Articles and Investigations - ProPublica
Video: This Obscure Plea Deal Offers Freedom to the Wrongfully Convicted at a Huge Cost
February 21st, 2018, 05:42 AM

In 1987, police detectives — who’d later be made famous by David Simon, creator of “The Wire” — used flimsy evidence to pin a burglary, rape and murder case on James Thompson and James Owens. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Then, 20 years later, DNA evidence cleared them of the rape and unraveled the state’s theory of the crime. But instead of exonerating the two men, prosecutors pushed them to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for immediate freedom.

Watch the video.

What prosecutors offered was a controversial deal called an Alford plea. This little-known plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty. Prosecutors pressure wrongly convicted defendants to take it by threatening to retry them, which could take months or even years. For the two Jameses, who’d already spent decades behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit, taking the plea meant they could walk out free men. But, in the eyes of the law, they’d still be convicted murderers. The plea had another catch — it would prevent them from suing for wrongful imprisonment. For prosecutors, such deals keep wins on the books and let them avoid admitting any wrongdoing. But the deals also keep the cases closed, and the real culprits forgotten.

Last year, ProPublica investigated prosecutors’ use of Alford pleas and similar deals in cases of wrongful convictions and found they often cover up official misconduct. Finding these stories is especially difficult. No one tracks how often the wrongly convicted take Alford pleas. In Baltimore City and Baltimore County alone, we’ve found 10 cases since 1998 in which defendants with viable innocence claims ended up agreeing to a plea or a similar time-served deal. Watch the story of the two Jameses to see what happened after the Alford plea was offered in their cases.

This piece makes up the fifth installment in Vox’s collaboration with ProPublica. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe and stay tuned for more from our partnership.

‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast: Russia, Trump and ‘Alternative Financing’
February 21st, 2018, 05:42 AM

Subscribe to “Trump, Inc.” here or wherever you get your podcasts.

After special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for an intensive, elaborate effort to interfere with the 2016 elections, President Donald Trump reacted as he has before — with bluster and bellicosity, at everyone but Russia.

This week on “Trump, Inc.,” we’re exploring the president’s, well, persistent weirdness around Russia: Why has Trump been so quiet about Russia and its interference?

Glenn Simpson has a theory — that one cannot understand the Russian collusion scandal without understanding Trump’s business.

Simpson is the head of Fusion GPS, the investigative firm behind the now-famous Trump dossier. Before that, he was a Wall Street Journal reporter who specialized in the nexus of money, politics and international skullduggery. Simpson was hired, first by conservatives and then by Democrats, to dig into Trump’s business record.

Listen to the Podcast

Simpson has been pilloried on the right as a tool of the Clinton campaign — or worse. He’s been sued multiple times. But amid all the charges, few have followed the details of what Simpson concluded: After a string of Trump failures, disappointments and bankruptcies, Western financiers shut him off. Trump still needed money to fund his projects. Where did he get it? Simpson came to believe it came from Russia and Russian-connected sources. It came via golf courses, condos and other conduits.

The eventual result, Simpson suggests, is that Trump ended up beholden to those providing his businesses with “alternative financing.”

One note: The Trump Organization and White House declined to answer our questions for the podcast.

And remember, we want to hear from you: We’re always eager for tips. We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you?

You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.

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ProPublica and NPR’s ‘Lost Mothers’ Wins Polk Award for Medical Reporting
February 20th, 2018, 05:42 AM

ProPublica reporter Nina Martin and NPR special correspondent Renee Montagne won this year’s George Polk Award in Journalism in the medical reporting category, for their “Lost Mothers” series on maternal mortality in the U.S. This marks the sixth Polk Award for ProPublica.

The series, which also included stories by ProPublica's Adriana Gallardo and Annie Waldman, illuminated that the U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, and 60 percent of those deaths are preventable. Stories included intimate narratives of mothers who died after failing to receive the most basic care, and data analysis showing why black mothers in the U.S. – no matter what their income and education – die at three to four times the rate of white mothers,

The series landed with significant impact. After its publication, two state legislators in New Jersey introduced a bill to heighten monitoring of maternal deaths and encourage hospitals to adopt life-saving treatment protocols. ProPublica’s database identifying 134 of the as many as 900 U.S. women who died from pregnancy-related causes in 2016 inspired a legislator in Texas to create a similar photo gallery for her state, which has one of the highest maternal death rates in the country. At the time, her bill to reauthorize a state committee that reviews maternal deaths was stalled in the legislature. By personifying the issue, the gallery helped revive and pass the measure.

At the start of the project, ProPublica issued a callout, asking people who knew someone who died or nearly died in pregnancy or childbirth to tell ProPublica their stories. Almost 4,500 readers responded, including 3,862 who said they had almost died themselves. This groundbreaking database allowed families, at last and at a minimum, to have the deaths of their loved ones recognized.

Administered by Long Island University, the Polk Awards honor intrepid and influential work, with a premium placed on original and resourceful investigative reporting. See a list of all of this year’s Polk Award in Journalism winners here.

When Is a Story Ready to Publish?
February 20th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Recently, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of short columns. In this column, ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez answers an inquiry about how deadlines affect our investigations.

How do you balance the need to thoroughly investigate a story and the need to get it published while it's still news? Or, do you generally work on the story until it's done without giving much worry to deadlines? —Harold Williams

Great question.

One of the best things about working for a nonprofit investigative news organization like ProPublica Illinois is that we get the luxury of time. What’s most important is getting the story right, even if that means you have to take an extra few weeks or longer to report it out, get records or conduct heavy data analysis.

For the most part, we’re not trying to break news like a traditional daily newspaper or TV station. Of course, sometimes we can’t help ourselves, especially when our earlier reporting has put the issue on the map. Like when my colleague Jason Grotto followed up on his property tax assessment series or when Jodi Cohen checked back on a troublesome cop she’d written about earlier.

Though having a “news peg” is helpful, strong investigations about issues that affect people’s lives will be important no matter when they’re published.

We still want to remain relevant and timely, of course, both as an organization and as individual reporters. We want our website to have fresh stories, so readers have a reason to return. That’s why deadlines and production schedules are so important.

This can make for a tricky balance.

Take the story I’ve been working on for the past several months, which will be published ... soon. It’s taken me a while to master the subject and figure out what the story is. There were moments where we could have published a good story, but we wanted to do better. We worried about getting to the heart of the issue and hitting the right tone. And we thought about what questions we should leave for subsequent pieces.

My editors set deadlines for drafts, which was important because it forced me to stop and write what I had at the time — and see where there were holes. As I kept reporting and other editors weighed in, the story changed directions and I was given more time and new deadlines.

The more we dug, the more we learned and wanted to include. Some of it, such as data we analyzed, went into the actual story, while other pieces became stand-alone visuals to complement the story, including an extra series of portraits and a video. All of this took more time.

Chip Scanlan, a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, wrote about the need to think of story deadlines as a plural back in 2003, arguing a single story should involve multiple deadlines for each stage in the process: reporting, writing, editing, collaboration (figuring out the visuals).

“As anyone who has ever written a story knows,” he wrote, “the process is not a mad unbroken sprint to a finish line. Meeting the demands of journalism — from the exigencies of production to the need for stories that are accurate, fair and compelling — means jumping a series of hurdles, each of which presents its own challenges and time demands.”

There’s no easy formula for this. Each story will be different. It’s a balancing act we’ll always be performing.

Election Security a High Priority — Until It Comes to Paying for New Voting Machines
February 20th, 2018, 05:42 AM

When poll workers arrived at 6 a.m. to open the voting location in Allentown, New Jersey, for last November’s gubernatorial election, they found that none of the borough’s four voting machines were working. Their replacements, which were delivered about four hours later, also failed. Voters had to cast their ballots on paper, which then were counted by hand.

Machine malfunctions are a regular feature of American elections. Even as worries over cybersecurity and election interference loom, many local jurisdictions depend on aging voting equipment based on frequently obsolete and sometimes insecure technology. And the counties and states that fund elections have dragged their heels on providing the money to buy new equipment.

A ProPublica analysis of voting machines found that over two-thirds of counties in America used machines for the 2016 election that are over a decade old. In most jurisdictions, the same equipment will be used in the 2018 election. In a recent nationwide survey by the Brennan Center for Justice, election officials in 33 states reported needing to replace their voting equipment by 2020. Officials complain the machines are difficult to maintain and susceptible to crashes and failure, problems that lead to long lines and other impediments in voting and, they fear, a sense among voters that the system itself is untrustworthy.

“Today’s voting systems are not going to last 70 years, they’re going to last 10,” says U.S. Elections Assistance Commission Commissioner Matt Masterson. While previous generations of voting equipment, lever machines and punch cards, had hardware that could be relied on for decades, today’s technology becomes outdated a lot faster.

While election equipment needs to be replaced more often, election administration remains a low funding priority, a ProPublica review of state and local budgets nationwide found.

In 2017, Utah appropriated $275,000 to aid counties in purchasing new voting equipment, but $500,000 to help sponsor the Sundance Film Festival. A few years earlier, Missouri allocated $2 million in grants to localities to replace voting equipment the state, while increasing the Division of Tourism budget by $10 million to $24 million.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, home to Pittsburgh, this year’s Division of Elections budget is $6.1 million. The budget of the county’s Parks Department is nearly three times as big. Across the state in Luzerne County, the Bureau of Elections budget is just under $900,000, while the Buildings and Grounds Department has a budget of $1.4 million.

“Election officials are low on the totem pole, budget-wise,” says Masterson. “A lot of times it’s you or a new gazebo or improvements to the local golf course.”

The cost of new voting equipment is typically many times larger than election administrators’ annual budgets. In both Allegheny and Luzerne counties, local officials estimate new equipment would be roughly four times the cost of their annual elections budget. Neither county has ticketed funds to make such large capital purchases.

Even where voting machines are functional, their age can contribute to errors and confusion on Election Day. During the 2016 presidential election, aging machines contributed to scattered reports of “vote flipping” in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

Flipped votes occur when a voter selects one candidate but the voting machine shows a different selection. Voters are encouraged to check, and if necessary correct, votes before completing their ballot, but flipped votes can cause confusion and charges of rigging. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center says flipped votes often aren’t evidence of rigging or hacking, but age. Older machines have more fickle calibrations and the glue attaching the screen to machine wears, resulting in poor alignment.

The reason that so many voting machines are nearing their end dates simultaneously is in part due to the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Following the Florida ballot-counting controversy in the 2000 presidential election, Congress provided over $3.6 billion in funds to states and territories to upgrade election system and improve election administration. HAVA also established minimum standards for voting systems and election administration, and created the Elections Assistance Commission to help states design systems that complied with the new law.

HAVA, which prompted a flurry of upgrades, was the first time the federal government provided funds to states for election systems. It was also the last.

As their current stock of voting equipment ages, few states have unspent HAVA grant money left. Ninety-one percent has been spent. States with significant remaining funds cannot necessarily use it to buy voting equipment. Massachusetts, with the largest percentage of unspent funds — 57 percent — has slated the remaining money for a new voter database. New Hampshire is using its remaining funds as a maintenance endowment. In the past four years, only two states have provided sufficient funds, outside of HAVA, to completely replace old voting equipment.

While elections may be the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, funding them is an uphill battle. A 2014 report by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported that election administrators viewed themselves as the “least powerful lobby in state legislatures and often the last constituency to receive scarce funds at the local level.”

In 2015, The Brennan Center estimated that 43 states, along with the District of Columbia, used polling place machines that were no longer manufactured. Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures says “Some voting equipment today works with old operating systems — Windows XP or Windows 2000 — and data storage devices we wouldn’t even know what to do with today.”

Finding the necessary software and hardware has election administrators sifting through technology graveyards. In Louisiana, machines that have been taken out of service are salvaged for parts. To find parts for Minnesota’s outdated voting equipment, Deborah Erickson, director of administrative services for Crow Wing County, told a Minnesota House committee, “The best answer to that is eBay.”

Buying machines online from non-certified vendors can heap additional security risks on top of the risk already posed by antiquated, vulnerable equipment. For over a decade, experts have warned of the risks of voting machines that store all information electronically, because voters cannot verify their votes and there’s no way to properly audit these machines.

A recent report on election security by the Center for American Progress says “conducting elections with paper-based voting systems is one of the most important steps states can take to improve election security.” Paperless machines are still used in 14 states.

It’s important to note that voting and tabulation equipment are not connected to the internet, making it difficult to hack systems remotely to change votes.

Last March, the National Association of the Secretaries of States wrote in a brief on cybersecurity in the 2016 election that “our diverse and locally-run election process presents serious obstacles to carrying out large-scale cyberattacks to disrupt elections, and that standalone, disconnected voting systems present a low risk.”

But election officials are still concerned about systems’ vulnerability to hacking by bad actors who gain access to individual machines on Election Day, and about the public’s ability to draw a distinction between small-scale in-person hacks and large-scale remote ones. There is no shortage of demonstrations of the former. Over a long weekend last summer, hackers at a conference in Las Vegas, DefCon, managed to breach all five models of paperless voting machines, as well as an electronic poll book. The hack received a great deal of media attention. One machine, called a WINvote by Advanced Voting Solutions, was hacked in under two hours and reprogrammed to play Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Masterson considers the Defcon hack a poor indicator of the security of real systems, describing the exercise as giving hackers “unlimited access to old systems.” Some relied on undetected physical access, a difficult feat in a polling place. The equipment in the experiment was chosen because of its easy availability on eBay, not because of its prevalence in actual elections. The WINvote machine has not been used in any U.S. election since 2014.

For others, though, the DefCon report was a resounding signal to end the use of paperless voting machines.

Less than six weeks after DefCon, the Virginia State Board of Elections decertified such machines, which were used in 23 cities and counties. This came only two weeks before absentee voting for the gubernatorial election began. The commonwealth provided no funding for new voting machines that keep paper records.

It was not the first time Virginia election administrators were scrambling to meet new security requirements. In 2015, two months before a primary election, the Board of Elections decertified WINvote machines, used by 30 localities, following an investigation by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency that found security issues ranging from a system that hadn’t been patched since 2004 to the use of an administrative password “admin.”

Virginia’s 2015 investigation was prompted neither by repeated warnings from cybersecurity experts nor that all other states had retired their WINvote machines. Rather, it was problems experienced by voters, most notably Gov. Terry McAuliffe himself, in the 2014 election that led to a review. McAuliffe requested $28 million to assist localities in purchasing new equipment, which the General Assembly did not agree to.

Two years later, the Virginia State Board of Elections again demanded changes but offered localities no money and little time to overhaul their voting machines. Weeks away from a governor’s race many considered a bellwether for the national political climate, 23 cities and counties scrambled for funds.

Norfolk, Virginia, bought new voting machines, spending over $630,000, and then tested and approved them under what Deputy Director of Elections Stephanie Isles called “a tight timeline.” Alexandria spent just under $600,000, taking it from the city’s 2018 budget. James Clement, the general registrar of Culpeper, Virginia, says that when it came to voting security officials suddenly “were being directed to spend with no regard at all, but when you ask for funds it’s like talking into a vacuum.”

While Virginia jurisdictions were able to pay for new machines, such spending isn’t feasible everywhere. Norden says that post-HAVA election systems “require a lot more infrastructure and investment. That’s only compounded by a more difficult security environment. It’s unrealistic to expect all of this to fall at the local level.”

States and localities have each responded in their own way to the increasing complexity and cost of elections resulting in a patchwork of laws and procedures. “There is no one election in the United States, there are thousands of independent elections. ... They’re run with their own policies, and their own processes, and, frankly, in a lot of ways, their own vocabulary,” says Christy McCormick, a member of the EAC, at a recent summit on election administration.

The level of state government funding for elections is “all over the place,” says Bernadette Matthews of the Illinois State Board of Elections. Some states cover all costs for statewide elections. Others may only cover special elections or only presidential primaries. More than half a dozen states provide no money to localities to administer elections. Payment to counties for elections can vary from a set proportion of total costs to formulas based on number of precincts or voters to coverage for specific parts of election administration, like ballot printing.

Since elections happen only once, or maybe twice, a year Masterson says “they’re seen as periodic and not needing sustainable funding like roads.” But as the complexity of election systems have grown, Masterson says they should be viewed as infrastructure and just as important as IT systems.

That elections have run pretty smoothly overall can create a perverse incentive to lower them as a budget priority. The Caltech-MIT Voter Technology Project, started after the 2000 Florida recount, has found that, since then, a range of election performance metrics, from lost votes to long wait times, have improved dramatically.

But with voting equipment nearing the end of its lifecycle, election administrators are hoping for funds before antiquated systems create larger problems.

“We use the analogy of a firetruck,” says Meg Sunstrom of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office. “We don’t want a firetruck going out of commission mid-run.”

Predictably, relying on local funding means large, well-resourced counties fare better than small ones. Travis County, Texas, home to Austin and over 1.1 million people, has spent the last five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars evaluating and then attempting to design its own voting equipment. Next to Travis County sits Blanco County, population 11,004. Its operating budget for election administration this year is $46,000.

