U.S. Senate hearing - "Attacks Against U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight” (2018-01-09)
On January 2018, Senator Rubio convened the first public hearing on attacks against U.S. Diplomats in Cuba
Introductory testimonies of the three witnesses, State Dept. officials
Introductory testimonies of Medical Director Dr. C. Rosenfarb, Deputy Assistant Secretary F. Palmieri and Assistant Director Diplomatic Security T. Brown can be downloaded from above link.
Facebook posts from the U.S. State Department with videos of the testimonies
Assistant Secretary (Senior Bureau Official) F. Palmiery testifies on "Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba"
Director Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) T. Brown testifies on "Attacks on US Diplomats in Cuba"
Medical Director Dr. C. Rosenfarb Testifies on "Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba"
Questions by Senator Marco Rubio to Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Franscisco Palmieri and Todd Brown
MR: "Has an accountability review board been set up to this date and why wasn't it set up, as according to law, in the 120 day period."
MR: "Can you today guarantee the safety of any personnel in Havana currently stationed or about to be deployed to Havana? Do we know what they can do to protect themselves from these injuries? Can we guarantee today they're safe from the injuries."
MR: "If I were being deployed to work in the embassy in Havana and asked what could I do to protect yourself, you do not know what I can do to protect myself?"
CR: "We inform them should they hear or feel a sensation to move away as quickly as possible. We know from our patients the less exposure the better. We also do predeployment screening to ascertain baseline hearing, baseline cognitive function. So should they report any concern, we're able to measure what they are currently at compared to the previous status and get them the help they need."
Figure 1: Senator Marco Rubio
Excerpts from automatic transcript with minor modifications starting at 25:50 (1550sec)
MR: Thank you. Doctor, I'll start with you. Is it fair to say May 1st or early May we were aware that at least 16 U.S. government employees and/or dependents had suffered a serious injury while working in Havana for the U.S. government?
CR: It's fair to say we were aware they had suffered some type of injury.
MR: Was it serious?
CR: In some individuals it was more serious than others.
MR: Was there at least one U.S. government employee suffered serious injury?
CR: Many cases.
MR: In any case of serious injury, they should convene an accountability review board. That has to happen within 60 days of an occurrence of the incident and allows for a 60-day delay if they determine more time is necessary for convening by the board. By early May, we knew at least one or several, as the doctor has testified, suffered serious injury. And certainly by early September an accountability review board should have been set up. I got a letter November 6th saying there was still not an accountability review board. And the Secretary decided to delay 60 days to determine whether one was necessary. "Allow additional time to better inform the decision whether to convene an ARB." Has an accountability review board been set up to this date and why wasn't it set up, as according to law, in the 120-day period.
FP: The Secretary has made a decision to convene an account accountability review board. There will be a congressional notification sent shortly.
MR: Why wasn't it done within 120 days since May 1st when we knew there was serious injury?
FP: Throughout this process there were things we knew or at times and then was later contradicted. Throughout this process we have not been able to identify who the perpetrator of such attack was and what the means of that attack was. It was only until late August when there was another round of attacks that it became apparent to us that we should begin the process of looking at an accountability review board.
MR: That's not what the law reads. In any case of serious injury, loss of life related to a United States government mission abroad. It doesn't say you need to know who did it. In fact, that's one of the reasons for the review board. The fact is the State Department did not follow the law in my opinion and I believe in the opinion of others given the fact that by early may we knew serious injury had occurred related to their service in government mission abroad. And Mr. Brown, you testified the conclusion was this was forces hostile to the U.S. and/or to our presence in Cuba. Is that correct?
TB: That's correct. Initially we felt it was a form of harassment and that was attributed to the government.
MR: Do you know when Secretary Kerry was made aware? This was a State Department conclusion that there was harassment, correct?
TB: Yes, sir. That was the early opinion of the security professionals who looked at it that it was likely a form of harassment.
MR: When was Secretary Kerry made aware? Do you know?
FP: I do not know.
MR: Do you know if President Obama was ever made aware?
FP: I know as a regular matter we would have apprized the National Security Council at some point after the late December information became apparent.
MR: What about Secretary Tillerson? When was he first made aware?
FP: I believe that would have been late February, sir.
MR: Do you know if the Trump transition team was made aware during the transition period?
FP: I did not have a contact with them on this issue. I' m not aware if anyone else did.
MR: When President Obama changed policy towards Cuba. We set up the embassy. We had to expand personnel, did we not? We added personnel to expand the mission?
FP: i would have to go back and check the record.
