefing fellow-ambassadors in Havana on the crisis, and during the summer he learned that a Canadian diplomat, his wife, and their two young children had awakened at night, feeling waves of pressure. The children had nosebleeds. Canadian officials were baffled; their relationship with Cuba was excellent. When the Americans proposed joining forces to protest the incidents to the Cuban government, the Canadians politely declined, saying that environmental causes could be to blame. They eventually confirmed twelve cases, but an investigation carried out by Canada and Cuba has thus far found no evidence of attacks.
Late in 2017, U.S. officials said, they learned that Raúl Castro had privately suggested that China could be responsible for the incidents. (The Cuban government denies this.) Then, the following March, Catherine Werner, a Commerce Department employee at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China, reported being stricken one night by an eerie pulsation that created pressure in her head. In April, Werner was flown to the University of Pennsylvania for tests, and doctors there confirmed that her symptoms were similar to those that the victims in Cuba had described. The incident startled State Department officials, who asked medical officers in China to evaluate about three hundred employees. Fifteen were identified as possible cases and sent to the University of Pennsylvania for examination.
Pompeo, who took over as Secretary of State this past April, revealed the Guangzhou case on May 23rd. Tillerson’s State Department had taken a hard line with the Cubans, but Pompeo was notably gentler with China. “They’ve honored their commitment under the Vienna Convention to take care of the diplomats that are serving in their country, and we truly appreciate this,” he said. “They’ve offered to assist us in investigating how this came to be.”
The specialists in Pennsylvania subjected the fifteen suspected cases to the same tests as the Cuba victims. Fourteen were determined to be unaffected. The one remaining was listed as “indeterminate,” because the patient’s symptoms were different from those of the other confirmed cases.
In the spring of 2017, the Cubans granted visas to a small group of F.B.I. agents, who travelled to Havana for the first time that May. As is customary when investigating overseas, they had to coördinate their movements with local officials and travel with escorts. Still, they were able to see the victims’ homes, as well as the two hotels where Americans had reported being exposed.
According to witnesses, the agents arrived with rolling suitcases full of equipment. (The F.B.I. declined to comment for this article.) At the Hotel Nacional, they inspected the victim’s room on the eighth floor, down the hall from where John Kerry had stayed during Obama’s visit. At the Capri, they inspected the two other victims’ rooms—one facing inland, and another facing the sea. They asked managers at both hotels about the Wi-Fi routers, which hung along the hallways, providing guests with spotty Internet access. After about ninety minutes at the Capri, the agents asked a hotel employee whether anything had happened to the two Americans who stayed there. “I was here—nothing happened,” she recalled telling them. “The hotel was full of guests. And nobody else complained about funny noises.”
Investigators, arriving months after the incidents, had to contend with the fact that such attacks would leave no physical evidence at the scene: no shell casings, no burn marks, no chemical residue. There might have been video evidence, however. Agents visiting the two hotels saw surveillance cameras in the lobbies and hallways, which might help determine if anyone was outside the rooms during the incidents. The F.B.I. asked for access to footage from the hotels, and from cameras near the Americans’ residences. According to U.S. officials, the Cubans have yet to provide it.
This past May, an F.B.I. team arrived in Havana just after the latest incident was reported. A Defense Department employee, who had been in Cuba less than three weeks, said that she had been exposed at her residence. Johana Tablada, of the Foreign Ministry, said that an Embassy official got in touch to say, “Well, we have another case.” Tablada responded skeptically. “A case of what?” she asked. “Could you describe how it’s similar? What do they have? Is it a headache?”
Cuban investigators went to the scene, as did members of the F.B.I. team. The victim had reported hearing a strange sound that came from the direction of a neighboring house. But Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the director-general for U.S. affairs at the Foreign Ministry, said that the only source of noise that the Cuban investigators could find was a water pump. Perhaps it malfunctioned, he said; a heavy rainstorm had just passed through the area.
A few weeks later, doctors at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the employee’s injuries. U.S. officials said that the medical evidence was stronger than in other cases, because she had undergone baseline testing before leaving for Cuba, which allowed specialists to determine how her condition had changed. Peter Bodde, who led the State Department’s internal review of the response, said, “It’s not a dubious case at all. A person manifested symptoms. This thing about the water pump—that’s dubious.”