Some state election officials say the uneven finances of counties is why the state should invest in new equipment. Chris Whitmire from South Carolina’s Election Commission wants to make sure that “nobody is left behind.” Similarly, Ohio Secretary of State Husted says “many local counties are struggling so we have to make sure cost is not a factor.” Husted is urging Ohio’s governor and legislature to cover the full cost of new voting equipment, estimated at $118 million.

A recent report by Pennsylvania’s Advisory Committee on Voting Technology reported that many committee members “expressed concern that their jurisdiction would not be able to afford voting technology that satisfies” their recommendations, but also expressed concern “that their jurisdiction would not be able to maintain their current electronic voting systems for much longer.” The committee recommended the General Assembly provide funds to counties.

Since 2014, only two states have provided sufficient funds for new voting equipment. Ten more have committed to partial funding. Last year Minnesota created a $7 million grant to aid counties and municipalities in purchasing new voting equipment. Local governments applied for nearly double that amount. In a statement Secretary of State Steve Simon says “It is clear that replacing our state’s aging election equipment is an ongoing need.”

Some election officials hope the funds their state has allocated so far are just the start. In Louisiana, the Voter Technology Fund, started in 2015, has roughly $1 million. Secretary of State Tom Schedler plans to ask for between $40 and $50 million more from the legislature this year to purchase new machines. In Utah, the governor’s 2019 budget asks for $4.5 million, far more than $275,000 appropriated by the legislature last year.

More money also could be on the way from the federal government. In the closing days of 2017, six senators filed the bipartisan Elections Security Act, which would make $386 million in unspent HAVA grants available to states to replace paperless voting machines. “The amount of money in there won’t solve every problem, but it will go a long way ... and help states where they need help,” says Norden.

In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, urged Congress to move ahead on the act for the sake of national security. “The best estimates show that we can replace all paperless voting machines in the United States for about the cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.” they said. “It’s not practical to expect local election administrators in rural Missouri or small-town Maine to go toe-to-toe with the premier government-backed cyber-mercenaries of China or North Korea.”

But the Elections Security Act provides no new money, and little progress has been made in taking it up in the Senate.

There are signs that states are at least talking more about modernizing voting systems. ”Five years ago no states were asking about election equipment,” Underhill says. “Now there’s an interest and a real conversation. Across states there are task forces, special committees and proposals.”

Five of the 12 states that have allocated funds to new equipment since 2014 did so last year. There are more bills slated to come. In Ohio, Husted says his latest request for funds is his “most specific and aggressive” yet.

This will be the seventh year in a row South Carolina’s Election Commission asks for funds to replace voting machines, Whitmore says. The machines are 13 years old. He remains hopeful this will be the year. “Election security has hit the mainstream. Election security is on the radar and woven into the fabric. It’s on everyone’s mind.”

How Political Pessimism Helps Doom Tougher Gun Laws
February 18th, 2018, 05:42 AM

It’s predictable after every new mass-shooting horror: The political right’s reflexive call for “thoughts and prayers,” which is then mocked by people who favor more gun restrictions for lacking any accompanying ideas for preventing future killings.

But there’s an equally predictable refrain on the center-left and in the media, too: “Once again, nothing will be done.”

Barely had the death toll of 17 been announced last week after the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida than The Washington Post declared, “The gun debate is going nowhere quickly after Parkland.” CNN offered: “Amid continued string of mass shootings, gun control going nowhere in Congress.” After 59 concert-goers were mowed down in October, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel put to rest any hope for reform in a New York Times op-ed column titled “Nothing Will Change After the Las Vegas Shooting.”

This fatalism is borne of hard-won experience. Congress has failed repeatedly to pass any gun-control measures after past calamities, even the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Yet this world-weary defeatism is self-fulfilling in its own way, and helps explain why Washington hasn’t taken action to address the killing.

For one thing, such pessimism demoralizes, and dismisses, those who are motivated to fight against gun violence, such as the network of angry moms that sprung up after the Sandy Hook massacre and the organization led by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, which have managed to achieve a series of state-level successes even as reform stalls at the national level.

For another thing, it lets off the hook those who are opposed to stronger gun laws. Declaring preemptively that any new effort at gun-law reform is doomed spares opponents from even having to make their arguments for protecting the gun lobby.

Most importantly, liberal fatalism on gun control overstates the strength of the opposition. The National Rifle Association’s influence depends heavily on the perception of its power. By building up the gun lobby as an indomitable force, pessimists are playing directly into its hands.

No doubt, the NRA is influential. Not so much because of the campaign contributions it makes to candidates, but because it can count on an energized grass-roots base of gun-rights supporters to turn out at the polls and badger elected officials with calls and emails. But that influence has limits, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that it is on the wane.

For one thing, the proportion of Americans with guns has been steadily declining, to its lowest level in decades, though there are recent signs that the decline has leveled off. (The reason why the number of guns continues to rise despite this demographic trend is that the remaining gun owners are buying more and more weapons.) Meanwhile, gun ownership is growing more heavily clustered in certain states. That limits the voting power of the gun lobby.

For another thing, the aforementioned notorious failure, to pass background checks following the Sandy Hook massacre, was a closer call than many people realized. It got 55 Senate votes, just five short of a filibuster-proof 60. Six senators with A ratings from the NRA voted for it. It would still have had to get through the GOP-controlled House, but that was not out of the question: there would have been tremendous pressure from Sandy Hook families on then-Speaker John Boehner to hold a vote, and unlike in the Senate, it would have required only a majority, which meant getting fewer than 20 Republicans to vote for it.

And consider what happened after that vote. Two of the four red-state Democrats who voted no, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Alaska’s Mark Begich, got zero NRA back-up in return for that vote and lost re-election in 2014, proving to other centrist Democrats that there’s no point in currying NRA favor. It’s hard to tell now, with Republicans in control of Washington, but the NRA’s decision to become a purely partisan organization, after years of courting Democrats as well, could come back to haunt it in the near future.

Meanwhile, one of the purple-state Republicans who voted no, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, lost in 2016 in a race in which the pro-gun-law groups went after her hard for that vote. No longer is voting with the NRA the obvious safe tack for a self-interested politician.

There are other signs that the political winds are shifting on the issue. In Virginia, the NRA’s home state, Ralph Northam was elected governor by a wide margin despite his F rating from the NRA and outspoken calls for tougher laws, following in the footsteps of Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine, who both also won statewide election despite their staunch anti-NRA stance.

Meanwhile, the empirical case for reducing gun violence through tougher restrictions has been growing stronger, providing counter to the oft-heard claims that “laws wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” Missouri has seen a sharp rise in shooting deaths after eliminating in-person background checks for gun purchases. Connecticut, on the other hand, has seen a sharp decline in shooting deaths after it instituted stringent gun-permitting requirements following Sandy Hook.

Of course, with Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, the odds are stacked against federal legislation. But that’s the case with plenty other issues that liberals still see reason to keep pushing forward on at all levels of government, from health care to climate change to the minimum wage, even if momentary prospects are not bright.

Bottom line, the widespread fatalism on guns is self-fulfilling. It inflates the power of the opposition, undermines activists, and gives off the air of defeat, never a good thing in a country that prizes winners.

But now a new generation may be showing a different way. A remarkable wave of student outrage and activism is spreading from Parkland, serving as a rebuke not only to conservatives who have blocked gun-law reform, but also to liberals who had given up the fight.

“When we’ve had our say with the government — and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail,” declared Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student, in a speech that has gone viral on the Internet. “And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”

Such youthful determination will run up against plenty of hard realities. But in this she is right: The worst odds of all lie in declaring any effort hopeless.

The Trump Administration Goes to War — With Itself — Over the VA
February 16th, 2018, 05:42 AM

David Shulkin, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, showed up to what he thought would be a routine Senate oversight hearing in January, only to discover it was an ambush.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was the sole holdout among members of the veterans affairs committee on a bill that would shape the future of the agency. The bipartisan bill had the support of 26 service groups representing millions of veterans. But Moran was pushing a rival piece of legislation, and it had the support of a White House aide who wields significant clout on veterans policy. Neither proposal could advance as long as there was any doubt about which President Donald Trump wanted to sign.

Moran blamed Shulkin for the impasse. “In every instance, you led me to believe that you and I were on the same page,” Moran said at the hearing. “Our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth: double talk.”

There were gasps in the hearing room. It was an astounding rebuke for a Trump appointee to receive from a Republican senator, especially for Shulkin, who was confirmed by the Senate unanimously.

Clearly ruffled, Shulkin hesitated before answering. “I think it is grossly unfair to make the characterizations you have made of me, and I’m disappointed that you would do that,” he said. “What I am trying to do is give you my best advice about how this works.”

Moran dug in. “I chose my words intentionally,” he said. “I think you tell me one thing and you tell others something else. And that’s incompatible with our ability to reach an agreement and to work together.” Moran then left the hearing for another appointment.

The exchange exposed tensions that had been brewing for months behind closed doors. A battle for the future of the VA has been raging between the White House and veterans groups, with Shulkin caught in the middle. The conflict erupted into national headlines this week as a result of a seemingly unrelated development: the release of a lacerating report on Shulkin that found “serious derelictions” in a taxpayer-funded European business trip in which he and his wife enjoyed free tickets to Wimbledon and more.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., delivers opening remarks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., July 19, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

The underlying disagreement at the VA has a different flavor than the overhauls at a number of federal agencies. Unlike some Trump appointees, who took the reins of agencies with track records of opposing the very mission of the organization, Shulkin is a technocratic Obama holdover. He not only participated in the past administration, but defends the VA’s much-maligned health care system. He seeks to keep the organization at the center of veterans’ health care. (An adviser to Shulkin said the White House isn’t permitting him to do interviews.)

But others in the administration want a much more drastic change: They seek to privatize vets’ health care. From perches in Congress, the White House and the VA itself, they have battled Shulkin. In some instances, his own subordinates have openly defied him.

Multiple publications have explored the turmoil and conflict at the VA in the wake of the inspector general report. Yet a closer examination shows the roots of the fight stretch back to the presidential campaign and reveals how far the entropy of the Trump administration has spread. Much has been written on the “chaos presidency.” Every day seems to bring exposés of White House backstabbing and blood feuds. The fight over the VA shows not only that this problem afflicts federal agencies, too, but that friction and contradiction were inevitable: Trump appointed a VA secretary who wants to preserve the fundamental structure of government-provided health care; the president also installed a handful of senior aides who are committed to a dramatically different philosophy.

The blistering report may yet cost Shulkin his job. But the attention on his travel-related misbehavior is distracting from a much more significant issue: The administration’s infighting is imperiling a major legislative deal that could shape the future of the VA.

Taking better care of veterans was a constant refrain at Trump’s presidential campaign rallies. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets. Our vets have been abandoned.” Ex-military people overwhelmingly supported him on Election Day and in office.

Trump’s original policy proposals on veterans health, unveiled in October 2015, largely consisted of tweaks to the current system. They called for increasing funding for mental health and helping vets find jobs; providing more women’s health services; modernizing infrastructure and setting up satellite clinics in rural areas.

The ideas drew derisive responses from the Koch brothers-backed group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). Pete Hegseth, its then-CEO, called the proposal “painfully thin” and “unserious.”

Trump then took a sharp turn toward CVA’s positions after clinching the Republican nomination. In a July 2016 speech in Virginia Beach, he embraced a very different vision for the VA, emphasizing private-sector alternatives. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics,” Trump said, “whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center.”

Trump’s new 10-point plan for veterans policy resembled the CVA’s priorities. In fact, six of the proposals drew directly on CVA ideas. Three of them aimed to make it easier to fire employees; a fourth advocated the creation of a reform commission; and two involved privatizing VA medical care.

Trump’s new direction, according to a campaign aide, was influenced by Jeff Miller, then the chairman of the House veterans committee. Miller, who retired from Congress in January 2017, was a close ally of CVA and a scathing critic of Obama’s VA.

Miller became one of the first congressmen to endorse Trump, in April 2016. He did so a few weeks after attending a meeting of the campaign’s national security advisers. (That meeting, and the photo Trump tweeted of it, would become famous because of the presence of George Papadopoulos, who is cooperating with investigators after pleading guilty to lying about Russian contacts. Miller is wearing the light gray jacket in the front right. Now a lobbyist with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, he didn’t reply to requests for comment.) Miller became Trump’s point man on veterans policy, the campaign aide said.

Jeff Miller, former chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, speaks during a veterans reform campaign event, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, July 11, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Miller and CVA portrayed the VA as the embodiment of “bureaucratic ineptitude and appalling dysfunction.” They were able to cite an ample supply of embarrassing scandals.

The scandals may come as less of a surprise than the fact that the VA actually enjoys widespread support among veterans. Most who use its health care report a positive experience. For example, 92 percent of veterans in a poll conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars reported that they would rather improve the VA system than dismantle it. Independent assessments have found that VA health care outperforms comparable private facilities. “The politicization of health care in the VA is frankly really unfair,” said Nancy Schlichting, the retired CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, who chaired an independent commission to study the VA under the Obama administration. “Noise gets out there based on very specific instances, but this is a very large system. If any health system in this country had the scrutiny the VA has, they’d have stories too.”

One piece of extreme noise was a scandal in 2014, which strengthened Miller and CVA’s hand and created crucial momentum toward privatization. In an April 2014 hearing, Miller revealed that officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix were effectively fudging records to cover up long delays in providing medical care to patients. He alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting to be seen. A week later, CVA organized a protest in Phoenix of 150 veterans demanding answers.

Miller’s dramatic claims did not hold up. A comprehensive IG investigation would eventually find 28 delays that were clinically significant; and though six of those patients died, the IG did not conclude that the delays caused those deaths. Later still, an independent assessment found that long waits were not widespread: More than 90 percent of existing patients got appointments within two weeks of their initial request.

But such statistics were lost in the furor. “Nobody stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, time out, are we destroying this national resource because a small group of people made a mistake?’” a former senior congressional staffer said. “Even those who considered themselves to be friends of the VA were silent. It was a surreal period. The way it grew tentacles has had consequences nobody would have predicted.”

In the heat of the scandal, Miller and CVA pushed for a new program called Choice. It would allow veterans who have to wait more than 30 days for a doctor’s appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get private-sector care. The VA has bought some private medical care for decades, but Choice represented a significant expansion, and Democrats were wary that it would open the door to privatizing VA health care on a much broader scale.

Still, the Phoenix scandal had made it hard for the Democrats to resist. The Choice bill passed with bipartisan support and President Obama signed it into law in August 2014.

By 2016, then-candidate Trump was demanding further changes. “The VA scandals that have occurred on this administration’s watch are widespread and inexcusable,” he said in the Virginia Beach speech. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center. We must extend this right to all veterans.”

Trump’s contacts with CVA and its allies deepened during the transition. He met Hegseth, who left CVA to become a Fox News commentator, in Trump Tower. Trump picked Darin Selnick for the “landing team” that would supervise the transition at the VA. Selnick had directed CVA’s policy task force, which in 2015 recommended splitting the VA’s payer and provider functions and spinning off the latter into a government nonprofit corporation. Such an operation, organized along the lines of Amtrak, would be able to receive federal funding but also raise other revenue.

Trump’s consideration of Hegseth and Miller to lead the VA ran into fierce resistance from veterans groups, powerful institutions whose clout is boosted by the emotional power that comes with members’ having risked their lives for their country. At a meeting with the Trump transition in December 2016, officials from the major veterans groups held a firm line against privatizing the VA and any secretary intent on it.

Trump finally settled on Shulkin, 58, who ran the VA health system under Obama. Shulkin is a former chief of private hospital systems and a doctor — an internist, he still occasionally treats patients at the VA — who comes across more as a medical geek than the chief of a massive organization.

Trump heaps praise on Shulkin in public appearances and meets with him regularly in private. He was one of the first cabinet secretaries Trump consulted about the impact of the government shutdown on Jan. 21. They met at Camp David in December and lunched at the White House on Feb. 8. “You’re doing a great job,” Trump told Shulkin at a Jan. 9 signing ceremony for an executive order on veterans mental health services, handing Shulkin the executive pen. “We appreciate you.”

Trump may like Shulkin. But that didn’t stop his administration from appointing officials who opposed his philosophy. One of them, Jake Leinenkugel, a Marine Corps veteran and retired Wisconsin brewery owner, became the White House’s eyes and ears inside the agency. He works in an office next to Shulkin’s, but his title is senior White House adviser. Leinenkugel, 65, said he came out of retirement to take the position because he was “excited about taking POTUS’s agenda and advancing it.” As he put it, “I’m here to help veterans.”

President Donald Trump hands a pen to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, after signing an executive order supporting veterans, in the White House on Jan. 9, 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

He and Shulkin got along fine for a few months. But then, in May 2017, the two men clashed, as Shulkin accused Leinenkugel of undermining him. Shulkin wanted to nominate the VA’s acting under secretary for health, Poonam Alaigh, to take the position permanently, according to two people familiar with his thinking. But, the VA secretary charged, Leinenkugel told the White House to drop Alaigh. Shulkin confronted Leinenkugel, who denied any sabotage, according to an email Leinenkugel subsequently wrote. Alaigh stepped down in October and the position remains unfilled.

