Months before acknowledging that Canadian diplomatic staff have been affected by mysterious and invisible attacks in Cuba, senior foreign service officials were scrambling to figure out whether symptoms reported by staff were real or imagined.
Documents obtained by Global News under access to information laws reveal a flurry of emails back and forth between staff at the Canadian embassy in Cuba, several directors general at Global Affairs Canada, and the overseas medical adviser at Health Canada.
This came as they tried to understand what was happening and what to do next after reports began reaching the embassy of a slew of American diplomatic staff suffering mysterious auditory and cognitive symptoms.
The disclosed emails, which span from April 2017 to August 2017, are marked “secret” and the vast majority are stamped “for Canadian eyes only.”
“Whatever we are dealing with, HAVAN [the Havana embassy] is clearly seriously concerned and employees’ well-being is being affected. It could well be that only testing will relieve their concern,” reads a May 16 email sent between senior Global Affairs Canada staff, that discusses how to deal with the unclear situation and whether to ask for medical testing.
“Many of the symptoms are similar to signs of extreme stress, and there is the possibility that there could be mental health effects caused by the fear of being targeted. Either way, testing should help to rule out cases and reassure personnel that we have the means to be able to provide duty of care.”
Five Canadians and 16 American diplomatic staff in Havana were confirmed in late August 2017 to be suffering symptoms from an invisible, unknown attack in Cuba between November 2016 and April 2017.
The number of Americans affected was later revised to 24.
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Victims have reported hearing a mysterious sound: a pulsing, high-pitched noise ranging from seconds to minutes in length.
Some reports have described it as a mass of crickets or a whine high enough to draw comparisons to the infamous nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.
Several victims have said the sound was so loud it woke them from sleep while others have said they are not aware of having heard a sound at all.
Reports of the sound were what led investigators to initially believe that the attacks were sonic in nature.
However, it is no longer clear if that is the case and there are still more questions than answers about what – or who – caused the symptoms being reported in American and Canadian diplomatic staff in Cuba.
“There are no answers,” reads a briefing note sent from the embassy in August and approved by Patrick Parisot, the Canadian ambassador to Cuba.
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As the Associated Press reported last month, doctors treating the American victims have found brain abnormalities in the patients while searching for clues as to what caused their symptoms.
The doctors treating American victims did not assess Canadian staff, who were confirmed to have been affected in late May 2017.
That confirmation of cases prompted officials to raise the internal threat level for employees stationed at that embassy.
“Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, hearing loss, nosebleeds, loss of consciousness, loss of hearing, blurred eyesight, headaches, lack of balance, ear pain, pressure in ears, weakened cognitive function including loss of short-term memory,” reads a June 8 critical incident report sent by email from embassy staff in Havana to senior staff at Global Affairs Canada.
“Many have heard strange noises in their residences and have experienced symptoms that they have not had before in their lives.”
The emails also discuss how to treat Canadians confirmed to have been affected by the attacks.
On May 29, embassy staff in Havana asked Global Affairs Canada to request a ministerial letter from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to request help from the Department of National Defence (DND) both in testing and possibly treating affected Canadian diplomatic staff.
The embassy repeated that call in a briefing note sent on June 6.
It is not clear whether that letter was sent or whether the medical team from the Department of National Defence was sent to Cuba.
But on June 16, embassy staff requested a consultation with the department to discuss “sound blocking devices and recording equipment.”
Two days later, the overseas medical adviser for Health Canada, Dr. Jeffrey Chernin, arrived in Havana to assess cases in the Canadian staff there.
Chernin held a town hall-style meeting on June 21 in which he told embassy staff that the symptoms being reported matched those coming out of the American embassy.
“He emphasized that the symptoms and findings are similar to the U.S.’s experience, and that the damage is primarily vestibular and cognitive (auditory and cochlear to a lesser extent) but symptoms, experience, and recovery are not uniform, especially varying by age, location at exposure, and previous history,” reads a summary of the meeting included in one of the emails sent to Global Affairs Canada senior staff.
“He pointed out that the high incidence of cases in multiple neighbourhoods demonstrates that it is an ongoing problem and does not fit with other patterns specifically raised as questions [redacted] eg: viral such as flu, hearing loss due to age.”
All but one of the 16 points summarizing that meeting are redacted.
A followup note dated Aug. 11 from Chernin suggests that routine audiometry tests be performed on Canadian staff and their families who head to Cuba for postings “until the ‘Havana’ issue has resolved.”
Global Affairs Canada also noted it would give future staff being posted to the Canadian embassy in Cuba the option to opt out of that assignment given the concerns over the attacks.
It is not clear whether any staff have used that option to avoid being posted to Havana.