MR: We had to secure housing for the additional mission in Havana?
FP: That would be normal practice.
MR: And we would have to provide Cuban government the list of all the U.S. employees that would move to work at the mission.
FB: We would have enlisted additional visas, yes.
MR: And all of these residencies would have been owned by the Cuban government?
FP: That's my understanding too, sir.
MR: The hotels where these attacks happened were owned by the Cuban government.
FP: That's correct.
MR: What measures did we take on the expansion of these residencies?
TB: Senator, to talk about residential security, I think historically from a crime perspective there were not features related to that. Our concern and I believe the Cuban government selected was aware of which housing our personnel would go into. Our housing profile is fairly compact. There are not specific security measures in a counterintelligence type environment. So there wouldn't have been any other physical security in relation to the residents in place and particularly in Cuba, we did not have, beyond the harassment element, we did not have a high crime statistics or anything related to political violence. So there wouldn't have been any residential measures taken above and beyond what was already in place.
MR: Based on what we know and more importantly what we don't know, can you today guarantee the safety of any personnel in Havana currently stationed or about to be deployed to Havana? Do we know what they can do to protect themselves from these injuries? Can we guarantee today they're safe from the injuries.
TB: Certainly not knowing what's causing it or who's behind it or how it's being done gives us very little in the terms of mitigation. And what we have done is address sort being sure that our community in Havana is well aware of what has happened to provide advice on how to respond to that to have teams in place and how to report those types of incidents. So we have done a lot of work in terms of elevating the knowledge.
MR: I guess to cut the chase, MR. Brown. If I were being deployed to work in the embassy in Havana and asked what could I do to protect yourself, you do not know what I can do to protect myself?
TB: That's true, senator. Our guidance would be in the event of something similar that what has taken place to react in a certain manner. That' s a reactive measure
MR: Do you have any advice to people being deployed to Havana, how they can protect themselves?
CR: We try to educate them and make sure they're aware of the risk and what we know about the symptoms that have occurred. As far as we know right now the only mitigation factor is to limit exposure. We inform them should they hear or feel a sensation to move away as quickly as possible. We know from our patients the less exposure the better. We also do predeployment screening to ascertain baseline hearing, baseline cognitive function. So should they report any concern, we're able to measure what they are currently at compared to the previous status and get them the help they need.
Questions by Senator Bob Menendez to State Department officials Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Franscesco Palmieri and Todd Brown
Senator Menendez inquires on the relevance of the Cuban-Russian Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in December 2016. This included cooperation in a series of new technologies. The attacks started in November 2016.
Deputy Assistant Secretary (State Dept) commits to providing a classified briefing (one was provided in October and a request for another had been made in early December).
Dr. Rosenfarb: "the pattern of injuries became consistent with what I testify as being most likely a version of traumatic brain injury or concussion.”
Senator asks why diplomats were told not to share their symptoms or concerns with family members.
Figure 2: Senator Bob Menendez
Excerpts from automatic transcript with minor modifications
BM: Unfortunately I'm going to have to go to the White House so I'm going to have a series of questions for the record. I was looking forward to a second round. I hope those questions will be answered. First, listening to the last set of answers: like the times in which we used to have children put their heads underneath their desk for a nuclear attack. Ridiculous. “Move away from sound that you're hearing”. It's pretty amazing to me.
Let me ask, the democratic offices of this committee have requested a classified briefing on this issue in early December. To date that briefing has not taken place. Do you commit to providing a classified briefing for this committee?
BM: And given the fact that so much is tied to classified information, do you commit to accepting and responding to classified questions for the record?
FP: Yes, sir.
BM: Would it not be fair to say that in Cuba either it is the regime who conducted these attacks or they have full knowledge of who conducted these attacks because the state security apparatus in Cuba is one that has every element of Cuban society and life fully monitored and engaged. Very difficult to believe that if a third country ultimately engaged in these attacks that the Cuban intelligence would not know.
FP: Yes, sir.
BM: All right. So either it is the Cubans or it is someone else. Under the possibility that it is someone else and I think the administration has recognized one possible explanation for these attacks on U.S. Personnel is a third country, possibly in collaboration with the Cuban government or at least with its knowledge. Or if it wasn't with its knowledge, they know who it is and they have not come forth as I understand it? Have the Cuban government suggested who this might be if not them?
FP: Not that I'm aware of.
