Canadian officials warned staff bound for Cuba to stay silent on ‘Havana syndrome’

There have been no new reports of Canadian diplomats coming down with mysterious symptoms of what’s become known as “Havana Syndrome” in nearly two years — and no answers for those affected.

That’s despite new reports from the New York Times and GQ Magazine that American intelligence sources are pointing the finger at Russia for dozens of cases of U.S. diplomats and spies experiencing symptoms similar to those reported by the Canadians.

But Canadian investigators say they still have no idea what caused the spate of illnesses — originally described by government officials as “attacks” — and are not providing any updates on the state of the investigation, which documents obtained by Global News under access to information laws initially described as “criminal” in nature.

The mystery began in late 2016 and early 2017 when American diplomatic staff at the embassy in Havana, Cuba, began reporting unusual symptoms similar to those from a concussion: hearing loss, memory loss, tinnitus, nose bleeds, vision problems and vertigo, among others.

Canadian diplomatic staff and their families began reporting symptoms in early 2017 and into the following year, with more than 40 Canadian and American diplomats and their families impacted.

But nearly four years after the onset of the mystery, there are no official answers and the Canadian government is fighting 15 of those Canadians impacted in court, arguing the plaintiffs have made “exaggerated” claims.

Global News filed multiple access to information requests for internal emails and official correspondence from Global Affairs Canada about the matter in September 2017, when media reports began emerging of mysterious symptoms affecting diplomats in Cuba.

Three years later, the federal government last month finally released nearly 700 pages of heavily redacted government emails, memos and briefing material prepared over the course of the early scramble to figure out what was going on, including records of meetings with American authorities including the Central Intelligence Agency that included CSIS and the CSE.

While the records offer little insight into the state of an investigation that officials confirm remains ongoing, they paint a picture of officials scrambling to keep the situation under wraps and appear to corroborate claims currently in court that officials were working to keep early reports of symptoms quiet.

Embassy staff told briefings ‘must not be disclosed’

Fifteen of the Canadian diplomatic staff and dependents who say they suffered the effects of what’s become known as “Havana syndrome” have alleged in a $28-million lawsuit in Federal Court that the government “badly mishandled” the situation and told them not to talk about it with anyone.

The documents released last month appear to verify that account.

One of the diplomats spoke with Global News under the condition that the anonymity order and pseudonym authorized by the court for the plaintiffs in the case be maintained.

“Do not tell any other Canadians. We cannot tell any other Canadians — we don’t want to start mass hysteria,” Diplomat Allen cited the ambassador as responding.

Even months later as American media reports broke of the symptoms impacting U.S. diplomats, he said Canadian diplomatic staff were still being told not to talk about the matter.

“We were told, ‘I believe it was a matter of national security.’ … We were told to keep it quiet.”

Several undated versions of a draft document entitled “briefing employees being posted to Havana” were released to Global News. These memos outline proposed points to be made during pre-departure meetings with Canadian diplomatic staff heading for postings at the embassy.

Subsequent emails describe plans to brief outgoing diplomats on June 27 and June 29, 2017 — months after Diplomat Allen says he first reported the information from the American diplomat to the Canadian ambassador in Cuba, and nearly a month after he says his own family was impacted on June 1.

Documents previously reported by Global News and obtained under an earlier access to information request show Global Affairs Canada officials were suggesting the symptoms being reported by Canadian diplomats in May 2017 were nothing more than “extreme stress.”

One of the points in the briefing material advises staff to tell outgoing diplomats that some at the embassy in Havana have reported dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears and “not feeling quite yourself” and says Canadian officials have no idea what could be the cause.

It also states that “of the (redacted) households tested so far, none have been found to have any medical consequences related to their exposure that necessitate a medical leave from Havana.”

The material also included points stressing the need to keep the information secret.

“While you may discuss it with an accompanying spouse, due to the sensitivity of the situation, it must not be disclosed or discussed with anyone else.”

Another advises outgoing staff, “you all have top secret clearance — and understand the responsibilities and obligations that come with that clearance. This information can not be shared.”

Diplomat Allen said the list of symptoms outgoing diplomats were briefed on didn’t come close to what was happening and left out key details — including that his own children had suffered symptoms during and after the June 1 incident when they heard a “screeching, metallic” noise in their home.

