State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson met with Cuba’s top diplomat Tuesday about the mysterious "sonic" attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana and conveyed the "gravity of the situation," but so far has not taken any new steps to respond to the attacks.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday the conversation between Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez was "firm and frank" and reflected the United States' "profound concern for the safety and security of its diplomats."
"The secretary conveyed the gravity of the situation and underscored the Cuban authorities’ obligations to protect embassy staff and their families under the Vienna Convention," she said in a statement.
Nauert on Tuesday confirmed that the Cubans had asked for the meeting. The request came after five GOP senators who serve on the Intelligence Committee called on the U.S. to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington and possibly close the U.S. embassy in Havana if the Cuban government couldn’t ensure their security or provide more information about how the attacks occurred.
Tillerson over the weekend said he was considering closing the embassy and was weighing all the factors involved.
A Tuesday McClatchy news service report, picked up by the Miami Herald, said the Trump administration "as soon as Tuesday will announce a major withdrawal of staff from the U.S. embassy" and will boost the number of Americans affected by the sonic attacks to 25 from 21 with reports of cases occurring in the last several weeks.
However, Tillerson has thus far stopped short of taking any additional action. Earlier this year, the Trump administration expelled two junior-level Cuban diplomats from Washington in response to the attacks.
During her daily press briefing Tuesday, Nauert confirmed that Tillerson was considering shuttering the U.S. diplomatic post, which would rollback Obama-era efforts to normalize relations with the island nation.
"The secretary starts many meetings here at the State Department asking this question first, and that is, are our people safe?" she told reporters Tuesday. "That is a top priority for the secretary; protecting the lives and ensuring the safety and security of Americans."
Nauert also confirmed that 21 of the diplomats experienced the attacks, which have left some victims experiencing permanent hearing loss, damage to their cognitive abilities, sleeplessness, and other serious symptoms.
"Twenty-one Americans have been medically confirmed as having been affected by incidents in Cuba," she said.
That number could change, she said, noting that the tally has shifted upward as the U.S. government has medically confirmed the number of individuals impacted by the attacks.
Granma, official newspaper of the Cuban communist party, reported late Tuesday that Rodriguez reiterated the Cuban government "has never perpetrated attacks of any kind against diplomats."
"Nor has it allowed its territory to be used by third parties for this purpose," the paper reported.
The report also said Rodriguez continued to assert that "there is no evidence so far of the causes and origin of the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats," although the investigation is still ongoing and Cuba "has a great interest in concluding it."
The Trump administration's decision to expel two junior-level diplomats from Washington earlier this year in response to the attacks was "unjustified," Rodriguez said, according to the report. He warned that it would be "unfortunate if a case of this nature were politicized and that hasty and unsupported decisions were made" without conclusive evidence and investigative results.
Rep. Albio Sires (D., N.J.) on Wednesday expressed frustration that lawmakers were having trouble getting an updated State Department briefing about the mysterious attacks.
"I’ve been trying to get a briefing scheduled and we can’t seem to get it," Sires told Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan during a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing Tuesday.
Sullivan assured him that the State Department would give him the information he needs.
"I can guarantee to this committee, whoever wants a briefing will get one," he said.
Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.) who chairs the committee, then formalized the request for a briefing on the "sonic" attacks and the state of the U.S. investigation into how and why they occurred.