BM: In the theory for a moment that it is a third country. In December 2016 around the same time these attacks first started, the Cuban and Russian government signed a new Defense cooperation agreement, including cooperating in a series of new technologies and I'd like to release two press articles regarding this agreement for the record, Mr Chairman. Has the State Department raised attacks against U.S. Personnel in Cuba with the Russian government for example?
FP: Sir, I think -- that's a very good question. I think it would be better to address that issue in a classified setting.
BM: So If I were to go to a list of other countries, you are going to give me the same answer?
FP: In general, yes, sir.
BM: So I look forward to that classified moment. Let me ask you this. You have said that you will not return individuals to the post unless the Cubans can guarantee that these attacks will not continue. Doesn't that indicate you believe the government has at least some knowledge or control over these attacks?
FP: The President and the Secretary have stated that they do believe the Cuba government has responsibility in this situation.
BM: When was the first time a diplomat reported symptoms of the attack?
CR: The first symptoms -- first patients were seen by our health provider in the medical unit in embassy Havana in mid-January.
BM: Mid-January of?
BM: Of 2017. Do we know when the Chargé was first informed of these attacks?
FP: I believe the Chargé alerted these attacks at the very end of December of 2016.
BM: So we say some of these attacks took place in May of 2016, right?
FP: There was a cluster of attacks that occurred between March and mid-April. I do not believe there was an attack in May. I 'd have to go back to the timeline.
BM: So if it's March to mid-April of 2016.
FP: Excuse me, Senator. I meant 2017.
BM: Okay. So let me ask you this. Was the Chargé informed of the severity of the attacks? Was he advised that the effects of the attacks could be permanent?
FP: He was informed of the attacks in late December, Sir, of 2016. At that point I do not believe we knew we had information about the severity or the depth of the attacks.
BM: When diplomats reported symptoms to the regional security office, the medical team, why did it take so long to respond?
TB: Senator, I believe to try to clarify how this timeline from investigative standpoint took place, it was December 30th in 2016 when it was first brought to the attention of the regional security officer and the Front Office of the Embassy. At that time it was not clear what was taking place, nor were there related severe medical symptoms. They just simply didn't know at that point. They thought it might be some form of harassment and the regional security officer did note it in a report back to Washington along with other reports. So that's when they first had this notice of what was happening. And then there was this long gap that nothing new happened. So this case is sort of amplified by how perplexing and knowledge gaps. But they did seize on this early indicator that something odd had happened and then I believe it was late -- this was considered a form of harassment early on and then it wasn't until early February when new incidents were reported that it was sort of this moment of we've got something bigger happening here.
BM: Why were diplomats effected told not to share their symptoms or concerns with family members?
TB: I'm not aware that was ever done.
BM: Would you review it because if you talk to these individuals they will tell you that they were told not to share their symptoms or concerns with family members. When did you first learn that employees were suffering symptoms associated with traumatic brain injury?
CR: We medically evacuated the first patient I think was February 6th, 2017, and --- next two months evacuated 40 more people and we had the specialist from Miami go to Havana and assess more people. As we saw more and more patients and they were able to do the evaluations and do the objective assessments it became -- the pattern of injuries became consistent with what I testify as being most likely a version of traumatic brain injury or concussion. It was an accumulation of information and findings over that two months.
BM: For those employees that were or are currently being treated, will the Department continue to cover all of their medical care?
FP: I would refer that question to the officer of medical services.
CR: We're committed to do everything we can under existing authorities to provide the care and support --
BM: Those existing authorities suggest there is some limitation to the treatment you will give these employees?
CR: The -- we are -- there may be some limitations to family members over the course of -- because typically people injured in the course of duty would be covered by the workers compensation law and family members would not be.
BM: Well, I would ask you in response to my questions to give the committee a full sense of what limitations there are. I don't think when we send a diplomat abroad who is attacked by whomever at the end of the day that their health and well-being should be limited in our response to them. I think you want to send a message that if they're attacked they will be taken care of and I consider them in this respect a veteran of our diplomatic efforts so I would like to see what limitations there are if any and see if we can respond to that. I have plenty of other questions (…).
Questions by Senator Ron Johnson to State Dept. officials, Medical Director Dr. C. Rosenfarb, Deputy Assistant Secretary F. Palmieri and Assistant Director Diplomatic Security T. Brown
Subsequent to the issuance of the State Dept. travel warning on October 1 of 2017, there had been American citizen reports to the Department's Bureau of Councilor Affairs and according to Senator Ron Johnson this information had been shared with the investigators.
Deputy Assistant Secretary F. Palmieri declares having no information on citizens, only on diplomats.