Shulkin has even been at odds with his own press secretary, Curt Cashour, who came from Miller’s House committee staff. Last month, Shulkin assigned an official to send a letter to a veterans group that said the agency would update its motto, to be inclusive of servicewomen. (Adapted from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the original reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The new version would read: “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”)

Cashour told The Washington Post the motto wouldn’t change. A few days later, the secretary’s strategic plan went out using the updated, gender-neutral motto. Cashour then denied the change a second time, telling the Post that was “not VA’s position.” A new document with the Lincoln quote restored subsequently appeared on the VA’s website. Shulkin was stunned at being disobeyed by his own spokesman, two people briefed on the incident said. (Cashour denied defying the VA secretary. “The premise of your inquiry is false,” he told ProPublica. Cashour said Shulkin never approved the letter regarding the updated motto and authorized the restoration of the original one.)

Then there was Selnick, who became the administration’s most effective proponent for privatization. He joined the VA as a “senior advisor to the secretary.” Though he reported to Shulkin, he quickly began developing his own policy proposals and conducted his own dealings with lawmakers, according to people with knowledge of the situation. In mid-2017 Shulkin pushed him out — sort of.

Selnick left the VA offices and took up roost in the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. There he started hosting VA-related policy meetings without informing Shulkin, according to people briefed on the meetings. At one such meeting of the “Veterans Policy Coordinating Committee,” Selnick floated merging the Choice program with military’s Tricare insurance plan, according to documents from the meeting obtained by ProPublica.

Veterans groups were furious. At a Nov. 17 meeting, Selnick boasted that Trump wouldn’t sign anything without Selnick’s endorsement, according to a person present. Shulkin would later tell a confidant that moving Selnick out of the VA was his “biggest mistake” because he did even more damage from the White House. (Selnick did not reply to a request for comment. A White House spokesman said some VA officials were aware of the policy meetings that Selnick hosted. The spokesman said Selnick does not brief the president or the chief of staff.)

Selnick, 57, is a retired Air Force captain from California who worked in the VA under the George W. Bush administration. At CVA, he not only ran the policy task force, he testified before Congress and appeared on TV. In 2015, House Speaker John Boehner appointed Selnick to the Commission on Care, an independent body created by a Congressional act to study the VA and make recommendations.

Selnick impressed his fellow commissioners with his preparation but sometimes irked them with what they viewed as his assumption that he was in charge, people who worked with him on the commission said. Selnick often brought up his experience at the VA. But some commissioners scoffed behind his back because his position, in charge of faith-based initiatives, had little relevance to health care. Whatever his credentials, Selnick had audacious ambitions: He wanted to reconceive the VA’s fundamental approach to medical care.

Selnick wanted to open up the VA so any veteran could see any doctor, an approach that would transform its role into something resembling an insurance company, albeit one with no restrictions on providers. Other commissioners worried that would cost the government more, impose fees and deductibles on veterans and serve them worse. “He was probably the most vocal of all of the members,” said David Gorman, the retired executive director of Disabled American Veterans who also served on the commission, “in a good and a bad way.”

The bad part, in the view of Nancy Schlichting, the chairwoman, emerged when Selnick tried to “hijack” the commission. Selnick and a minority of commissioners secretly drafted their own proposal, which went further than CVA’s. (The group included executives of large health systems that stood to gain more patients.) They wrote that the “the current VA health care system is seriously broken” with “no efficient path to repair it.” They proposed closing facilities, letting all veterans choose private care, and transitioning the rest to private care over two decades.

The draft was written in a way that seemed to speak for the commission as a whole, with phrases like “the Commission recommends.” The commission staff suggested labeling it a “straw man report,” implying it was meant to provoke discussion. Still, veterans organizations were angry, and Schlichting had to publicly disavow the draft. “Darin Selnick has never run a health system in his life and doesn’t understand the complexity of it,” Schlichting told ProPublica.

For his part, Shulkin publicly staked out his vision in a March 17, 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, he defended the VA’s quality of care and proposed reimagining the VA as an integrated system composed of its own core facilities, a network of vetted private-sector providers, and a third layer of private care for veterans in remote places. Shulkin also edited a book published last year trumpeting the VA’s successes, called “Best Care Everywhere.”

Almost four years after the Phoenix scandal, the emergency measure letting some veterans get care outside the VA is still limping along with temporary extensions, not to mention payment glitches and confusion about its rules. Key legislators grew tired of renewing emergency funding and wanted to find a long-term solution. In the House, negotiations broke down after Democrats boycotted a listening session featuring CVA. So last fall, focus turned to the Senate.

The crux of the debate was the extent to which the VA should rely on private care. The chairman and ranking member on the Senate veterans committee, respectively, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jon Tester of Montana, drafted a bill to consolidate all of the VA’s programs that pay for private care and let doctors and patients decide where veterans would get care. The VA would buy private care when that makes the most sense but would still coordinate all veterans care in an integrated, comprehensive way. The bill garnered the support of 26 veterans organizations and every committee member except Moran.

Moran represents the Koch brothers’ home state; employees of Koch Industries are the second-largest source of campaign contributions in his career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. With the support of CVA, Moran wanted to establish clear criteria making veterans eligible for private-sector care, like the 30 days/40 miles standard in the Choice program. It might sound like a subtle distinction, but it means the difference between keeping all veterans within the VA system versus ceding the direction of patient care to the private sector. When the committee rejected his amendment, Moran proposed his own bill and signed up Sen. John McCain as a co-sponsor.

Moran’s bill initially called for all veterans to be able to choose private care. When a McCain aide shared it with a lobbyist for the American Legion, the lobbyist was so enraged by what he viewed as a bid to undermine the VA that he torched a copy of the bill and sent the McCain aide a photo of the charred draft. (An American Legion spokesman declined to comment.) With the American Legion’s input, McCain’s and Moran’s staffs toned down the bill to the point that they got letters of support from the group, along with Amvets and CVA. But American Legion and Amvets were still working to get consensus on the Isakson-Tester bill.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Sen. Johnny Isakson R-GA., right, question Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a hearing in Washington, D.C., June 7, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Still, the Moran-McCain bill had a few key allies: Selnick and Leinenkugel. They had gained sway in part because of a White House vacuum. The president himself has been largely absent on veterans policy and there’s no senior point person. The portfolio has at times belonged to Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Omarosa Manigault, according to veterans groups and congressional officials. (A White House spokesman said those officials played a role in “veterans issues,” but not “veterans policy.” The latter, the spokesman said, is overseen by Selnick on the Domestic Policy Council.)

That has given Selnick and Leinenkugel wide latitude to shape White House positions on issues that don’t rise to Trump’s level. “Darin [Selnick] is pretty much in the ascendancy,” said Michael Blecker, the executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based charity serving veterans.

As long as Moran had a competing claim to the Trump administration’s support, the Isakson-Tester bill was stuck. Republicans wouldn’t risk a floor vote on a bill the president might not sign. Shulkin supported the Isakson-Tester bill but he knew his rivals inside the White House were pushing for Moran’s proposal. So Shulkin hedged, awkwardly praising both bills. “We still don’t know which bill he wants,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of Amvets, said. “If the White House wants something different, then we need to know how to reconcile that.”

Amid the impasse, the Choice program was out of money again and needed an extension as part of the end-of-year spending deal. Tester vowed to make it the last one he’d agree to. He called on Shulkin to break the stalemate by publicly endorsing his and Isakson’s bill. “I would love to have the VA come out forcefully for this bill,” he said on the Senate floor in late December. “I think it would help get it passed.”

In a private meeting, Isakson and Tester chided Shulkin for withholding support for their bill, according to three people briefed on the meeting. Shulkin told them he was doing the best he could, but he had to fend off a competing agenda from the White House.

Unbeknown to Shulkin, there was already talk in the White House of easing him out. On Dec. 4, Leinenkugel wrote a memo, which ProPublica obtained, summarizing his disillusionment with Shulkin as well as with Shulkin’s deputy, Thomas Bowman, and chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson. (“I was asked to tell the truth and I gave it,” said Leinenkugel of his memo; he declined to say who requested it.)

Leinenkugel accused Bowman of disloyalty and opposing the “dynamic new Choice options requested by POTUS agenda.” The memo recommended that Bowman be fired — and replaced by Leinenkugel himself. It also asserted that Wright Simpson “was proud to tell me she is a Democrat who completely trusts the secretary and it’s her job to protect him.” Leinenkugel accused her of delaying the placement of Trump’s political appointees. Leinenkugel recommended replacing her, too.

As for Shulkin, Leinenkugel’s memo advocated he be “put on notice to leave after major legislation and key POTUS VA initiatives [are] in place.”

After the clash between Moran and Shulkin at the January hearing, Isakson said the White House would provide feedback on his bill to help the committee chart a way forward. “The president basically is pushing to get a unanimous vote out of committee,” said Rick Weidman, the top lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “The only reason why we didn’t get it before was there is one mid-level guy on the Domestic Policy Council who threw a monkey wrench into it by confusing people about what the administration’s position is.” That person, Weidman said, is Selnick.

The White House’s feedback on the Isakson-Tester bill, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, was the closest the administration has come to a unified position on veterans health care. It incorporated input from the VA and the Office of Management and Budget. Selnick told veterans groups he wrote the memo, leaving some miffed that Selnick seemingly had the final word instead of Shulkin. (A White House spokesman said Selnick was not the only author.)

Selnick requested changes that might look like minor tweaks but would have dramatic policy consequences. “It’s these very small differences in details that the public would never notice that change the character of the thing entirely,” said Phillip Longman, whose 2007 book, “Best Care Anywhere,” argued that the VA works better than private health care. (The title of the book Shulkin edited, “Best Care Everywhere,” was a nod at Longman’s book.)

Most important, the White House wanted clear criteria that make veterans eligible for private care. That was the main feature of Moran’s bill and the sticking point in the negotiations. The administration also asked to preserve a piece of the Choice program by grandfathering in veterans living more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. CVA praised the White House for nudging the bill in Moran’s direction. “We applaud President Trump for taking a firm stand in favor of more health care choice for veterans at the VA,” the group’s director, Daniel Caldwell, said in a statement dated Jan. 24.

The White House feedback also called for removing provisions that would regulate providers, such as requiring them to meet quality standards and limiting opioid prescriptions. And the administration objected to provisions in the bill that would require it to fill critical vacancies at the VA and report back to Congress.

Selnick got what he asked for, but it still might not be enough. Isakson and Tester agreed to most of the changes. But in a White House meeting with veterans groups on Feb. 5, Selnick continued to insist on open choice, suggesting that’s what Trump wants. Selnick visited Moran’s staff, a person with knowledge of the meeting said, and Moran indicated he wouldn’t support the modified version of the Isakson-Tester bill. (A White House spokesman said Isakson and Tester did not accept all the changes and negotiations continue. He denied that Selnick pushed for open choice.) Moran’s spokesman didn’t answer emailed questions by press time.)

The tensions spilled out publicly again on Feb. 8, when the Washington Post reported that the White House wanted to oust Bowman, Shulkin’s deputy. The article said the purpose was to chastise Shulkin for “freewheeling” — working with senators who don’t share the administration’s position. Isakson’s spokeswoman called it a “shameful attempt” to derail the negotiations. Isakson resolved to move ahead without Moran, the spokeswoman said, but it’s not clear when the bill will get time on the Senate floor (the Senate focused on immigration this week and then will take a recess). Moran could still place a “hold” on the bill or round up other senators to oppose it.

Shulkin determined that Selnick and Leinenkugel had to go, according to four people familiar with the secretary’s thinking. But Shulkin doesn’t appear to have the authority to fire them since they work for the White House. Plus, the attacks from the right were already taking a toll on Shulkin’s standing. “If leaders at Trump’s VA don’t support REAL CHOICE — why won’t they resign?” former CVA chief Hegseth tweeted on Feb. 13, tagging Shulkin in the post.

Veterans advocates responded by defending Shulkin against attacks they viewed as originating with Selnick and Leinenkugel. “They thought they could coopt David,” said Weidman, the lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “When he couldn’t be coopted, they decided to go after his character.”

The biggest blow came on Feb. 14, when the VA’s Inspector General released its report on Shulkin’s trip to Europe in April 2017. It concluded that Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets, misused a subordinate as a “personal travel concierge,” lied to reporters, and that his chief of staff doctored an email in such a way that would justify paying travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife.

Shulkin disputed the IG’s findings, but he again ran into trouble getting his message out from his own press office. A statement insisting he had “done nothing wrong” disappeared from the VA’s website, and Cashour replaced it with one saying “we look forward to reviewing the report and its recommendations in more detail before determining an appropriate response.” Cashour said the White House directed him to take down Shulkin’s statement and approved the new one.

Shulkin told Politico the IG report was spurred by internal opponents. “They are really killing me,” he said. By Feb. 16, his chief of staff had told colleagues Friday she would retire, USA Today reported.

The condemnation after the IG report was swift and widespread. House veterans committee member Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called on Shulkin to resign. Democrats, though generally sympathetic to Shulkin, couldn’t resist lumping the imbroglio in with other travel-expense tempests across Trump’s cabinet (involving Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, and Steven Mnuchin). The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate veterans committees said they were “disappointed” and want Shulkin to address the allegations, but acknowledged the politics at work and the stakes in a joint statement: “We need to continue progress we have made and not allow distractions to get in the way.”

The next day, Shulkin appeared before another routine oversight hearing, in this instance on the House side. He told the representatives he would reimburse the government for his wife’s travel and accept the IG’s recommendations. Shulkin thanked the chairman and ranking member for urging their colleagues not to let the scandal commandeer the hearing. “I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work,” he said.

Turning to the VA’s budget, Shulkin resumed his tightrope walk. He praised the VA’s services while acknowledging the need for some veterans to be treated outside the government’s system. By the time he left the hearing, two hours later, the Trump administration’s position on veterans health privatization remained a mystery.

How We Made Our Illinois Governor’s Campaign Finance Widget
February 16th, 2018, 05:42 AM


Hi! I’m David Eads, news apps developer at ProPublica Illinois. I want to tell you about a widget we released last week that tracks fundraising in the Illinois governor’s race.

The idea for the widget came from my previous life at NPR, where we embedded data graphics on sites across the public radio network. This worked very well for national stories, and I believe the technique has even more potential at the state and local level. News organizations, especially smaller outlets, can’t compete on data plumbing and they often lack compelling visuals to go along with important reporting. We know that stories with strong data graphics and visuals are more likely to be seen, to be read to the end and to be shared by readers. By sharing these kinds of resources, we can make all the great reporting happening around Illinois more compelling.

The software I wrote grabs the latest fundraising data from the Illinois State Board of Elections every day. Then it downloads the data, processes it and dumps it into a database. It is then processed again into a simplified format that the widget uses. Finally, the widget gets updated with the latest information.

Anyone can include the widget on their website to display the latest fundraising figures. (If you’re interested, here’s how to do that.) It’s the first of what we hope will be many experiments to reach our audience by complementing reporting with useful, data-driven visual journalism.

And the widget is a living project. We plan to enhance it in the coming weeks by adding data on candidate self-funding and tracking how much spending has gone toward supporting candidates’ parties versus their own campaigns.

We also know that not everyone interested in the widget has a website, so we’re developing the ability to automatically generate images that can be shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, too. In fact, we have a jump start on that, thanks to the work of reader Jim Kang, an engineer at Spotify.

Kang saw news about the widget on Twitter and shared code with us that will help generate images. He said he did so to “help out with public civic information in any way.”

Learn more about how to use the widget and, if you have questions or ideas how to improve it, email me at And also, let me know if you do end up using the widget or embedding it on your own site. We’d like to keep track of all the places it ends up.

Congressman Calls For Investigation Of Conservative Think Tank
February 15th, 2018, 05:42 AM

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski is asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether a series of financial deals improperly benefited the leaders of the Illinois Policy Institute — the latest call for authorities to examine the influential conservative think tank.

In an open letter to the head of the IRS, Lipinski — a Democrat who represents parts of Chicago and the western suburbs — wrote that institute chairman and CEO John Tillman may have violated federal tax laws by channeling money from his nonprofits to for-profit companies Tillman owned or co-owned.

Lipinski cited an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times that detailed the transactions.

“Federal law provides tax benefits that help nonprofits pursue their agendas, including ideological agendas,” Lipinski wrote to David Kautter, the acting commissioner of the IRS. “What it does not allow, however, is for an individual to use a non-profit organization to inure excessive benefits to himself. I fear that is exactly what Mr. Tillman has done.”

Neither Tillman nor a spokeswoman for the institute responded to a request for comment. But Tillman said previously the transactions were appropriate and properly disclosed in tax filings.

Read Rep. Lipinski's Letter

“Obviously, these are all fully disclosed transactions, all at fair market value as they should be,” Tillman wrote in response to questions.

But experts in nonprofit tax laws told ProPublica Illinois and the Sun-Times that some of the transactions raised ethical and legal concerns. Among the list of potential red flags: a zero-interest, $49,400 loan from Think Freely Media, a nonprofit Tillman founded and served as board president, to Crowdskout, a for-profit data and marketing firm owned by a company he controlled.