Last February, Douglas Smith and his team at the University of Pennsylvania published their preliminary findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association. They argued that the victims appeared to suffer from a new type of “brain network disorder,” which was similar to the damage seen in patients with mild traumatic brain injuries or with persistent symptoms after concussions.
After the study was published, JAMA received letters from other specialists, arguing that the study was flawed, especially in neglecting psychological explanations. Mitchell Joseph Valdés-Sosa, a member of a team of scientists investigating the incidents for the Cuban government, seized on the criticism as evidence that the Americans were embracing unproven theories. “The conclusion that there’s brain damage isn’t sustainable by the data,” he said. He added that the victims’ symptoms were common and could have been present before they arrived in Cuba. “Did they play football?” he asked. “Did they practice judo? Were they in a war or an explosion?” Valdés-Sosa said that Smith’s team shouldn’t have excluded psychological factors, noting that the victims “were informed by their government that they were under attack.”
Smith rejected this explanation. “To artificially display all of these symptoms, you’d have to actually go and research, practice, be the most consummate actor ever, and convince one expert after another,” he said. But he acknowledged that more data were needed to convince skeptics that the syndrome was real. He said his team was awaiting “potential tangible evidence” from a new neuroimaging study involving the victims. In addition, experts from the National Institutes of Health were examining the JAMA results. “Let the scientific process play out,” Smith said.
Theories have proliferated about what might have caused the injuries. Initially, officials thought they might be dealing with a “sonic weapon.” After U.S. investigators ruled out the possibility that the sounds themselves caused the injuries, government scientists studied whether microwaves could be the cause. During an interview in July, Smith voiced doubts that a microwave device could be targeted so precisely. “From what I do know about certain forms of energy that are medically used to remove nerve fibres, such as to reduce pain, I can’t understand how any source would be so selective to only injure the brain and not peripheral nerves and the spinal cord,” he said.
In September, 2017, State Department officials contacted James Giordano, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center who specializes in neuro-weapons. “We don’t have a smoking gun,” they told him. “But we know something happened here. Can you tell us what could cause these types of injuries?” Giordano consulted with colleagues at the University of Miami and the University of Pittsburgh who had evaluated the cases and, through a process known as abductive forensics, found some possible explanations. He thought there was little chance that the injuries were caused by a drug or a toxin, which would probably have left detectable traces. More likely, the cause was a device that emitted radio frequencies or electromagnetic pulses, which entered through the victims’ ears. (Structural variations within their heads could help explain why some heard sounds while others didn’t.) Inside the head, the energy could have caused “cavitation,” or bubbling, in the tiny fluid-filled passages of the inner ear, or in arterial blood. As the bubbles formed, and in some cases exploded, they could have damaged the organs that regulate balance and orientation. If they burst inside the cranial cavity, the victim could have suffered ministrokes, causing brain damage similar to the effects of decompression sickness. But to know for sure, Giordano said, “we’d have to take the brains out, and that’s not possible.”
If there was a weapon, of whatever kind, who wielded it? And to what end? Despite a long investigation into the incidents, the U.S. government can’t answer these questions. “It’s been more than a year and a half since the first reported health incident in Havana, and we know no more today about the cause than we did then,” Leahy said. In September, NBC News reported that U.S. intelligence agencies considered Russia to be the main suspect, citing evidence from communications intercepts. But intelligence officials, in interviews with The New Yorker, insisted that they still had no evidence of Russian complicity.
The Cubans say that their investigation has stalled. When U.S. lawmakers visited Havana last January, the Interior Ministry showed them a PowerPoint presentation, which concluded that the ministry had “run out of all investigative possibilities to shed light on the events.” Johana Tablada argued that there was simply nothing to find. “After a year and a half, the most powerful nation on earth hasn’t been able to present one single piece of evidence,” she said. But some see the absence of evidence as proof of a sophisticated operation. “The harder it is to figure this out, the more it lends credence to the fact that it wassomething that was directed,” Rubio said. “Havana is one of the most heavily surveilled cities on the planet. There is no way the Cubans don’t know who did it—if they didn’t do it themselves.”
