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Cuba mystery: US govt taps star doctor to probe attacks on American diplomats

Key Points
  • The U.S. government has turned to a high-profile brain-injury specialist to investigate the rash of mysterious attacks that ran American diplomats out of Cuba earlier this fall.
  • Sources tell CNBC that Dr. Michael Hoffer, who specializes in concussions, is taking an active role in researching the attacks that injured 21 people.
A woman holds a fan at the newly-opened US embassy in Cuba, prior to the flag-raising ceremony led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on August 14, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.
Sven Creutzmann | Mambo Photo | Getty Images

The U.S. government has turned to a high-profile brain injury specialist to investigate the rash of mysterious attacks that ran American diplomats out of Cuba earlier this fall.

Sources tell CNBC that a doctor who specializes in concussions, and has received research grants from the NFL, is taking an active role in researching the attacks that injured 21 people.

That specialist is Dr. Michael Hoffer. He works at the University of Miami as part of a team that received $500,000 from the NFL, Under Armour and GE Ventures to develop a portable set of eye goggles that gather and measure precise eye movements, helping to identify brain injuries in real time.

Some of the victims attacked in Cuba have been tested with goggles, according to a source familiar with the process.

In late September, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the attacked U.S. embassy officials in Cuba suffered from a variety of injuries from assaults of an unknown nature. Tillerson said they have exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping.

In September, the State Department ordered the departure of nonemergency personnel assigned to the U.S. embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. In October, the State Department ordered the departure of 15 Cuban officials from its embassy in Washington, D.C. The department said it was, "due to Cuba's failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention."

The State Department has also issued a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba. Although there were no reports of private U.S. citizens being affected, Tillerson said the attacks are known to have occurred in diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by American citizens.

The cause of the victims' symptoms remains a mystery. Increasingly, experts point to some kind of highly directed acoustic attack.

When reached by phone, Hoffer declined to comment.

Dr. Michael Hoffer.
Denis Poroy | AP

In November 2014, as part of a profile piece about Hoffer and the development of the goggles, the Miami Herald described him as a former U.S. Navy captain and battlefield doctor who did two tours of duty in Iraq. The article also stated Hoffer has studied nearly 4,000 soldiers with head injuries.

According to his LinkedIn page, Hoffer earned his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego and his undergraduate degree from Stanford University. At the University of Miami, he serves as director of the vestibular and balance program.

It is likely that Hoffer is not the only doctor involved in the search for a diagnosis. The most recent issue of Intelligencer: Journal of US Intelligence Studies, a publication of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, delved deep into the theory of an acoustic attack.

In one article former intelligence officer Gene Poteat said the attacks were, "apparently from an acoustic, sonic, or other type of directed-energy weapon," known as a DEW. Poteat examines three possible types of weapons: infrasound, sounds below 20 Hz; ultrasound, those above 20,000 Hz; or microwave.

Poteat seems to suggest the most logical weapon would be one using microwaves, because it could be miniaturized, highly directed and produce many of the medical problems seen in the Cuba attacks.

Any pure infrasound weapon would require an extra large array of subwoofers and wouldn't be portable or covert, he said. An ultrasound weapon would require a large, heavy power source and would be a danger to other people in the vicinity, as well as to the user, he points out.

Poteat concludes that, "Whatever is harming U.S. diplomats in Havana has eluded our best doctors, scientists, and intelligence analysts scouring for answers."

Whether the medical team at the University of Miami has discovered anything is yet unknown.

A rep for the Miller School of Medicine at the university declined to say when any results or findings would be released. Miami TV station WPLG reported that experts from the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania will release their findings via publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the near future.

The State Department said it would not comment on the report now but might when the schools publish it. The University of Pennsylvania directed all calls for comment to the State Department.

The University of Miami put out a statement when news outlets first reported a connection to the medical school: "Like any top-notch academic medical center in the nation, the University of Miami is often consulted regarding complex healthcare issues or emerging diseases. In the case of US diplomats, our physicians were consulted by the State Department. The expertise of our physicians and researchers across a variety of fields naturally positions us to assist in these matters, and we consider it our obligation and responsibility to share that knowledge as needed."