That loan was essentially a gift, experts said.

“No loans are made on zero interest because you lose the inflation value. That means it’s a financial benefit to a for-profit business,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “Under federal tax law it’s called an excess-benefit transaction.”

Think Freely Media also made another $60,000 in loans to Crowdskout on which it collected interest. On other occasions, Think Freely Media gave grants to nonprofit organizations that hired Crowdskout or other companies in which Tillman had a stake.

Lipiniski, a 13-year veteran of Congress, called for the IRS investigation as he faces a primary election challenge from Marie Newman, an activist and nonprofit leader who charges that Lipinski has a “far-right” record of siding with conservatives.

The Third congressional district includes parts of Chicago’s Southwest Side and adjacent suburbs. It includes most of Chicago’s 13th Ward, the home base of state House speaker and Democratic Party chairman Michael Madigan, a frequent target of attacks from Tillman and the Illinois Policy Institute.

Lipinski is the latest elected official to cite the ProPublica Illinois/Sun-Times investigation while raising questions about the financial dealings of Tillman and nonprofits connected to the institute.

Gov. Bruce Rauner — a former ally of Tillman’s and donor to the institute — said last week he was “very troubled” by the report and wouldn’t give the organizations “another nickel.”

“It sounds like there’s been improper structure there and improper benefits,” Rauner said.

State Sen. Chris Nybo, R-Elmhurst, emailed Senate Republican colleagues to explore whether to draft a Joint House-Senate Resolution asking for investigations by the FBI, the IRS or the Attorney General’s office.

Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — Mike Madigan’s daughter — said Thursday the office continues to review the transactions, but added, “It is clear that it is also a matter for the IRS, which has greater authority over nonprofits.”

Cook County’s Residential Property Tax Assessments Deeply Unfair, Independent Study Confirms
February 15th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios has been producing error-ridden property assessments that effectively punished poor homeowners while providing tax breaks to wealthy ones, according to a much-anticipated independent study of the county’s residential assessment practices.

The study, which reviewed assessments from 2014 to 2016, concluded that the county operates “a very regressive system” that causes “a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”

County officials released the study Thursday to a handful of reporters before holding a small, closed-door briefing in the afternoon. The quiet release of the explosive report comes as Berrios, who is also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, faces a serious, well-funded primary challenge.

The study, conducted by an assessment expert from Virginia for the Civic Consulting Alliance, corroborates findings from the Chicago Tribune’s investigation “The Tax Divide,” which exposed widespread errors and inequities in residential assessments under Berrios from 2011 through 2015. It also counters months of assertions from Berrios’ office that his assessment process is sound.

Read the Full Study

Source: Civic Consulting Alliance

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — a Berrios ally — commissioned the independent study of residential assessments the same morning Berrios and his staff insisted to county commissioners, in the aftermath of “The Tax Divide,” that the office produced fair and accurate assessments.

The report released Thursday found problems at every level of the assessment process, including the computer programs used to produce initial valuations. The study found those programs, known as regression models, produced values that are “outside the target range” of industry standards.

The problem of regressivity — the tendency to overvalue lower-priced homes and undervalue more expensive ones — is worse in Chicago than in the suburbs, the study concluded. In the city, the owner of a $600,000 home is likely to have an effective property tax rate that’s 24 percent lower than the rate for the owner of a $300,000 home, the report states.

More than 90 percent of the values created by the models are eventually changed by the assessor’s office before notices are sent to homeowners, according to the report. The opaque process, which includes something called “hand reviews,” allows the introduction of “systematic bias,” it found.

The office also engaged in “selective reappraisal” by modifying the valuations of properties that recently sold based on the sales price, according to the study. That practice, known in the field as “sales chasing,” violates industry standards. Illinois’ constitution also requires that assessors treat all properties in the same way.

Sales chasing not only introduces inequities into the system but also causes assessment systems to look better on paper than they are in reality, the report said.

Khang Trinh, director of legal counsel for the assessor’s office, said at the briefing: “Our office does not sales-chase.”

The assessor’s office has asserted for months that the county’s robust appeals system offers a remedy for any flawed property valuations that may be produced. But the new study concluded that assessments were even less fair after the appeals process was complete.

“The levels of appeals in Cook County are very high and increase regressivity,” the study stated, with owners of homes worth more than $1 million twice as likely to appeal their assessments as those who own homes worth less than $500,000.

The study also noted the extent of work it will take to fix the problems.

“Bringing the system into compliance with industry standards will require fundamental changes in modeling, review processes, data collection and a shift away from reliance on appeals,” it states.

Preckwinkle, who made remarks at the start of Thursday’s briefing but left before reporters could ask questions, said she believed the new analysis had put the assessor’s office “on the right path.”

“Our goal, everyone’s goal, is a fair and equitable residential property tax system,” Preckwinkle said.

Now the county is faced with the task of figuring out how to put a new system in place without disrupting the collection of billions of dollars in property taxes that are used to fund everything from public schools to police and fire departments.

Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, pictured on Aug. 10, 2017. (Phil Velasquez/ Chicago Tribune)

Since Preckwinkle ordered the study nearly seven months ago, bills have gone out to residents across Cook County, and work on the reassessment of Chicago’s 700,000-plus residential properties is expected to start in June.

Although the study calls for swift action in developing a new valuation model and dramatically improving data collection, it does not lay out a time frame for when those measures should be completed.

For months, Berrios and his representatives have insisted the office produced fair and accurate assessments while dismissing findings from “The Tax Divide,” though without providing any evidence.

“The Cook County assessor’s office strongly disagrees with the Tribune’s opinion, because the study they used and the methods they advocate are unreliable,” Berrios said at a news conference held the day after the Tribune’s first story was published in the print newspaper.

In fact, the county-commissioned independent study used the same industry standards and methods featured in the Tribune series, all of which are set by the International Association of Assessing Officers and used by assessment experts around the world.

In the buildup to the report’s release, Preckwinkle has repeatedly characterized any flaws in the residential property tax system as problems that long predated her first election to her current office in 2010 — an assertion she repeated Thursday. Berrios was elected assessor the same year.

“It’s important to remember that the assessor and the Board of Review did not develop the system now in use,” Preckwinkle said earlier this month. “It’s something they inherited and it’s been in place for 40 years.”

Berrios voiced similar sentiments at the Thursday meeting.

“When I came into office, I took over a 40-year-old assessment system that needed improvements,” the assessor said. “My first priority was to make sure our tax bills went out on time, which had not happened in 34 years. Getting tax bills out on time saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”

However, the Tribune’s investigation documented how Berrios was aware of problems with residential assessments early on in his tenure, then failed to follow through on fixes.

Beginning in 2009, errors and regressivity in residential assessments spiked to levels not seen since at least 2003, the Tribune found.

Berrios’ predecessor, James Houlihan, turned to the MacArthur Foundation in 2009 for help in developing a new model to improve accuracy and reduce regressivity. But that work stalled after Berrios took office late the following year.

And although Berrios announced in July 2015 that the office had adopted new, state-of-the-art computer models to improve assessment accuracy and address persistent inequities, the Tribune found that he did not implement that system as promised.

Confronted with those findings in September 2016, officials said the assessor’s office already produced accurate results and that a new valuation model wasn’t necessary. The office then began disparaging the model as problematic.

The assessor’s office continues to rely on outdated valuation methods, the report released Thursday states.

One of the key recommendations of the new study is that office should run checks on its work — known as sales ratio studies — before sending assessment notices to the county’s 1.4 million residential homeowners, as is standard practice in the industry.

Had it done so previously, the office would have known that its assessments were rife with errors and deeply unfair.

At the briefing, Berrios said he was prepared to follow recommendations for improving assessments.

“I have made a commitment that I will change whatever needs to be changed,” Berrios said. “We need to make sure that everything is done properly across the board, and I am working … to make sure that all of these inequities are taken care of to the best of our abilities.”

In December, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune collaborated on a story that found the accuracy and fairness of assessments for commercial and industrial properties were even worse than for residential properties, with skyscrapers getting massive tax breaks while small businesses were overvalued.

Because commercial and industrial properties represent nearly a third of the county’s total property tax base, flaws in those assessments can cause the tax burden to shift in ways that are detrimental to homeowners and small businesses.

The new study did not address commercial and industrial assessments, and Preckwinkle has said any examination of the assessor’s work on commercial and industrial properties will have to wait.

“We’re focused on residential — one thing at a time,” Preckwinkle said at the recent news conference. “We’ve got to address the residential assessments for the next three triennials before we proceed to other parts of the property taxation system.”

The initial scope of the study was to assess transparency at the assessor’s office. That part of the study was not completed at the time of its release. The report did call on the assessor’s office to publish its sales ratio studies as they are completed.

The assessor’s office has touted its appeals system as evidence of its commitment to fairness. But the new study found the appeals process made inequities worse.

Those results mirror what the Tribune reported in June, after examining appeals in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Center for Municipal Finance.

Although anyone can file an appeal, that analysis found owners of high-priced homes were more likely to do so. Those homeowners also often won reductions, even though the assessor’s office has tended to undervalue more expensive properties. Those trends mean that an already unfair system became even less equitable after the appeals process was complete.

The assessor’s failures have led to calls for change and exposed the county to litigation. In December, three prominent public interest law firms sued the county and Berrios in Cook County Circuit Court alleging violations of state and federal civil rights and housing laws.

Drawing heavily on “The Tax Divide,” the suit contends the county’s “residential property tax scheme is neither accurate nor uniform” and is “perpetuating institutional racism” by shifting the tax burden from wealthier, majority-white neighborhoods to poorer, minority neighborhoods.

The issue also is playing out in the political arena. In March, Berrios faces a Democratic primary challenge from asset manager Fritz Kaegi, who has vowed to address the inequities in the system.

“Today’s CCA report is the latest in a mountain of expert analysis that over the years all point to one indisputable conclusion: Assessor Berrios has failed the taxpayers of Cook County,” Kaegi said in a statement after the report’s release.

A second-would be challenger, property tax consultant Andrea Raila, was knocked off the ballot Thursday by the Cook County Electoral Board, though she has vowed to appeal that decision to the Circuit Court.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin gave Berrios and Preckwinkle credit for releasing the study now, since they both could face heat over the issue in the March 20 primary. But he said Berrios should have addressed problems with assessments sooner.

“If he just got elected last month, he’d have a defense,” said Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat, also criticized Berrios, saying no further studies were needed and the CCA effort was a stalling tactic.

“I respect Assessor Joe Berrios, but I wish he would have simply faced these problems head-on,” Boykin said in a statement. “The time to deal with this problem was a long time ago. If the wealthy do not pay their fair share, the burden is shifted to those who can least afford it. And that is a travesty.”

The CFPB’s Declaration of Dependence
February 15th, 2018, 05:42 AM

In early February, the Federal Reserve delivered its most significant punishment of a major bank in a generation, sanctioning Wells Fargo for its pattern of customer exploitation.

A few blocks away, meanwhile, another of the giant bank’s regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has recently displayed a different attitude: It has been softening on scandal-inundated Wells Fargo. After an edict about data handling from Mick Mulvaney, the man Donald Trump installed as acting head of the agency late last year, the bureau’s enforcement lawyers suddenly found their hands tied, according to three CFPB staffers. The attorneys weren’t permitted to upload information the bank supplied about its auto insurance business, one of the areas in which Wells Fargo has been accused of malfeasance.

Another probe of bad behavior — this one involving Wells Fargo’s treatment of its checking customers — has bogged down, ProPublica has learned. And a third investigation of the bank (for mortgage abuses) that was about to yield tens of millions of dollars in fines, according to Reuters, now languishes unresolved. Staffers fear they will be ordered to reduce the penalty that Richard Cordray, the previous head of the agency, approved before he left, according to people familiar with the probe.

The CFPB’s multifront retreat comes despite a December tweet from Trump — two weeks after he named Mulvaney to head the agency — in which the president proclaimed that “fines and penalties against Wells Fargo Bank for their bad acts against their customers and others will not be dropped.”

The enforcement slowdown isn’t just good news for Wells Fargo. Mulvaney’s team recently asked enforcement lawyers to prepare for a potential settlement of its lawsuit alleging that Navient, the gigantic student-loan servicer, abused borrowers, according to a high-level CFPB official. Pulling back before the case proceeds to trial would mark a stark reversal in one of previous regime’s marquee legal efforts. And the agency has recently dropped cases against multiple financial institutions it previously accused of harming customers.

In just over two months at the helm of the CFPB, Mulvaney has launched a sweeping set of initiatives. The agency is conducting a comprehensive internal review of enforcement and supervision. Mulvaney ordered a survey of financial firms to get their sense of the “burdens” that the CFPB’s investigative process places on them. He split the fair lending oversight operations in two, putting the heads of the office under his direct control. And he requested a budget of zero dollars, which was something of a gimmick since the bureau has a sufficient reserve, but a statement viewed as symbolic.

This account was drawn from conversations with current and former staffers, as well as numerous press reports. (No current staffers would talk on the record, citing worries about retaliation. Indeed, the bureau’s inspector general has recently launched an investigation into media leaks, into, as one staffer called it “Dumbledore’s Army,” after the secret band of wizards and witches who resist the evil Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.) The CFPB declined to make officials available for interviews or to respond to a lengthy set of questions sent by email.

The story the staffers tell reveals not just a drastic shift in philosophy; it’s an anatomy of a bureaucratic immobilization — one more often accomplished by well-placed monkey wrenches than by a change of laws.

The CFPB, famous as the brainchild of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was created as part of the Dodd-Frank reshaping of financial regulation. Until it was conceived after the financial crisis, no single overseer had responsibility to protect people from deceptive fees and predatory loans. But conservatives, along with the financial industry, assailed the agency immediately as unaccountable bureaucrats stomping into realms the government should not tread. Mulvaney, then a congressman, called the agency “a joke ... in a sad, sick kind of way.”

Now Mulvaney, 50, is in charge. He has made no concession to the notion that he is simply the “acting” director, or to the fact that this isn’t even his full-time job; he also heads the Office of Management and Budget. (Mulvaney spends Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the CFPB, according to a high-level official.)

Mulvaney’s first significant move as CFPB chief seemed arcane, and came couched in language about protecting privacy. In early December, he froze the agency’s collection of private financial data, known as “personally identifiable information” or PII. Last year, the bureau’s inspector general issued a report saying the CFPB should handle data more carefully. However, the report was hardly scathing (it didn’t cite any examples of confidential data actually leaking out, for example) and its recommendations were modest and achievable.

Indeed, the report Mulvaney cited did not recommend a freeze on the use of personally identifiable information. For that reason and others, staffers view his ban as a pretext to curtail the bureau’s activities — and an effective one at that. “This is freezing enforcement,” said one CFPB attorney. If enforcement lawyers want to determine whether, say, Wells Fargo is taking advantage of checking account customers, they need to examine the checking accounts — which would include PII.

At first, no one knew the precise contours of the freeze. What could staffers still request? Did it cover only enforcement lawyers, or everybody? Some interpreted the order strictly, concluding they were not only barred from asking or subpoenaing financial institutions for new information but that it covered ongoing matters as well. According to three current CFPB employees, that meant lawyers on the Wells Fargo auto insurance investigation initially were not permitted to upload information the bank had delivered to them. Subsequently, the enforcement team on the matter was granted an exception and is now able to examine the material.

Mulvaney’s order has had effects beyond enforcement, hampering the bureau’s efforts to monitor financial firms for compliance with consumer protection rules and conduct research on financial products, according to several staffers. The freeze has even stymied state attorneys general, according to two CFPB staffers and one attorney for a state office. The bureau is responding more slowly to requests for information and giving less up than it did under the previous administration, according to two people inside the bureau and one lawyer at a state office.

Mulvaney and his appointees initially suggested the freeze was temporary. But on Dec. 22, Mulvaney sent an all-hands missive. After some holiday pleasantries, he wrote, “I’ve decided to continue the hold on the collection of PII and other sensitive data.” With some exceptions, he continued, “the default setting is ‘no.’” The extension surprised few inside the agency. Most staffers now expect it to last the duration of his tenure.

On Jan. 23, Mulvaney laid out his vision for the agency in a memo to the staff. “When I arrived at CFPB, I told folks that despite what they might have heard, I had no intention of shutting down the Bureau,” he began. He then criticized Cordray for having said “pushing the envelope is a loaded phrase, but that’s absolutely what we did.” But Cordray had never said that. The quote came from another CFPB employee quoted in an article in Politico. A Wall Street Journal op-ed that Mulvaney subsequently published based on the memo required a correction.

Mulvaney explained his philosophy in the memo: “We are government employees. We don’t just work for the government, we work for the people. And that means everyone: those who use credit cards, and those who provide those cards; those who take loans, and those who make them; those who buy cars, and those who sell them. All of those people are part of what makes this country great.” 