He recalled how one woman, who had been posted to the embassy that summer with a young child, approached him several weeks after arriving to ask what his family had experienced.

“She said, ‘They never said anything about kids being affected.’”

That individual and her child are now plaintiffs in the case.

The records released under access to information laws show officials in Ottawa deliberating back and forth over what information to include in the briefing for outgoing staff on June 27.

The material is heavily redacted but show briefing material describes “a rather bizarre situation” in which diplomats were experiencing “headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness and ringing in the ears.”

Other drafts make mention of households reporting “short term memory loss,” but none of the released material makes mention of the symptoms — which officials described as “consistent with exposure to sound” — as also impacting the children of Canadian diplomats working at the embassy.

“I would propose to find a middle ground (i.e.: share factual information using cautious language,” cautioned one official in a June 27 email chain that discussed how to brief outgoing diplomats.

“They downplayed everything,” said Diplomat Allen, who said he and his family are still suffering from a range of strange symptoms: his wife and son have developed vision problems; and he suffers from unexplained nausea and dizziness that months of physiotherapy haven’t fixed.

One of his sons began blacking out for no identifiable reason while in Cuba, he said, and suffered another fainting episode in 2019 that saw him taken to hospital.

When Diplomat Allen called the doctor handling the case from Global Affairs Canada, he said the doctor told him, “Don’t tell them about Cuba.”

Canadian officials, diplomats still seeking answers

What caused the mysterious symptoms experienced by Canadian and American diplomats remains a mystery to this day, though several recent American media reports citing intelligence sources suggest the focus is increasingly tightening on Russia. 

Theories abound: some studies have posited the symptoms match those of exposure to pesticides used to fumigate against the Zika virus, or that the sounds described by diplomats that precipitated symptoms could match those of local insects vibrating at a high frequency.

More troubling theories focus on unknown sonic or electromagnetic weapons targeting diplomats and spies, citing similar symptoms in American diplomats posted to China and CIA officials on U.S. soil.

Even the language used to describe the matter has become a case of shifting goalposts.

Canadian officials in May and June 2017 were discussing the symptoms in Canadian diplomats as related to “suspected acoustic attacks” or “sonic attacks.”

That language shifted by September 2017 following a bilateral meeting between Canadian officials and U.S. counterparts from the Department of State, the FBI and the CIA.

In that meeting — the second bilateral since June of the same year — Canadian officials appear to have emphasized that despite a lack of new information on the matter, stating: “Canada is not using the term ‘attacks’ or other such nomenclature.”

“Canada speaks to Cuba with a distinct voice and that it is in the interest of all three parties for Canada to maintain its unique role,” say memos summarizing that September meeting.

But three years after that meeting, it appears the situation is much the same: there is little new information and no further clarity — at least, publicly — about why Canadian and American diplomats continue to suffer symptoms from a mysterious spate of incidents that officials worked to keep quiet.

“The Government of Canada continues to search for potential causes of unusual health symptoms,” said John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada. “While we are exploring all avenues, no definitive cause of the health incidents has been identified to date.”

He also would not say whether staff being posted to the embassy in the two years since reports of new symptoms stopped in December 2018 are still being briefed on the potential risks of the posting.

The diplomats involved in the lawsuit were among 26 Canadian diplomats and family members with symptoms following postings in Cuba who took part in a study with Dalhousie University researchers.

Results published last fall documented “multiple functional and structural impairments” found in the brains of 23 of the diplomats and their family members, noting that while one possible explanation could be overexposure to insecticides, “other causes cannot be ruled out.”

Diplomat Allen said the lack of answers, coupled with the arguments made by federal lawyers that the plaintiffs are exaggerating their symptoms, is a barrier to moving on.

“I just hope you understand the level of frustration in dealing with the government. Yes, we were sent to Dalhousie as a group for research study and yes, it conclusively found that there is something wrong with all of our brains. But there was no treatment,” he said.

“It was just basically, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong with you. Now go away.’”

Global Affairs Canada changed the risk designation for the embassy in Havana in April 2018, making it an unaccompanied posting. That means diplomats cannot bring spouses or dependents with them.

Despite there being no new cases reported since December 2018, that designation remains in place.

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