State Department Declassified a Report About Cuba’s ‘Sonic Weapon’

Newly declassified report outlines how the Trump administration failed to take the threat of targeted weapons against American diplomats in Cuba seriously.
The U.S. Embassy in Cuba

In late 2016 and early 2017, U.S. and Canadian diplomatic and intelligence personnel stationed in Havana, Cuba came down with a strange illness. After hearing a piercing noise in their rooms, the afflicted experienced symptoms similar to that of a concussion—dizziness, headaches, nausea, confusion, and nosebleeds. 

Viral stories claimed Cuba was using a "sonic weapon" to cause something called Havana Syndrome, and to this day, no one knows what happened. According to a newly declassified report obtained by the National Security Archive, one of the reasons we know so little about is that Trump’s State Department handled the investigation so poorly.


The 104 page report comes from the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), an independent group that reviews security related incidents involving the State Department and makes recommendations. ARB’s report on the Trump State Department’s handling of the Havana incident is daming. 

“The Department of State's response to these incidents was characterized by a lack of senior leadership, ineffective communication, and systemic disorganization,” the report said. “No senior official was ever designated as having overall responsibility, which resulted in many of the other issues this report presents.”

The report also revealed new details about how Washington handled the issue and what it saw medically when it examined the patients. All in all, it documented brain injuries in 24 people. That number doesn’t include the 14 Canadians who also experienced Havana Syndrome. 

“Affected individuals had varying combinations of cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction as well as sleep disorder and headache,” the report said. “These individuals appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks with an associated history of head trauma.”

According to the report, the State Department waited six weeks after it first learned of the incident to inform Embassy staff, and it didn’t tell their families. “The Board finds the delay of almost six weeks between first knowledge of injury and the first briefing of Embassy staff to be unfortunate and the exclusion of family members from this knowledge to be unjustified, given the incidents were taking place at residences,” it said

As a result of the attacks, Canada pulled its diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. shut down CIA operations in the area and have been running the embassy with a skeleton crew ever since. The ARB report is the first official confirmation that the CIA shut down its Havana station. “CIA informs [Acting Assistant Secretary Francisco] Palmieri of its decision to withdraw personnel from Havana for the foreseeable future,” the report said under a September 2017 listing in its timeline of events.

The ARB said, over and over again, that one of the reasons we know so little about what happened is because the State Department dragged its feet investigating the incident. The report was written in 2018 and, at the time, no one has been assigned to lead an investigation and the drawdown of staff at the Embassy that followed happened ad-hoc. “The decision to draw down the staff in Havana does not appear to have followed standard Department of State procedures and was neither preceded nor followed by any formal analysis of the risks and benefits of continued physician presence of U.S. government employees in Havana,” it said.

To this day, the Havana Syndrome is a mystery. “We do not know what happened, when it happened, who did it, or why,” the report said. “As of this report, the who, what, when, and sometimes the where behind these incidents is still unknown.”

But that doesn’t mean that similar attacks haven’t happened in other countries. According to the report, a similar incident occurred in China in May 2018. “There is one medically confirmed report regarding a Consulate Guangzhou employee who described incidents in Guangzhou, China, similar to those experienced by Embassy Havana community members and whose injuries were confirmed by medical experts to match those of the Havana victims,” the report said.