Many staffers found Mulvaney’s sentiments concerning. “It’s a hell of a document,” said one employee. “I think it very much sets the direction for what he expects us to be doing. I know we are not to push the envelope but it pushes the envelope of ‘Corporations are people, too.’”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a protest in front of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau headquarters on Nov. 28, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When Mulvaney circulated a draft mission statement in early February, staffers noted that it did not specifically mention protecting consumers. Instead, it hailed the notion of “Free, innovative, competitive and transparent consumer finance markets where the rights of all parties are protected by the rule of law and where customers are free to choose the products and services that best fit their individual needs.”

The turnabout in the CFPB’s mission has, unsurprisingly, rankled its previous chief. “We balanced interests as well but when people are cheating consumers, there’s no reason to have fair balance” of the cheaters’ interests with those of their victims, Cordray said in an interview with ProPublica.

CFPB enforcement decisions seem increasingly to be trending in favor of financial institutions. A probe into the breach at Equifax that permitted the records of 143 million people to be exposed has stalled. The CFPB dropped an investigation of World Finance, a subprime lender. The company had donated to Mulvaney when he was a South Carolina congressman. The CFPB said that the decision was made by the enforcement staff, not Mulvaney.

In at least one instance so far, Mulvaney has overruled his staff on an enforcement case. In mid-January, the CFPB voluntarily withdrew a case against four payday lenders. The bureau initially insisted the decision was made by staff attorneys — then confirmed to NPR that Mulvaney was involved. Mulvaney, who received significant contributions from payday lenders, made the decision over objections of the staff, according to a highly placed official within the agency. The official noted that state regulators are often out-gunned when trying to rein in high-cost lenders and need the CFPB’s help. “We spent four years developing this theory,” the official said, “and working really hard and checking our legal basis for it and coordinating with the states.” Then, with no warning and no explanation to the outside world, Mulvaney’s team ordered the bureau to dismiss the case.

The CFPB was conceived as an independent agency, and under the previous administration, staffers took pains to keep the White House at arm’s length. “We were very careful to avoid aligning ourselves with the Obama White House,” said Elizabeth Corbett, who was acting chief of staff under Cordray. “We would take meetings if asked, but never shared anything we wouldn’t share with Congress.”

Under Mulvaney, by contrast, there’s no pretense that the bureau should be independent. For example, he ordered a report on which of Trump’s executive orders the agency could voluntarily comply with. And Mulvaney himself, of course, is not separate from the White House, given that the other agency he heads, OMB, is part of the executive office of the president.

Many bureau officials said they did not want the place to be politicized — by Republicans or Democrats. “What are we doing to our financial system in the name of deregulation?” asked a current official. “When the situation flips, everyone expects people to go back to normal. Is President Liz Warren or President Sherrod Brown going to want their appointees to follow their directives? How are banks going to feel about that? It’s just bad for America.”

The CFPB’s integration into the administration seems most visible in the Navient case. In early December, Mulvaney held a meeting to review the bureau’s major enforcement matters. When the case against student-loan servicer Navient was mentioned, he said, “Oh, this is the big one,” according to a staffer. The comment seemed innocuous, and indeed this was one of the bureau’s biggest cases. The CFPB sued Navient, formerly part of Sallie Mae, in early 2017, accusing the nation’s largest student-loan servicer of cheating borrowers out of their right to lower repayments. Navient says the bureau’s allegations are unfounded.

Some Obama holdovers worried Mulvaney would back away from the case. During a cabinet retreat the first weekend of January, Mulvaney and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met. Last fall, DeVos announced her department would stop helping the CFPB identify student-loan abusers, and the Education Department has moved to roll back protections for borrowers.

A few days later, Brian Johnson, a senior adviser to Mulvaney, met with Arthur Wayne Johnson, DeVos’ appointee to lead the federal government’s trillion-dollar student-loan operation (and the former head of a private student-loan company). It’s unclear whether the two discussed the Navient case. The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The following week, Eric Blankenstein, one of Mulvaney’s appointees, requested that the enforcement team on the Navient case begin to prepare settlement documents, according to one CFPB official. So far, the enforcement team has not made any decisions on whether to settle, according to people involved in the case, who note that extensive and unsuccessful attempts to settle the case were made before the bureau sued. Staffers said they now fear the bureau’s enforcement team will be ordered to agree to terms that let Navient off lightly.

When Trump tweeted about Wells Fargo, Cordray said he was almost heartened, suggesting that it “sent a signal they should not back away from enforcing the laws vigorously.” But Mulvaney appears not to be taking Trump’s tweet too seriously.

A potential settlement for alleged Wells Fargo mortgage fee abuses is in limbo. (That scandal was first revealed by ProPublica.) Another investigation, which the agency opened after The New York Times reported that the bank forced more than 800,000 customers to buy auto insurance they did not need, has gone nowhere since Mulvaney took over, according to one person familiar with the probe. The same is true of an early look at whether Wells Fargo has been charging customers who have to maintain a certain level of activity in their checking accounts to avoid fees. Though the customers had complied with the rules, the bank appears to have still charged them, according to a CFPB employee. The investigation is in the early stages and no decisions have been made. Since Mulvaney took over, it has not advanced significantly.

Wells said it is cooperating with regulators but declined to comment on ongoing enforcement matters.

Staffers in the bureau seemed dazed by the rapidity of the changes. But many remain stubbornly hopeful that the young bureau can survive the administration and return to what they view as their mission. “I’m really passionate about my work and the people we serve,” said one CFPB attorney. “I’m going to try to stick it out. I recall something Cordray said: This part of the agency’s history is as important as the rocky beginnings. We have to be able to survive changes in administration.”

Reporter David Armstrong to Cover Health Care for ProPublica
February 15th, 2018, 05:42 AM

ProPublica announced today that David Armstrong is joining its staff as a senior reporter covering health care.

Armstrong comes to ProPublica from STAT, where he was a senior enterprise reporter and wrote extensively about the opioid crisis. His series in collaboration with the Boston Globe on abuses in the addiction treatment industry, including exploitative middlemen and consultants, is a finalist for a 2018 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Armstrong’s work has also uncovered the rise of illicit fentanyl imported from China to North American drug dealers and the pharmaceutical industry’s secret ways of marketing painkillers. His 2016 “Dope Sick” story, about two best friends who grew up to share an addiction to opioids, is heralded as being among the best journalism on the epidemic.

Before STAT, Armstrong spent five years on Bloomberg News’ projects and investigations team, where he exposed mistreatment of patients with brain injuries, a scheme by some of the country’s most prestigious hospitals to perform unnecessary cardiac stent surgeries, and the huge profits earned by doctors performing back surgeries that frequently didn’t work.

Prior to Bloomberg, David was an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and he was among the staffers honored with the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the September 11 attacks. He came to the Journal from the Boston Globe, where his investigation of elevator and escalator safety violations led to the resignation of Massachusetts’ public safety commissioner, in addition to winning a George Polk Award and an IRE Award.

“David is a tenacious reporter who consistently digs up important stories that haven't been covered before, in addition to telling them in creative and moving ways,” said ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields. “We are delighted to welcome him to ProPublica.”

“I am thrilled to join ProPublica,” said Armstrong. “I’ve long admired the top-quality and innovative journalism produced there, and I’m eager to join in that effort.”

Armstrong can be found on Twitter at @DavidArmstrongX.

El sonido y la furia: Dentro del misterio de la embajada de La Habana
February 14th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Era una noche fresca para La Habana, con la temperatura cayendo cerca de los 20 grados, y el diplomático y su familia se estaban sintiendo muy bien con su misión en Cuba. Estaban todavía asentándose en su nuevo hogar, una casa cómoda de estilo español en el recinto frondoso que se había llamado el Country Club antes de que las familias adineradas lo abandonaran en los primeros años de la Revolución. “Estábamos verdaderamente encantados de estar allí”, recordó el diplomático. “La música, el ron, los puros, la gente — y un momento muy importante para la diplomacia”.

Ocho meses antes, en marzo de 2016, Presidente Obama había aterrizado a lo grande en la ciudad para conmemorar el acercamiento histórico de los dos países, prometiendo que iba a enterrar “el último vestigio de la Guerra Fría en las Américas”. Ahora, semanas después de la elección de Donald Trump, ese acuerdo estaba repentinamente en duda. Fidel Castro acababa de morir, abriendo un nuevo capítulo en la saga cubana. El diplomático no podía haber imaginado un momento más fascinante para llegar.

Mientras el sol se deslizaba sobre el estrecho de la Florida aquella tarde de finales de noviembre, el diplomático abrió las puertas del salón que daba al nuevo jardín tropical de la familia. El aire cálido de la noche invadió el salón, acompañado por un estruendo casi abrumador. “Era molesto hasta el punto que tenías que entrar en la casa y cerrar todas las puertas y ventanas y encender la tele”, recordó el diplomático. “Pero no me preocupé mucho del asunto. Pensé, “Estoy en un país extraño, y los insectos aquí hacen ruidos fuertes”.

Unas noches más tarde, el diplomático y su esposa invitaron a la familia de otro funcionario de la embajada americana que vivía al lado. Al atardecer, mientras charlaban en el patio, el mismo ruido ensordecedor se levantó otra vez en el jardín.

“Estoy bastante seguro que son cigarras”, dijo el primer diplomático.

“Esas no son cigarras”, insistió su vecino. “Las cigarras no suenan así. Es un sonido demasiado mecánico”.

Uno de los diplomáticos americanos afectados por los incidentes de salud supuestamente vivió en esta casa en La Habana. (Por cortesía de NBC News)

El colega había estado escuchando los mismos ruidos en su casa, a veces durante un periodo de una hora o más. Después de que se quejó en la oficina de vivienda de la embajada, dos trabajadores de mantenimiento cubanos fueron enviados a dar una ojeada. Buscaron si había algún tipo de desperfecto eléctrico e inspeccionaron el jardín para ver si había insectos raros, pero se fueron sin encontrar nada fuera de lugar. En febrero, el estruendo nocturno empezó a disminuir. Después se fue del todo.

No fue hasta un viernes a finales de marzo cuando el diplomático se dio cuenta de que podría estar enfrentándose a algo más peligroso que unos insectos. En el trabajo aquel día, un compañero de la embajada con quien tenía amistad le llevó a un lado y le dijo que se iba de Cuba enseguida. Un hombre de aspecto atlético en la treintena, el compañero dijo que acababa de estar en Miami, donde especialistas médicos habían diagnosticado que estaba teniendo una serie de problemas incluyendo una severa pérdida de audición. A finales de diciembre, dijo, había sido golpeado por un fenómeno extraño e inquietante — un rayo poderoso de sonido agudo que parecía estar apuntado directamente hacia él. El lunes siguiente, este amigo del diplomático le hizo escuchar una grabación del ruido: sonaba muy parecido a lo que el diplomático había escuchado en su jardín.

El diplomático, quien habló de su experiencia bajo el acuerdo de que no se revelara su nombre, dijo que él y su mujer no habían sentido ningún indicio de enfermedad o lesión. Pero en pocos días, ellos, también, estarían de camino a Miami para ser examinados por especialistas médicos. Con otros 22 americanos y ocho canadienses, serían diagnosticados con una amplia gama de síntomas parecidos a los de una conmoción cerebral, desde dolores de cabeza y nausea a pérdida de audición. Se encontrarían arrastrados también por una disputa internacional extraordinaria, una que la Administración Trump usaría para bruscamente revertir el curso de las relaciones de Estados Unidos con Cuba.

Incluso en un mundo donde abundan los secretos, los incidentes de La Habana son un misterio singular. Después de casi un año de una investigación que se ha apoyado en las capacidades de inteligencia, defensa y tecnología de múltiples agencias del gobierno estadounidense, el FBI no ha podido determinar quién podría haber atacado a los diplomáticos ni cómo. La agencia tampoco ha excluido la posibilidad de que al menos algunos de los americanos no fueron atacados en absoluto. Oficiales que han recibido informes sobre la investigación dicen que se ha hecho llamativamente poco progreso en contestar las preguntas básicas del caso, con agentes frustrados del FBI advirtiendo que se les acaban las piedras debajo de las que mirar.

Esas frustraciones han enturbiado la comunidad de seguridad nacional de Estados Unidos, fomentado divisiones crecientes entre el FBI y la CIA. A principios de enero, después de más de ocho meses de análisis, el servicio de investigación descartó su hipótesis inicial de que los americanos fueron el blanco de algún tipo de aparato sónico. Esta conclusión dejó al FBI sin un arma, un sospecho o un móvil, y luchando a duras penas para detectar otras formas en que los diplomáticos podían haberse enfermado. Oficiales de inteligencia, sin embargo, han seguido subrayando un patrón que ven como cualquier cosa menos coincidencia: los primeros cuatro americanos que dijeron ser golpeados por el fenómeno — incluido el hombre atlético en sus treinta — eran todos oficiales de la CIA trabajando bajo cobertura diplomática. También lo eran dos oficiales que fueron afectados más tarde. La CIA y otras agencias de defensa e inteligencia todavía no se han puesto de acuerdo con la conclusión del FBI sobre la tecnología sónica.

Más ampliamente, el problema cubano también ha ocasionado preguntas dentro del aparato de seguridad nacional sobre la manera en que la administración Trump está usando información de inteligencia para guiar su política internacional. En una época en que la Casa Blanca ha prometido actuar de forma más contundente contra el programa nuclear de Corea del Norte, Irán y otras amenazas, algunos oficiales ven el problema cubano como otra lección más sobre los peligros de usar los datos de inteligencia selectivamente para avanzar fines políticos. “Trump llegó al cargo oponiéndose a mejores relaciones con Cuba”, dijo un oficial de seguridad nacional que, como otros, solo habló del caso bajo la condición de que su nombre no fuera revelado. “La administración se adelantó a las evidencias y a los datos de inteligencia”.

Una investigación realizada por ProPublica del caso, basada en entrevistas con más de tres docenas de funcionarios estadounidenses y extranjeros y una revisión de documentos gubernamentales confidenciales, representa la primera crónica detallada y pública de cómo se desarrollaron los incidentes en Cuba. Aunque el Departamento de Estado generalmente ha enfatizado en las similitudes entre los expedientes médicos de los 24 americanos afectados, los oficiales y documentos consultados para este reportaje indican que la seriedad de los síntomas de los pacientes variaba mucho. Las experiencias que precipitaron sus enfermedades también fueron bastante diferentes, según los oficiales, y las experiencias y los síntomas de los ocho canadienses fueron notablemente diferentes de las de los estadounidenses.

Muchos oficiales de Estados Unidos que han tratado el problema de cerca — incluidos algunos quienes aseveraron que ha sido distorsionado con fines políticos — dicen que siguen convencidos de que al menos algunos de los americanos fueron deliberadamente elegidos como blancos por un enemigo sofisticado. Especialistas médicos que revisaron los expedientes de los 24 pacientes americanos el verano pasado concluyeron que, aunque sus síntomas podían tener muchas causas, estaban “más probablemente relacionados al trauma de una fuente no-natural”, dijo el director médico del Departamento de Estado, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb. “Ninguna causa ha sido excluida”, añadió. “Pero los hallazgos sugieren que esto no fue un episodio de histeria colectiva”.

Sin embargo, parece que el secretismo, la psicología y la política pueden haber jugado una parte en la forma en que el fenómeno se expandió entre el personal de las dos embajadas en La Habana. Funcionarios de la administración han sido reacios a hablar de los factores psicológicos en el caso, en parte porque temen ofender o antagonizar a los diplomáticos afectados (muchos de los cuales ya se sienten maltratados por la dirigencia del Departamento de Estado.) Pero mientras se ha profundizado el misterio, los investigadores americanos han empezado a mirar más de cerca al mundo insular y de alta presión de la embajada de La Habana, y han descubierto un cuadro que es mucho más complejo de lo que la retórica y los titulares han sugerido.

A pesar de las muchas preguntas sin respuestas, funcionarios de la administración Trump han agresivamente culpado al gobierno de Raúl Castro de no proteger a los diplomáticos, si no de haberles directamente atacado. A principios del otoño pasado, el Departamento de Estado retiró más de la mitad del personal diplomático destinado en La Habana, mientras ordenaba a un número proporcional de cubanos que se fueran de Washington. El departamento también advirtió a los ciudadanos estadounidenses que podían estar “en riesgo” de un ataque si visitaban la isla. “Yo todavía creo que el gobierno cubano, alguien dentro del gobierno cubano, puede poner un fin a esto”, dijo el Secretario de Estado Rex Tillerson el mes pasado.

Lo que escucharon los diplomáticos

Vía la cuenta YouTube de Associated Press

Tales aseveraciones han indignado al liderazgo cubano. Desde los primeros meses del año pasado, Castro y sus asesores de alto nivel han insistido que no tuvieron nada que ver con los incidentes y que ayudarían de cualquier formar posible a investigarlos y frenarlos. El equipo del FBI no ha encontrado pruebas concretas de complicidad cubana en los incidentes, y ha enfatizado en privado la cooperación del gobierno con los investigadores americanos, dijeron oficiales. A pesar de las declaraciones de Tillerson, algunos funcionarios del Departamento de Estado también han dicho privadamente a miembros del Congreso que los desmentidos de los cubanos han sido evaluados como creíbles, según oficiales. “Ellos creen que el gobierno cubano quiere mejores relaciones con los Estados Unidos”, dijo un asesor del Senado.