Tablada said that she disagreed with virtually everything that Rubio has ever said about Cuba. But, she said, “on one thing, I agree with Marco Rubio. Such a thing cannot happen in Cuba without the Cubans knowing. The thing is, it didn’t happen.”
DeLaurentis, like others at the Embassy, is outraged by the Cubans’ denials. In conversation with former colleagues, he still gets upset by suggestions that the Thing was imaginary. “It did happen,” he says. “I know it did.”
It has been more than a year since the State Department announced that it would withdraw most of its personnel from Havana. As a former department official said, “There was a clear understanding that we had to lower our presence to protect our people.” The number of Americans permitted to work at the Embassy was slashed from fifty-four to around eighteen. Many of the diplomats were reluctant to leave Havana. Tablada said that some of those who hadn’t been sickened received phone calls from their superiors, in which they were told, “You’re sick. You’re leaving.” (The State Department denies this.) According to U.S. officials, the Cuban government has refused to issue visas for most replacements, so staffers are now there on short-term assignment. After the State Department’s presence was diminished, what remained of the C.I.A. station was closed down, on Pompeo’s orders.
In Cuba and in the U.S., the advocates of diplomatic opening are no longer in office. In April, Raúl Castro stepped down as President, and was replaced by Miguel Díaz-Canel, a longtime loyalist. Raúl remains the head of the Communist Party, but Alejandro Castro suffered in the transition. He was not nominated as a deputy in the National Assembly—a prerequisite for the Presidency—and his department at the Interior Ministry was reportedly dissolved. Several former American officials who dealt with him during the normalization say that he is no longer returning their messages. They have heard that he is isolated, appearing rarely in public; in the Cuban expression, he is stuck at home, on plan pijama—the pajama plan. “He worked with us, and it would send a terrible message if he suffered for that because of the shift in U.S. policy,” one official said. A former associate of Fidel Castro suggested a darker possibility: Alejandro could have been fired because he was responsible for the sonic episodes. “Either he ordered them or covered up for those who did—but acting on his own, without his father’s knowledge,” he said. “That is the only possible explanation for Raúl taking action to punish him.”
At the N.S.C., anti-Cuba hard-liners now dominate. In a recent speech, John Bolton, Trump’s national-security adviser, described Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as a “troika of tyranny,” and promised sanctions. James Williams, who runs the Washington-based advocacy group Engage Cuba, described the crisis as an almost insurmountable obstacle. “Even after Trump won, there was a sense that the Cubans could work with him,” he said. “But since this broke it has been like a cancer that can’t be treated.”
The few American diplomats who still work in Havana now live together in group houses, set back at a cautious distance from the street. In recent weeks, the Embassy has looked deserted, with all the lights turned off at night. The north side of the chancery is cordoned off with yellow police tape, which reads “Do Not Enter.” Some of the walls and windows in the adjoining buildings have gaping holes, evidence of hurricane damage. “Our Embassy is operating on life support,” Leahy said. “It cannot process visas. It cannot conduct effective diplomacy. It cannot engage on human rights. In a time of political and economic transition in Cuba, our Embassy has been sidelined.” Cubans seeking to travel to the U.S. must now apply for a visa in Guyana, two thousand miles away.
Audrey Lee has not seen the Embassy in its diminished state. When the order came for diplomats to withdraw, she was being treated at the University of Pennsylvania; her husband left Havana in such haste that he abandoned their personal belongings. Lee’s balance and orientation gradually improved, and, after four months of treatment, she resumed full-time work earlier this year. But, she said, most of the symptoms have returned. The headaches have grown worse, and she is thinking about retiring early.
Lee still considers Cuba one of her favorite assignments. “We loved our time there,” she said. “It was almost magical.” She understood why the State Department decided to withdraw employees. “We just didn’t know who was going to get hit, when, or why,” she said. At the same time, she was bothered by the implications of the decision: “If this really was a weapon that someone had used against us, how sad it was that we were kind of letting them win.” ♦
Rerproducido de The New Yorker, edición impresa del 19 de noviembre de 2018