The Medical Director is asked if he is aware of any type of technology that could cause this, if he is aware of some type of auditory weapon that could cause this type of damage. Also the Deputy Assistant Secretary is asked whether he knows if the U.S. government is aware of any.
Answers are negative.
Figure 3: Senator Ron Johnson
Excerpts from transcript with minor modifications starting at 44:27 at this link https://www.c-span.org/video/?439474-1/state-department-officials-testify-attacks-us-diplomats-cuba&start=2667
RJ: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm not sure who to direct this to. I do agree with Mr. Brown, this is a perplexing case. Does anybody know how many different locations this has been perpetrated at?
TB: Senator, I don't have the exact number of locations, but it was several residences, it was no official facilities and then there were two hotels I believe.
RJ: Are you aware of these type of symptoms with any Cuban nationals or people not associated with the diplomatic core? Any reports of something similar to others?
FP: Subsequent to the issuance of our travel warning on October 1 of 2017, there have been 18 American citizen reports to the Department's bureau of Councilor Affairs. That information has been shared with the investigators.
RJ: Of all the reports, what percentage approximately is there an audible type of an attack as opposed to just starting to feel ill or dizzy or experiencing vertigo? Is it always associated with some kind of high pitched sound or something?
FP: Senator, you're referring to the attacks against the diplomats. We don't have information about the attacks on individuals.
RJ: So with the diplomats, how often is that? Is that 100% of the time? They hear something or --
CR: The vast majority of the 24 cases reported hearing or feeling some auditory sensation.
RJ: When you say feel auditory sensation, something, feeling a flutter in your ear or something, like cavitation you hear or captation with the lowering the window in your car?
CR: The descriptions in sensation vary quite a bit. Some report more of vibration and some loud sounds. The descriptions have varied though.
RJ: Have we ever set up any kind of monitoring device in any of those residences?
TB: Yes, sir. We have provided off the shelf recording devices that are geared to record high frequency sounds. We have successfully recorded some sounds and turned those over to investigators.
RJ: That's interesting. When you recorded those sounds, did people exhibit the symptoms?
TB: I believe that some of those at least were associated with individuals who later showed symptoms. I defer to the doctor also to comment on that.
RJ: Doctor, are you aware of any type of technology that would cause this?
CR: No, I'm not.
RJ: Not that you know exactly what caused this but are you aware of some type of auditory type of weapon that could cause this type of damage?
CR: No, I'm not, sir.
RJ: Mr. Palmieri, do you know if the United States government is aware of any?
FP: No, I do not, sir.
RJ: Take Senator Rubio's description and what's required by law. As medical doctor it seems like you hopped on this pretty quick and we had experts come in February 2017, literally within a month and a half of when Embassy personnel were even made aware of this. Short of a full-scale ARB, from medical standpoint is there anything else, any regrets you have in terms of things you didn't do?
CR: No regrets, sir. It's important to remember when I said serious injuries, at the time the injuries were serious as any acute injury would be. One thing that hasn't become clear and still not certain, what if any long term consequences could be. Someone can suffer a serious injury but may improve completely. At that point, they're able to go on and don't have health consequences. Each step of the way, we identified where we had information gaps. We sought to to fill those gaps and got the best care we could find for our personnel and we made decisions based on the information we had at each point of the investigation.
RJ: An injury from an illness, at what point do you believe an injury was caused by some type of attack or are you still not certain of that?
CR: After our discussion with the panel of academic experts in July, when the panel reviewed other possible explanations, each explanation seemed to have holes in it. The panel felt the one explanation that could probably best explain or most likely to explain it was that there was a non-natural incident that caused the injuries.
RJ: That was in July of 2017.
RJ: My final question, how many embassy personnel have requested relocation? Is that a decision made by the State Department to move people or the medical core?
FP: There were eight individuals who requested departure from Havana before the Secretary's decision that moved the post to an ordered departure status, when we removed all but emergency personnel.
RJ: Were those requests granted?
FP: Anyone who wanted to depart post was allowed to depart post.
RJ: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Questions by Senator Shaheen
Congress seeks to be informed on the FBI investigation: Senator Shaheen asks Chairman Senator Rubio if the FBI has been asked to testify.
When jurisdiction issues are cited, it is inquired if their report could be accessed.
State Department received a report on results of the Cuba preliminary investigation in September.