El otro sospechoso obvio ha sido Rusia, que los analistas de inteligencia han considerado que podía tener tanto un posible móvil como los medios posibles para llevar a cabo ataques de este tipo. El gobierno de Putin ha hostigado rutinariamente a diplomáticos estadounidenses en Moscú y a veces en el extranjero; durante la Administración Obama, parecía decidido a socavar la política extranjera americana alrededor del mundo. Rusia también tiene la capacidad para desarrollar armas nuevas y sofisticadas y una alianza de seguridad de larga data con Cuba. Pero los investigadores no han encontrado ni siquiera evidencias circunstanciales de una mano rusa en los incidentes, dijeron los oficiales, y algunos analistas dudan que Rusia quisiera poner en peligro su relación con Cuba socavando tan descaradamente un objetivo clave de la política extranjera cubana.

Mientras persiste el misterio, la política estadounidense hacia Cuba cuelga de un hilo. Con la salida de Castro de la presidencia agendada para abril, solo un equipo mínimo de personal representa a Washington en La Habana en un momento potencialmente crítico de transición. Los viajes y los negocios de americanos en la isla han caído bruscamente en meses recientes, y el proceso de tramitación de visados para cubanos que quieren emigrar a Estados Unidos ha caído en picado, provocando preguntas sobre el destino de un acuerdo de migración de larga data entre los dos países. La administración Trump puede haber también limitado sus opciones: el 4 de marzo, el Departamento de Estado se enfrentará a una fecha límite en la cual tiene que mandar a sus diplomáticos de vuelta a La Habana o posiblemente hacer reducciones permanentes del personal. Pero el Secretario de Estado, quien según se informa hizo la decisión de retirar a los diplomáticos, no ha mostrado ninguna señal de reconsiderar su postura.

“¿No sabemos cómo proteger la gente contra esto, así que porqué haría semejante cosa?” dijo Tillerson a Associated Press cuando fue preguntado acerca de mandar diplomáticos de vuelta a Cuba. “Voy a resistir a cualquiera que quiera forzarme a hacer esto hasta que esté convencido que no estoy poniendo a la gente en peligro”.

El Presidente cubano Raúl Castro habla con el Vicepresidente Miguel Diaz-Canel durante la sesión parlamentaria al final del año en La Habana el 21 de diciembre, 2017. (Jaime Blez/AFP/Getty Images)

En el fuego cruzado de acusaciones, se podría perdonar a los cubanos de la calle por preguntarse si han sido transportados hacia atrás en el tiempo. Mientras el país se prepara para ser liderado por primera vez en casi 60 años por alguien que no se apellida Castro, un cambio tectónico que podría afectar profundamente la forma en que es gobernado, la retórica de guerra fría ha vuelto a llenar el aire. El líder comunista de próxima generación que se cree que sucederá a Raúl Castro, el Vice Presidente Miguel Díaz-Canel, 56, está entre los que advierten de otro complot imperialista más contra La Habana. Son “cuentos de hadas increíbles sin prueba alguna”, dijo de las afirmaciones de la administración Trump, “con la intención perversa de desacreditar la conducta impecable de Cuba”.

Lugares claves en los incidentes de La Habana

Los primeros tres diplomáticos que reportaron haber sufrido lo que pensaban que eran “ataques sónicos” en noviembre y diciembre de 2016 vivían en los barrios de lujo de las afueras occidentales de La Habana. Dos incidentes sucedieron el siguiente abril en el Hotel Capri, cerca del centro de la ciudad.

Hannah Birch/ProPublica

Los dos primeros incidentes ocurrieron alrededor del fin de semana de Acción de Gracias de 2016, fecha que coincidió con la muerte de Fidel Castro el 25 de noviembre. Durante los nueve días de luto nacional que siguieron, ninguno de los dos oficiales estadounidenses informó a los mandos de la embajada lo que habían experimentado. Pero los dos hombres, oficiales de inteligencia con cobertura diplomática, dirían más tarde que escucharon ruidos agudos y desorientadores en sus casas durante la noche. Al menos uno de ellos diría después a los investigadores que el ruido había parecido extrañamente enfocado, según oficiales. Si uno se movía a un lado o a otra habitación, parecía casi desaparecer.

Si las historias parecían de ciencia ficción, la estación de la CIA en La Habana y altos funcionarios de la embajada sospecharon rápidamente que se trataba de algo más mundano. Desde que Estados Unidos y Cuba reestablecieron relaciones diplomáticas limitadas en 1977, reabriendo sus embajadas como “secciones de interés” en sendas capitales, los cubanos mantenían una vigilancia constante, muchas veces agresiva, de los diplomáticos americanos en La Habana. Los diplomáticos podían volver a casa y encontrar una ventana abierta, o un televisor encendido (muchas veces en los programas de noticias gubernamentales), o sus pertenencias sutilmente pero de una forma obvia reorganizadas. Alguna parte del juego — incluidas acciones más provocadoras como embadurnar las manijas de las puertas de los autos de los diplomáticos con heces de perro — era considerada casi rutinaria. También hubo reciprocidad por los agentes estadounidenses que hacían seguimientos a diplomáticos cubanos en Washington.

Durante periodos de especial tensión con Washington, los cubanos a veces iban más lejos. Sobre el principio y la mitad de la década de los noventa, los diplomáticos americanos que se reunían con disidentes cubanos o de otra forma irritaban al gobierno, ocasionalmente al regresar de reuniones se encontraban los neumáticos de sus autos pinchados. A mediados de los 2000, mientras la administración Bush abiertamente implementaba programas para socavar el régimen de Castro, el hostigamiento cubano a los 51 diplomáticos americanos basados en la isla entonces oscilaba entre demoras en la entrega de envíos de comida hasta “el envenenamiento de animales domésticos”, según un informe del inspector general del Departamento de Estado escrito en 2007.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, el diplomático estadounidense de más alto rango en Cuba, da un discurso durante la ceremonia de reapertura del edificio de la embajada de Estados Unidos en La Habana el 14 de abril, 2015. (Adalberto Roque/AFP Photo)

El hombre que lideraba la misión diplomática americana en los últimos meses de 2016, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, conocía bien aquella historia de hostigamiento, según oficiales. Un diplomático de carrera medido y lacónico con un aire de curtida paciencia, DeLaurentis había tomado el mando como chargé d’affaires en el verano de 2014, llevando consigo más experiencia en Cuba que quizás cualquier oficial de alto rango del gobierno de Estados Unidos. Había tenido puestos anteriores en La Habana tanto como oficial consular como oficial político, con una temporada en medio gestionando asuntos cubanos en el estado mayor del Consejo de Seguridad Nacional. Después de anunciar un plan para normalizar relaciones con Cuba en diciembre de 2014, Obama nominó a DeLaurentis para ser el primer embajador de Washington en La Habana desde 1961, cuando el Presidente Eisenhower cortó relaciones diplomáticas. (Aunque su confirmación fue bloqueada por el senador Marco Rubio de Florida, quien argumentó que Cuba debería demostrar más respeto por los derechos humanos antes de que el puesto fuera cubierto, DeLaurentis se quedó como chargé d’affaires.)

La visita de Obama en marzo 2016 había dejado ambivalentes a los líderes cubanos sobre la mano de amistad que había tendido: Fidel Castro, enfermo y casi con 90 años, se soliviantó en su jubilación para atacar a “las palabras almibaradas” del presidente de Estados Unidos, y a lo que pintó como una petición insidiosa para que los cubanos se olvidaran de la historia oscura de los estadounidenses con la isla. En un congreso del Partido Comunista en aquel abril, Raúl Castro y otros salpicaron su retórica con referencias al “enemigo” del norte. Los diplomáticos también notaron cierta incomodidad palpable entre altos mandos cubanos con la erupción de ostentación capitalista que marcó el aflojamiento de las restricciones comerciales por Estados Unidos — un desfile de moda de Chanel, un concierto gratis de los Rolling Stones, la toma efímera de las calles de La Habana para rodar escenas de una nueva película de “Fast and Furious”.

Pero en los últimos meses de 2016, la hostilidad oficial cubana hacia los diplomáticos americanos en La Habana había descendido al nivel más bajo en 50 años. No se había reportado ningún hostigamiento serio en al menos unos pocos años, oficiales dijeron. La mayoría de los analistas bien informados de Cuba creían que el partido gobernante había forjado un consenso sólido para terminar las hostilidades con Estados Unidos. A pesar de la última y airada diatriba de Fidel Castro, oficiales estadounidenses dijeron a ProPublica que él había sido consultado sobre el acercamiento y había dado su aprobación.

Aunque los funcionarios cubanos fueron notablemente lentos para hacer avanzar muchas de las propuestas americanas para tratos comerciales que llegaron a raudales, sí progresaron laboriosamente sobre acuerdos bilaterales de cooperación en seguridad, protección del medio ambiente, servicio de correo directo, y otros temas. “Por supuesto, hay un espectro de preferencias dentro del régimen acerca de la velocidad y profundidad de las reformas”, dijo Fulton Armstrong, un ex analista de alto nivel de la CIA que manejó asuntos cubanos tanto en el estado mayor del Consejo de Seguridad Nacional como en el Consejo de Inteligencia Nacional. “Pero el debate es sobre los ritmos de paso; no hay alternativa a la estrategia de Raúl”.

Barack Obama y Raul Castro asisten a un partido amistoso entre el equipo nacional cubano y el equipo de las ligas mayores americanas los Tampa Bay Devil Rays en el Estadio Latinoamericano el 22 de marzo, 2016 en La Habana, Cuba. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

La atención de los cubanos se agudizó después del voto presidencial del 8 de noviembre, dijeron oficiales americanos. Aunque Trump había prometido durante su campaña que iba a renegociar el “muy débil acuerdo” de Obama con La Habana, el gobierno de Castro parecía haber descartado la posibilidad de que podía ser elegido. Una vez que Trump fue elegido — y con funcionarios de la administración Obama instando a los cubanos a consolidar las mejoras en la relación — el gobierno cubano se apresuró para concluir trabajos sobre acuerdos pendientes antes de la inauguración del 20 de enero.

Fue durante ese mismo periodo entre la elección y la inauguración que los primeros oficiales de inteligencia estadounidenses fueron golpeados por lo que describieron como ruidos raros. Los hombres vivían en las zonas lujosas de las afueras occidentales de La Habana. Fidel Castro mantenía una casa en uno de esos barrios, Cubanacán, como también lo hacen el vicepresidente Díaz-Canel y otros miembros de la élite más privilegiada de la isla. Las viejas y elegantes mansiones y casas tropicales-suburbanas del enclave también son populares con altos mandos de la diplomacia extranjera y ejecutivos de negocios. Hay relativamente poco tráfico peatonal o automovilístico, y hay una presencia considerable de guardias de seguridad privados además de la policía cubana.

Aunque los dos primeros oficiales dirían después que empezaron a escuchar ruidos extraños en sus casas ya a finales de noviembre, no fue hasta finales de diciembre que el primer oficial solicitó ayuda en la pequeña clínica médica dentro de la embajada. Aquel oficial — el hombre atlético y treintañero — vino con una queja más seria: había desarrollado dolores de cabeza, problemas de audición y sobre todo un dolor agudo en un oído, después de una experiencia extraña durante la cual algo semejante a un foco de sonido parecía haber sido dirigido contra su casa.

El trauma del hombre joven fue reportado a DeLaurentis y al jefe de seguridad diplomática de la embajada, Anthony Spotti, el 30 de diciembre, según funcionarios del Departamento de Estado, y fue seguido por la noticia de que los otros dos oficiales de la CIA habían experimentado algo similar aproximadamente un mes antes. Pero dentro del edificio modernista hecho de cristal y hormigón que es la sede de la cancillería que se levanta sobre el icónico rompeolas de La Habana, el Malecón, tanto los oficiales de inteligencia como los jefes diplomáticos creían que los ruidos eran “solo otra forma de hostigamiento” por parte del gobierno cubano, dijo un oficial. También parecían cuidadosamente dirigidos hacia oficiales de la CIA trabajando bajo cobertura diplomática. Si los agentes del aparato de seguridad del estado cubano no sabían que los hombres eran oficiales de inteligencia, lo habrían sospechado de todas maneras, creían los americanos.

La procesión del funeral de Fidel Castro en Santa Clara, el 1 de diciembre de 2016. Castro murió durante el periodo en que los incidentes misteriosos que afectaron a los diplomáticos de Estados Unidos empezaron. (Tomás Munita, especial para ProPublica)

Se habló de los incidentes discretamente entre los miembros de lo que es conocido como el “equipo de país” de la embajada, un grupo de aproximadamente 15 diplomáticos de rango superior que frecuentemente se reunían a diario para tratar asuntos significativos. Pero, por razones de contrainteligencia, los incidentes permanecieron en secreto para la mayoría del otro personal americano — aproximadamente 32 diplomáticos más y ocho guardias de los Marines — una decisión que fue criticada más tarde por algunos de los que se enfermaron. “Tenemos oficiales de seguridad en cada embajada y nos ponen al día de forma constante”, dijo un diplomático. “A alguien le robaron la cartera, a alguien le entraron en el auto… ¿Y entonces a alguien le atacan con esta arma misteriosa y no nos dicen?”

Hacia mitades de enero, después de que los otros dos oficiales de inteligencia también solicitaran atención médica en la embajada, el asunto empezó a tomar un cariz más ominoso, dijeron varios oficiales. Durante el periodo que los primeros oficiales de inteligencia fueron enviados a Estados Unidos para recibir tratamiento el 6 de febrero, la mujer de otro funcionario de la embajada, que vivían cerca de la costa de La Habana en el barrio de Flores, informó que había escuchado sonidos inquietantes del mismo tipo, dijeron dos oficiales que conocen su versión. La mujer miró afuera y vio una camioneta alejándose rápidamente. El vehículo aparentemente había venido del mismo extremo de la calle en donde estaba una casa que oficiales estadounidenses creían que era usada por el ministerio del interior cubano. Los oficiales reconocieron que el informe era vago e incierto. Aun así, dijeron que también representaba uno de los datos de información circunstancial más importantes que tenían sobre los incidentes.

En La Habana, según dijeron oficiales, altos mandos de la embajada argumentaron a sus contrapartes en Washington que deberían hacer una protesta formal sobre los incidentes al gobierno cubano. Dadas las incertidumbres, otros pensaban que deberían intentar recabar más información antes de asentar semejante queja. Aunque fue un tema de preocupación tanto en el Departamento de Estado como en la CIA, no queda claro si fue planteado al estado mayor del Consejo de Seguridad Nacional antes de que la decisión de protestar fuera tomada (un exfuncionario de la Casa Blanca dijo que no fue planteado.) Oficiales dijeron que el Secretario de Estado Tillerson tampoco fue informado de la situación hasta días después de que el secretario adjunto en funciones para asuntos del Hemisferio Occidental, Francisco Palmieri, finalmente llamó al embajador cubano en Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, para entregarle una nota diplomática de protesta el 17 de febrero.

El gobierno cubano respondió puntualmente. Unos días después, dijeron oficiales, DeLaurentis fue citado a una reunión con Josefina Vidal, la diplomática de alto rango quien había dirigido el equipo cubano que negoció la normalización de relaciones con los Estados Unidos. (DeLaurentis declinó hacer comentarios, refiriendo preguntas sobre los incidentes de La Habana al Departamento de Estado.) Con Vidal estuvieron presentes otros funcionarios del ministerio del interior, que controla el aparato de inteligencia extranjera y seguridad interna. Los funcionarios de seguridad cubanos preguntaron a DeLaurentis acerca de los incidentes, qué habían experimentado los diplomáticos, qué síntomas habían sufrido y qué otras circunstancias podrían esclarecer el episodio, dijeron oficiales.

El 23 de febrero, menos de una semana después de la nota diplomática estadounidense al gobierno cubano, DeLaurentis acompañó a dos senadores americanos que estaban de visita, Richard Shelby de Alabama y Patrick Leahy de Vermont, a ver al Presidente Raúl Castro en el Palacio de la Revolución. Durante la conversación, dijeron oficiales, Castro mencionó que tenía algo para hablar con el chargé, y cuando la reunión había terminado, pidió a DeLaurentis que se quedara. Durante lo que fue descrita por oficiales como una conversación breve pero sustantiva, Castro dejó claro que estaba bien al tanto de los incidentes y comprendía que los americanos los veían como un problema serio. Su respuesta, dijo un oficial del Departamento de Estado, fue “Tendríamos que trabajar juntos para intentar solucionarlo”.

Las reuniones de los americanos con funcionarios diplomáticos y de seguridad cubanos continuaron. Los cubanos dijeron que iban a aumentar la seguridad alrededor de las casas y apartamentos de los diplomáticos americanos, incrementando las patrullas policiales e instalando cámaras de televisión de circuito cerrado en algunas áreas. En una medida más inusual, los cubanos también acordaron permitir a un equipo de investigadores del FBI venir a La Habana a investigar ellos mismos lo que había pasado, basándose en mejoras en la relación entre cuerpos de seguridad que se habían formalizado en un acuerdo bilateral a finales de 2016. (Una portavoz del FBI declinó hacer comentarios sobre los detalles de la investigación.)

Desde el comienzo, sin embargo, oficiales de Estados Unidos fueron ellos mismos reacios a compartir información. Los cubanos pidieron interrogar a los americanos que habían sido identificados como víctimas; el Departamento de Estado se negó. Los cubanos pidieron información médica detallada sobre sus lesiones; el Departamento de Estado objetó, alegando razones de privacidad. “No podías descartar” el posible involucramiento del gobierno cubano en los incidentes, dijo un oficial del departamento. “Cuando estás tratando con un posible culpable, uno tiene cuidado”.

Mientras los primeros tres miembros del personal de la embajada fueron enviados a ser evaluados por especialistas en la Escuela de Medicina Miller de la Universidad de Miami, oficiales en Washington también empezaron a mirar más ampliamente a lo que podía ser la causa de sus síntomas. Inicialmente, oficiales estadounidenses tenían la hipótesis de que el gobierno cubano u otro régimen extranjero – posiblemente con participación cubana –había creado un nuevo tipo de aparato acústico de largo alcance, conocido por las siglas en inglés L-Rad, permitiéndoles de alguna manera enfocar y dirigir poderosas ondas sónicas del tipo que utilizan las agencias policiales para dispersar muchedumbres o los buques de carga para repeler piratas.

Pero la física era misteriosa para expertos dentro y fuera del gobierno. Los incidentes en su mayoría habían ocurrido durante la noche, dentro de los hogares de los diplomáticos. Cualquier arma de sonido o energía dirigida que hubiese sido usada parecía haber penetrado paredes y ventanas. Pero otra gente viviendo en los alrededores inmediatos no parecían haber escuchado nada fuera de lo normal. En la tecnología L-Rad conocida, las ondas de sonido generalmente radian del aparato hacia afuera. Nadie parecía entender cómo se podría enfocar el sonido casi de una forma laser y todavía penetrar superficies duras.

Después de un intervalo de varias semanas, los incidentes empezaron de nuevo — y hubo más de ellos. Una mujer fue agredida en su apartamento. Otros diplomáticos fueron golpeados en sus casas en las afueras occidentales. Las diferentes circunstancias solo complicaban el cuadro, pero los efectos del fenómeno quedaron más claros: a los primeros tres pacientes examinados en los Estados Unidos se les encontró síntomas médicos concretos, y en el caso del hombre más joven, eran bastante serios.

El viernes 24 de marzo, el diplomático quien había empezado a escuchar los ruidos en su jardín alrededor del Día de Acción de Gracias se topó con el hombre más joven en el trabajo y escuchó el diagnóstico aterrador que acababa de recibir en Miami. Los médicos decían que el hombre tenía daños serios en los huesos pequeños dentro de uno de sus oídos, entre otros problemas, y le haría falta usar un audífono. El lunes siguiente, hizo escuchar al diplomático una grabación del ruido con el cual había sido agredido. El diplomático se quedó estupefacto: sonaba muy parecido a los ruidos que él y su familia habían escuchado en su jardín durante varios meses.

Un día después, el diplomático fue a ver DeLaurentis en la espaciosa suite del embajador en el quinto piso con vista del Malecón, dijeron oficiales que están familiarizados con el episodio. El diplomático explicó que él también había sido expuesto a ruidos extraños que eran aparentemente semejantes a los que había experimentado el hombre joven. DeLaurentis dijo que él y los otros que estaban al tanto de los incidentes creían que estos estaban confinados a un “pequeño universo de gente” quienes los cubanos probablemente sospechaban de hacer trabajo de inteligencia, fueran oficiales de la CIA o no. Al diplomático la respuesta no le tranquilizó, y sugirió que a otros tampoco les iba a tranquilizar. “Tienes que organizar una reunión”, el diplomático dijo a DeLaurentis. “La fábrica de rumores se está volviendo loca”.

Al día siguiente, 29 de marzo, DeLaurentis juntó a aproximadamente cuatro docenas de miembros del personal de la embajada – todos los que tenían una autorización de seguridad para acceso a información clasificada en el edificio. Esta vez, después de entregar sus teléfonos celulares, se amontonaron en una sala de conferencias sin ventanas que había sido equipada como Lugar de Información Sensible y Compartimentada (SCIF por sus siglas en inglés.) Ya había pasado más de un mes desde que DeLaurentis había entregado su queja formal al gobierno cubano, pero la mayoría de la gente en la sala estaban escuchando de los incidentes por primera vez.

Según tres funcionarios que estuvieron en la reunión, DeLaurentis expuso tranquilamente los detalles de lo que habían experimentado algunos de los diplomáticos. Todavía había mucho que no entendían de lo que había pasado y quien podría estar detrás, dijo, pero las investigaciones estaban en curso, y las autoridades cubanas estaban tomando medidas que habían prometido para aumentar la seguridad de los diplomáticos. Alentó a cualquiera que pensara que podía haber sido expuesto, o que tenía alguna información potencialmente relevante a contactarle o hablar con el oficial de seguridad de la embajada. Especialistas médicos estaban disponibles para examinar a cualquier persona que tuviera indicios de un problema.

Si DeLaurentis esperaba calmar a sus tropas, parece haber sido solo modestamente exitoso. Parte del problema, dijeron diplomáticos, fue que concluyó la reunión pidiendo al personal reunido que evitaran hablar de la situación fuera del recinto seguro de la embajada, inclusive con sus familias. Aunque el asunto todavía era clasificado, el pedido les pareció irrazonable, hasta indignante, al menos a algunos de ellos. “Pensábamos que era una locura”, dijo un funcionario que estuvo en la reunión. “Había parientes que habían sido atacados en sus casas. ¿Cómo no íbamos a poder advertirles para que estuvieran en guardia?”

Las preocupaciones entre el personal y sus familiares por su salud explotaron. En apenas un mes, los diplomáticos reportaron un aluvión de nuevos incidentes. Para fines de abril, más de 80 diplomáticos, parientes y otro personal — una proporción muy alta para una misión que incluía aproximadamente 55 empleados americanos y sus familias — pidieron ser evaluados por el equipo médico de Miami. El equipo era liderado por un especialista en oídos, nariz y garganta, Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, quien ha trabajado extensivamente con veteranos militares que han sufrido trauma vestibular como resultado de explosiones y combates en Afganistán e Iraq. Se llevaron a cabo exámenes en Miami y La Habana, y el equipo detectó bastante rápidamente alrededor de una docena de casos nuevos — la mitad del número que sería eventualmente confirmado.

Los diplomáticos afectados experimentaron una variedad amplia de sensaciones: algunos escucharon ruidos agudos y penetrantes o un zumbido como de cigarra. Otros sintieron “rayos” concentrados de sonido o vibraciones auditivas como las que produce la ventana medio abierta de un auto yendo a gran velocidad. Otros más no escucharon ningún sonido en absoluto. Según un resumen de una página de los casos que fue preparado conjuntamente por las oficinas de Servicios Médicos y Asuntos del Hemisferio Occidental del Departamento de Estado para el gobierno cubano, “Algunos expresaron que se sintieron choqueados o sacudidos por la exposición, o despertados del sueño, y otros describieron un desarrollo más gradual de síntomas que continuaron durante días o semanas después”.

Entre el miedo que se apoderó de muchos, algunos empleados de la embajada se presentaron para decir que podían haber escuchado o sentido fenómenos similares, pero después de ser entrevistados se dictaminó que no necesitaban atención médica. Entre las primeras 20 personas examinadas por especialistas en La Habana y Miami, se determinó que nueve no tenían síntomas detectables, mientras otros nueve tenían efectos “moderados” como dolores de cabeza, nausea, tinnitus y mareos. Solo dos tenían lo que se describieron como “los más severos” efectos, incluido el hombre joven que había reportado los primeros síntomas a finales de diciembre.

El emblemático Hotel Capri en La Habana, donde dos oficiales americanos que estaban de visita reportaron que ruidos fuertes y agudos los sacudieron en sus cuartos en abril de 2017. (Desmond Boylan/AP Photo)

Después de otro intervalo de algunas semanas, un incidente nuevo y preocupante ocurrió alrededor a finales de abril en el Hotel Capri, una torre emblemática de 19 pisos con una piscina en la azotea que una vez fue un lugar preferido de varios capos de la Mafia y del actor Errol Flynn. Administrado ahora por una empresa española, el hotel estaba entre varios de los que usaba la embajada de Estados Unidos para alojar a diplomáticos y visitantes oficiales. Alrededor del 21 de abril, un funcionario de la embajada que se estaba hospedando allí mientras se renovaba su apartamento fue sacudido durante la noche por un ruido agudo y penetrante en su cuarto. Uno o dos días más tarde, un médico americano quien acababa de llegar con el equipo de la Universidad de Miami experimentó un fenómeno parecido. Los dos hombres tenían cuartos con ventanas relativamente grandes, dijo un oficial, sin embargo parecía que otros huéspedes no escucharon nada.

Esta vez, el reclamo de la embajada a los cubanos fue más vehemente. Los diplomáticos que habían sido afectados antes habían vivido en sus casas durante algún tiempo. Pero los dos nuevos americanos que decían haber sido golpeados estaban en cuartos de hotel que presumiblemente eran conocidos solo por un número pequeño de oficiales americanos y cubanos, y el personal del hotel. El medico acababa de llegar a la isla uno o dos días antes. “¿Quién sabía que estaba allí?” DeLaurentis reclamó al ministerio de relaciones exteriores cubano, según un funcionario del Departamento de Estado conocedor de la conversación. “El gobierno de Estados Unidos. Y el gobierno cubano”.

Dentro de la administración Trump, el enfado por los incidentes crecía. El 20 de mayo, el día de la independencia cubana, el Presidente emitió una declaración advirtiendo que “el despotismo cruel no puede apagar la llama de la libertad en los corazones de los cubanos”. Tres días después, el Departamento de Estado expulsó de Washington a dos diplomáticos cubanos que habían sido identificados por los Estados Unidos como espías. Las expulsiones no fueron hechas públicas, y ninguna noticia del misterio acústico en La Habana fue filtrada a los medios informativos. Sin embargo, aunque diplomáticos y oficiales de seguridad de los dos países continuaban colaborando en la investigación de una forma limitada y de bajo perfil, la relación dio un giro hacia la confrontación.

La administración Trump en este punto ya estaba finalizando sus planes para desmantelar el acercamiento de Obama. Exactamente en que se iba a retroceder no quedaba claro; Trump sugirió que a los cubanos se les había exigido poco en materia de derechos humanos, pero no ofreció ninguna refutación en particular al argumento hecho por oficiales del Departamento del Estado y otros en el gobierno de que tener tratos más intensos con Cuba era la manera más eficaz de promocionar la liberalización económica y política allí. Algunos grupos comerciales americanos y grupos políticos cubanoamericanos más moderados también presionaron para mantener los contactos establecidos. Pero en una nueva administración que había dejado vacíos puestos de alto nivel relacionados con Latinoamérica en el Departamento de Estado y el Consejo de Seguridad Nacional, muchos oficiales dijeron que había un vacío de liderazgo político sobre el asunto.

El Senador Marco Rubio habla del tratamiento que el Departamento de Estado ha dado a los problemas de salud sufridos por oficiales de la embajada americana en La Habana durante la audiencia de un subcomité de Relaciones Exteriores del Senado en Washington, D.C. el 9 de enero, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Aquel vacío fue llenado sobre todo por el ex rival de campaña a quien Trump había denigrado con el apodo de “pequeño Marco”. Empezando poco tiempo después del primer informe de inteligencia para congresistas sobre los incidentes de La Habana realizado por la administración a puerta cerrada, Rubio presionó para una respuesta más dura, oficiales dijeron, y también abogó por una serie de propuestas de línea dura para la política general hacia Cuba. La Casa Blanca “pidió mi aporte básicamente en cada asunto en Latinoamérica y el Hemisferio Occidental y … hemos estado trabajando con ellos y han estado muy abiertos”, dijo el senador Rubio a los periódicos McClatchy. “De alguna manera, el hecho de que no vinieron con ideas preconcebidas de qué hacer ha creado el espacio para que ocurra este debate”.

El 16 de junio, el presidente Trump viajó a Miami para anunciar que iba a “cancelar el acuerdo absolutamente sesgado con Cuba hecho por la anterior administración”. Aunque los cambios no llegaron tan lejos, Trump ordenó a las agencias del gobierno que revisaran las regulaciones sobre viajes y negocios para prohibir cualquier transacción con hoteles, restaurantes, tiendas y otras empresas vinculadas a las grandes operaciones en turismo y comercio de las fuerzas armadas cubanas. Los estadounidenses a excepción de los cubanoamericanos no serían permitidos viajar por su cuenta para turismo general, si no solo con grupos educativos organizados o con otros grupos con itinerarios preestablecidos. Cualquier mejora adicional en la relación bilateral, dijo Trump, estaría sujeta a mejoras en los derechos humanos en Cuba. “¡Ahora que soy Presidente”, prometió Trump, “vamos a exponer los crímenes del régimen de Castro!”

En La Habana, el diplomático que primero había escuchado los ruidos en su jardín fue enviado a Miami a principios de abril para pruebas médicas con un contingente de personal de la embajada. Él y su mujer solo volverían para empacar sus cosas. Antes de marcharse de Cuba, sin embargo, paró en la casa de uno de sus vecinos canadienses para despedirse y explicarle un poco porque tenían que irse. El diplomático canadiense se preocupó: Su familia había estado escuchando los sonidos, dijo. ¿Podrían haber causado un misterioso sangrado de nariz que su hijo había sufrido? ¿O los males de cabeza de su mujer?

A finales de abril, DeLaurentis invitó a un pequeño grupo de embajadores de países estrechamente aliados con Estados Unidos — Canadá, Gran Bretaña, Francia y otros — para dejarles saber lo que le había estado pasando a su personal y preguntar si alguien más había experimentado algo similar. Aparte de un informe de un diplomático francés que fue rápidamente descartado, la única respuesta significativa vino de la embajada de Canadá. A principios de mayo, el embajador canadiense, Patrick Parisot, juntó a los 18 diplomáticos de su plantilla para pasarles la advertencia de los americanos y preguntar si alguien había escuchado ruidos raros o sufrido alguna enfermedad inusual. Varias personas respondieron, dijo un oficial canadiense, entre ellas un hombre (aparentemente el vecino del diplomático americano) que dijo que había escuchado sonidos extraños en su jardín en marzo.

Como en la embajada americana, los miedos acerca de lo que estaba pasando se expandieron rápidamente entre el personal canadiense. En total, 27 diplomáticos, cónyuges e hijos, representando 10 de las familias de la embajada, solicitaron ayuda médica. De ese grupo, ocho personas de cinco familias — incluidos dos niños — recibirían diagnósticos de síntomas que eran más leves que las de casi todos los pacientes americanos: sangrados de nariz, mareos, dolores de cabeza e insomnio. Todos se recuperarían bastante rápidamente.

En general, dijo un oficial canadiense involucrado en el caso, la experiencia que provocó los síntomas de los diplomáticos canadienses era bastante diferente de las que reportaron los americanos. Además del diplomático canadiense que dijo haber escuchado ruidos en su jardín, miembros de otra familia diplomática informaron que un día en junio habían escuchado un sonido repentino y vibrante, como si se estuviera agitando una hoja de chapa; un miembro de la familia se enfermó más tarde. Pero los otros seis canadienses que se enfermaron no habían escuchado ni experimentado nada parecido.

“En la mayoría de los casos, realmente no había ataques que podíamos señalar”, dijo el oficial canadiense. “La experiencia americana se trataba totalmente de eventos acústicos y la gente sintiéndose enferma, y nosotros teníamos gente que se sentía enferma con vínculos limitados a eventos acústicos”.

También, el ministerio de relaciones exteriores canadiense manejó el asunto de una forma muy distinta a los estadounidenses, evitando cualquier crítica al gobierno cubano. El ministerio dijo que no tenía ningún plan para reducir su personal diplomático en La Habana, y reemplazó rápidamente a las tres familias de la embajada que decidieron volver a casa por causa del problema. El gobierno también dijo que la Policía Real Montada Canadiense había recibido toda la asistencia que había pedido del gobierno cubano. “Los cubanos están bastante apegados a los 1.2 millones de turistas canadienses que vienen a Cuba cada año, así que tienen un incentivo bastante fuerte para cortar esto de raíz”, dijo el oficial. “Han sido muy proactivos en intentar ayudarnos”.

Sin embargo, la policía canadiense no ha hecho virtualmente progreso alguno en su investigación, dijo el oficial, a pesar de haber recibido ayuda de las fuerzas de seguridad cubanas y del FBI. Después de consultar con expertos en tecnología e inteligencia, oficiales de seguridad de Estados Unidos y Canadá han recomendado que los diplomáticos y sus familias se alejen lo más rápido posible de cualquier sonido inusual que puedan escuchar. La embajada americana también repartió grabadoras de alta frecuencia para que los diplomáticos pudieran grabar los sonidos. Algunos diplomáticos también fueron reubicados de casas donde los sonidos o vibraciones habían sido experimentados repetidamente.