Senator Shaheen requests comments on Associated Press information concerning the FBI investigation (https://twitter.com/joshledermanAP/status/950758532202336256)
"The FBI report, which hasn’t been released publicly, is the clearest sign to date of the U.S. ruling out the sonic weapon theory. The report says the FBI tested the hypothesis that air pressure waves via audible sound, infrasound or ultrasound could be used to clandestinely hurt Americans in Cuba, and found no evidence."
Figure 4: Senator Shaheen
Excerpts from transcript with minor modifications starting at 00:50:16 at link https://www.c-span.org/video/?439474-1/state-department-officials-testify-attacks-us-diplomats-cuba&start=3016
JS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and thank you all for testifying today. I think this committee had a classified briefing on this issue in October. Mr. Palmieri, you suggested that there was information that you can only share in a classified briefing. Is there new information that has come to light since that classified briefing about what occurred in these instances?
FP: I think it would benefit the committee for us to come up and do an additional classified briefing. There have been developments since the October briefing. I know we have tried to keep the committee informed to the best of our ability. It would be worthwhile, yes, Senator.
JS: There's an AP headline, a story from yesterday which you all may have seen which says the FBI doubts a sonic attack. And I would just read briefly: "the FBI report, which hasn’t been released publicly, is the clearest sign to date of the U.S. ruling out the sonic weapon theory. The report says the FBI tested the hypothesis that air pressure waves via audible sound, infrasound or ultrasound could be used to clandestinely hurt Americans in Cuba, and found no evidence." Do you believe that this report is accurate (that was in the AP's story)?
TB: Senator, perhaps I comment that it's an FBI report and I would hesitate to comment on the FBI findings at this point.
JS: Mr. Chairman, did we ask the FBI if they would come and testify before this committee about this issue?
CR: We did not. The FBI generally will not testify because of jurisdictional issues with judiciary.
JS: Is there a way for us to get the information from this FBI report in a classified briefing?
M. Rubio: There is. I think that's one of the things Senator Menendez is asking about.
JS: I think that would be very helpful. How has the Cuban government responded to these attacks and have they been cooperative in the investigations?
CR: Senator, I’m not aware that they've been uncooperative. I know we had our own investigative team that went down in May and they had no difficulties in at least entering the country and certainly working the case in terms of just the U.S. mission. I'm also unaware that the FBI has encountered any difficulties in terms of coming in and out the country for investigative purposes. Beyond that, I do know that the Cuban government said they would also conduct a parallel investigation so to speak. I understand that the Embassy has noted increased Cuban security presence in our residential areas, purportedly in response to this issue. I honestly don't know if that is any legitimate attempt on their part to uncover but it has been noted there is increased presence by the Cubans in those residential areas.
JS: Mr Palmieri, knowing what you know about the way the Cuban government operates do you believe there could have been deliberate attacks on our personnel without the Cuban government knowing about it?
FP: I find it very difficult to believe that. Cuba is a security state, the Cuban government have a tight lid on anything and everything that happens in that country.
JS: Have they been more responsive because we asked them to remove their Embassy personnel? Has there produced any change in their behavior?
FP: The Cuban government since we expelled their personnel is engaged in a pattern trying to discredit the theories related to these attacks, I don't think that is a healthful posture for them to take.
JS: Have they actually investigated the attacks themselves? Mr. Brown.
TB: According to the Cuban authorities, they said they were opening a parallel investigation. Beyond that I'm unaware of what they have done or what they have uncovered. Perhaps there could be a question posed to FBI investigators.
JS: So we have not. The State Department has not seen the results of any report that they have done?
TB: Not that i'm aware of, no.
FP: Senator, if i could clarify that last point? We did have a law enforcement dialogue in September where they did share with the Department a document that they purported to be the results of their preliminary investigation into this matter.
JS: And did it shed any light or provide any information that we didn't already have?
TB: I have not seen the report, Senator, but I'm not aware any new information surfaced due to a Cuban investigation.
JS: My time is up. If I could ask just one more question, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Palmieri, as someone who watched Cuba for some time, given the change in American policy during the Obama administration, to resume a diplomatic relationship with Cuba and to begin to resume other commercial and other ties with the country, is there any reason to think it would be in Cuba's interests to make deliberate attacks against our Embassy personnel at a time when there was an effort to resume ties with the country?
FP: I am loathe to speculate on Cuban government intentions, however, there is a long history and pattern of Cuban harassment of U.S. Diplomats stationed in Havana. It's entirely possible that they could have escalated that pattern of harassment and caused these incidents. In whatever case, they are responsible for the safety and security of U.S. Diplomats stationed in Havana under the Vienna convention and they have failed to live up to that responsibility.
JS: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.