El equipo de investigación del FBI, que ha incluido a agentes de una unidad basada en Miami que investiga crímenes contra ciudadanos estadounidenses en Latinoamérica, ha visitado Cuba cuatro veces desde mayo. El grupo ha entrevistado a diplomáticos y otros oficiales de los dos países, examinado las casas y los hoteles donde los incidentes ocurrieron, y llevado a cabo otras indagaciones. Sus evaluaciones han sido utilizadas en matrices complejas creadas para comparar las circunstancias físicas de los incidentes reportados con las sensaciones descritas por los americanos y los síntomas que padecieron luego. También han contribuido al análisis todavía secreto de la División de Tecnología Operacional del FBI con fecha del 4 de enero que concluyó que las enfermedades y lesiones de los americanos no fueron causadas por ningún tipo de aparato sónico. (Un oficial de seguridad diplomática del Departamento de Estado, Todd Brown, dijo que los investigadores están todavía considerando la posibilidad de que el sonido fuera usado para ocultar otro tipo de agente o tecnología dañina.)

Un residente mira desde la ventana de su casa en La Habana. (Eliana Aponte/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

La investigación de La Habana también ha incorporado una gama amplia de agencias científicas y tecnológicas de Estados Unidos, incluidas el Directorado de Ciencia y Tecnología de la CIA, la Agencia de Proyectos de Investigación Avanzados de Defensa del Pentágono, entre otras, pero oficiales dijeron que no está claro si alguna de ellas ha hecho avances significativos. Además de tecnologías ultrasónicas e infra-sónicas, han examinado otras tecnologías de energía dirigida, dijeron los oficiales. Parte del trabajo de investigación también se ha enfocado en el uso posible de microondas, evocando al episodio conocido como el Señal de Moscú, un caso de los años setenta en el cual la inteligencia soviética emitió señales de microondas dentro de la embajada de Estados Unidos en Moscú para activar un receptor pasivo escondido en la oficina del embajador americano. Se reportó después que americanos en la embajada habían sufrido enfermedades a causa del fenómeno, pero sus síntomas no tenían un parecido cercano a los que padecieron los diplomáticos en Cuba.

En entrevistas, ex oficiales de inteligencia americanos dijeron que eran también escépticos ante la idea de que los diplomáticos de Estados Unidos en Cuba podían haber sido sometidos a un intento nuevo y agresivo de vigilancia que tuviera consecuencias inesperadas. Porque los cubanos siempre han mantenido un control cercano sobre los diplomáticos americanos en La Habana, dijeron, las fuerzas de seguridad generalmente saben que tienen poco que temer de los intentos de reclutamiento o recogida de información de los espías americanos basados en la isla. Los expertos en inteligencia notaron también que la vigilancia de diplomáticos en casa es una tarea de trabajo intensivo que probablemente estaría reservada para los objetivos más importantes.

“En mi experiencia, estos operativos en las residencias implican que terminas examinando un montón de basura”, dijo Charles S. (Sam) Faddis, un antiguo mando de operaciones de la CIA. “Son un dolor en el trasero. El producto que consigues está lleno de ruidos irrelevantes, la vida diaria, cada discusión matrimonial, los sonidos de la tele, los niños, el perro. Me parece mucho esfuerzo para ese tipo de objetivo”.

Entre los científicos que el equipo del FBI ha consultado está Allen Sanborn, Ph.D., un biólogo en la Universidad Barry en Miami Shores, Florida, quien ha dedicado 30 años al estudio de las poblaciones de las cigarras en Latinoamérica y otras partes del mundo. Dr. Sanborn dijo que, aunque las cigarras hacen ruidos muy fuertes, “es dudoso que podían causar lesiones en Cuba por el tamaño y por la especie”. Estimó que la cigarra cubana puede alcanzar un nivel ensordecedor de 95 decibeles a una distancia de 20 pulgadas aproximadamente, pero enfatizó que el nivel de presión de sonido bajaría seis decibeles cada vez que se dobla la distancia. O sea que, a una distancia de 40 pulgadas, la intensidad de sonido bajaría a 89 decibeles, y a 80 pulgadas bajaría a 83 decibeles, y así en adelante. “No te haría realmente daño al menos que fuera insertado en el canal de tu oído”, dijo durante una entrevista.

Los cuatro agentes del FBI que fueron a la casa de Dr. Sanborn para la entrevista le hicieron una serie de preguntas sobre las llamadas de los insectos en general y las cigarras en particular. Entonces, le pidieron que escuchara cuidadosamente aproximadamente una docena de grabaciones hechas por diplomáticos americanos en La Habana que habían experimentado lo que pensaban en aquel momento era algún tipo de ataque sónico. Algunas grabaciones eran más cortas, otras más largas, dijo el Dr. Sanborn, pero todas eran de más o menos la misma frecuencia y parecían ser el mismo tipo de sonido. Les advirtió que las grabaciones no eran de una calidad extremadamente alta, pero ofreció a los agentes su mejor conclusión.

“Las tres posibilidades son los grillos, las cigarras y los saltamontes tropicales”, dijo. “A mí me sonaban como cigarras”.

El Dr. Sanborn dijo que les dio a los agentes un par de informes académicos que ha escrito que incluyen análisis de los patrones temporales y la frecuencia espectral de varios cantos de cigarras, pero no ha vuelto a tener noticias de ellos.

Solo el lado médico de la investigación ha producido resultados algo más concluyentes. A principios de julio, la oficina de servicios médicos del Departamento de Estado organizó un grupo de expertos en neurología, otorrinolaringología y otras especialidades para examinar los expedientes médicos de los pacientes de La Habana. Los médicos reconocieron que al menos parte de lo que experimentaron los diplomáticos podría haber venido de otras fuentes, incluyendo “enfermedades virales, previos traumas de cabeza, el envejecimiento, y hasta el estrés”, dijo el Dr. Rosenfarb. Pero, añadió, el consenso de los expertos fue que “los patrones de las lesiones que habían sido notados hasta ahora eran probablemente relacionados a trauma de una fuente no-natural”.

No había habido nuevos ataques desde abril, aunque algunos de los afectados solo reportaron sus síntomas semanas o meses después. Pero entonces, alrededor del 21 de agosto, dos incidentes más fueron reportados por diplomáticos, al menos uno de ellos en el elegante Hotel Nacional, una fortaleza de lujo al estilo años treinta no lejos del Capri. Poco después de que los médicos confirmaran el 1 de septiembre que los dos diplomáticos mostraban síntomas asociados con los incidentes, el Departamento de Estado puso la misión de La Habana en estatus de “partida voluntaria”, permitiendo a cualquiera que servía allí irse con sus familias. La razón que el departamento dio por la orden fue el inminente Huracán Irma, que sacudió la costa norte de la isla unos días después.

Pero muchos de los que se marcharon no volverían, o volverían solo para empacar sus pertenencias. En una acción dramática y punitiva el 29 de septiembre, el Departamento de Estado ordenó que se fueran a casa 24 de los 47 diplomáticos asignados a La Habana, incluidos todos los que tenían familias. Cerró a efectos prácticos la sección consular de la embajada exceptuando los servicios de emergencia. Entonces el departamento ordenó a 15 diplomáticos cubanos más marcharse de Washington, incluidos algunos involucrados en el procesamiento de visados y asuntos comerciales.

El departamento no acusó al gobierno cubano de estar directamente involucrado en lo que llamaba los “ataques” de La Habana. Pero advirtió a los ciudadanos estadounidenses que no viajaran a la isla, usando términos que eran más ominosos que el lenguaje que se usa para países asolados por la violencia y la inestabilidad. Y cualquier matiz que el Departamento de Estado intentó enfatizar (las relaciones diplomáticas por lo demás continuarían) se perdieron rápidamente en la erupción retórica. “No hay manera de que alguien pudiera ejecutar este número de ataques, con ese tipo de tecnología, sin que lo supieran los cubanos”, dijo senador Rubio, quien otra vez había estado instando a una respuesta más contundente. “O lo hicieron, o saben quién lo hizo”.

Los cubanos, aseveró el Presidente Trump sin más explicación, “hicieron algunas cosas muy malas”.

El Presidente Donald Trump, después de firmar cambios en la política hacia Cuba el 16 de junio, 2017, en Miami, Florida. Trump restringió viajes y negocios americanos en la isla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Era un guion que el gobierno cubano parecía reconocer. El ministro de relaciones exteriores, Bruno Rodríguez, que antes había llamado al discurso de Trump en Miami en junio “un espectáculo grotesco”, enfatizó un punto por encima de otros: Los Estados Unidos no había presentado absolutamente evidencia alguna de que los cubanos habían hecho otra cosa más que ayudar a investigar el problema. Aunque Estados Unidos ha sugerido que Cuba no cumplió con sus responsabilidades de proteger a los diplomáticos extranjeros bajo los Convenios de Vienna, oficiales cubanos han subrayado que Washington no ha citado ninguna acción específica que el gobierno cubano no haya tomado en este sentido.

“Cuba no ha tomado medidas en absoluto contra los Estados Unidos”, dijo Rodríguez, refiriéndose a las sanciones americanas. “No discrimina contra sus compañías. Invita a sus ciudadanos a visitarnos, promociona el diálogo y la cooperación bilateral”. (Refiriéndose a la base naval de la Bahía de Guantánamo, que los Estados Unidos ha ocupado por tratado desde 1903, añadió: “No ocupa ninguna parte del territorio estadounidense”.) Las acciones tomadas por los Estados Unidos, añadió, “solo pueden beneficiar los intereses siniestros de un puñado de personas”.

Expertos en política exterior dentro y fuera del gobierno generalmente coinciden en que los incidentes de La Habana van en contra de los intereses del gobierno de Castro. “Al régimen cubano no le interesaba antagonizar a la administración Trump”, dijo Craig A. Deare, quien fue despedido poco después de un mes como el especialista de más alto rango sobre Latinoamérica del Consejo de Seguridad Nacional cuando criticó la actitud agresiva del Presidente Trump hacia México. “No me parecía tener sentido entonces y no me parece tener sentido ahora”.

La expulsión de los diplomáticos y la advertencia a viajeros, además del endurecimiento del embargo y el huracán, ya han cortado el flujo de turistas americanos a la isla. La actividad comercial estadounidense ha caído más, en parte debido a la partida de diplomáticos cubanos en Washington que organizaban reuniones y tramitaban los visados. Los disidentes cubanos también se han quejado de que el declive en el flujo de turistas ha dañado profundamente a comercios pequeños e independientes como casas de huéspedes, restaurantes familiares y similares.

La propia investigación del gobierno cubano de los incidentes ha sido otra pieza central de la contraofensiva de relaciones públicas. Según informes de prensa cubanos, aproximadamente 2,000 personas han estado involucrados en la pesquisa, durante la cual detectives de policía han interrogado a vecinos de los diplomáticos (quienes dijeron que no recordaban haber escuchado nada inusual), médicos cubanos (quienes se preguntaban porque los americanos nunca buscaron atención para sus graves problemas) y su proprio elenco de científicos y tecnólogos.

Ingenieros cubanos también analizaron las grabaciones que según oficiales fueron hechas por diplomáticos de Estados Unidos. Los ingenieros también concluyeron que los ruidos eran a niveles de decibeles demasiado bajos para causar pérdida auditiva — pero que los sonidos primarios en las grabaciones eran hechos por cigarras. Otros científicos cubanos han sugerido que las enfermedades de los americanos eran psicosomáticas.

A pesar de meses en que el enfoque de activos de inteligencia sobre la situación cubana ha sido intensificado, agencias de inteligencia de Estados Unidos no han captado casi ninguna evidencia secundaria de que el gobierno puede haber ayudado a ataques contra los diplomáticos o buscado intervenir con algún gobierno aliado que pudiera estar involucrado en el asunto. Tampoco hay algún indicio de que el gobierno cubano ha identificado alguna facción rebelde de las fuerzas de seguridad que pudiera haber querido socavar el acercamiento con Washington, oficiales dijeron.

La idea de tal facción rebelde intentando subvertir una iniciativa mayor del gobierno ha sido barajada frecuentemente en Washington en meses recientes. Aunque el funcionamiento interno del régimen de Castro ha sido siempre algo opaco para los de fuera, muchos analistas veteranos del régimen cubano les suena como casi inconcebible. “Es enormemente irónico que la teoría de la facción rebelde viene exactamente de la misma gente que dice que el gobierno cubano sabe absolutamente todo lo que pasa en el país”, dijo Armstrong, el ex analista de la CIA. “Pero nunca ha habido evidencia alguna de facciones rebeldes operando fuera del sistema”. Recordó que en el caso que probablemente más se acerca a esta tesis — la condena en una farsa de juicio a varios poderosos oficiales de inteligencia y militares por narcotráfico y otros crímenes en 1989 — había hasta algunas evidencias circunstanciales de que las actividades ilícitas de los oficiales habían sido toleradas durante bastante tiempo por sus superiores.

Dejando al lado algunas posibilidades estrafalarias y poco posibles — agentes norcoreanos merodeando por La Habana o quizás un equipo secreto de espías venezolanos subvirtiendo al aliado más cercano de su propio gobierno — el análisis parecería dejar solo Rusia como sospechoso posible. Para Moscú, ayudar a descarrilar el acuerdo trabajosamente logrado entre Washington y La Habana podría constituir un golpe maestro de la geopolítica, dijeron algunos oficiales estadounidenses. Se encuadraría muy bien en la campaña agresiva del Kremlin para minar a sus adversarios occidentales, utilizando todo desde operaciones de espionaje hasta ciberataques contra elecciones. Rusia también tiene una larga historia de hostigamiento a diplomáticos de Estados Unidos, un patrón que se ha intensificado en Moscú desde 2014, dijo Andrew Foxall, director del Centro de Estudios Rusos en la Sociedad Henry Jackson, un instituto de estudios en Londres.

La embajada de Estados Unidos en La Habana el 3 de octubre de 2017. Con solo un equipo de personal mínimo, expertos dicen que los diplomáticos tendrán dificultades para monitorear un periodo de transición política crucial. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Después de años de hostilidad cubana que siguieron la caída de la Unión Soviética y la retirada de los enormes subsidios que suministró durante décadas, el Kremlin ha hecho una serie de esfuerzos para fortalecer el anteriormente cercano lazo estratégico entre los dos países. Como con Venezuela y Nicaragua, Rusia ha pagado un precio generoso por la amistad renovada con Cuba, ayudando a compensar la pérdida de importaciones de petróleo venezolano con 1.9 millones de barriles de combustible, con un valor estimado de $105 millones a precios de descuento. Las exportaciones de Rusia a Cuba casi se doblaron el año pasado. En diciembre, Raúl Castro recibió la visita del director del gigante estatal ruso de energía Rosneft, fomentando especulaciones de que un gran acuerdo de exploración o suministro de petróleo podría estar en ciernes.

La relación de seguridad entre los dos países también ha crecido. En diciembre de 2016, justo cuando empezaron los incidentes afectando el personal de Estados Unidos, Rusia y Cuba firmaron un nuevo acuerdo de cooperación en defensa y tecnología. Oficiales rusos también han hablado públicamente de la posibilidad de reabrir una base de espionaje rusa cerrada en el pueblo cubano de Lourdes.

Además de un móvil posible, los rusos podrían tener los medios tecnológicos — o al menos la capacidad para haber plausiblemente desarrollado un arma de energía dirigida que los científicos estadounidenses no pueden identificar. Pero a estas alturas, oficiales dijeron, los analistas de inteligencia también esperarían haber entresacado de interceptaciones electrónicas de conversaciones en el extranjero al menos alguna evidencia secundaria de que los rusos pudieran estar involucrados — conversaciones sospechosas de teléfono o correos electrónicos, mensajes sugestivos, movimientos de agentes rusos — algo. Pero los oficiales dijeron que no han encontrado virtualmente nada que constituirían pruebas reales. También se preguntan si Rusia arriesgaría su creciente relación con Cuba con una operación que podría socavar la iniciativa diplomática más importante de la isla en décadas.

Y aun en el caso de que Rusia hubiera desarrollado algún tipo de arma nueva y compacta de energía dirigida que se podía haber usado para atacar a los diplomáticos americanos, todavía habría los desafíos logísticos extremadamente complejos para su despliegue. Agentes rusos presumiblemente tendrían que haber ubicado al menos dos docenas de diplomáticos estadounidenses en La Habana, alcanzarlos de forma clandestina y repetida, y en algunas de las zonas más patrulladas de lo que muchos consideran un estado policial. Las agencias de inteligencia tampoco han documentado pruebas de un arma parecida contra algún otro objetivo, o señales de que Rusia puede haber movido agentes a Cuba para llevar a cabo tal operativo.

En la ausencia persistente de pruebas verdaderas de como los diplomáticos de Estados Unidos fueron afectados, la administración Trump no parece tener un camino fácil hacia adelante. Aproximadamente 10 de los diplomáticos y sus parejas siguen sometiéndose a rehabilitación vestibular y neurológica, tanto en Washington como en la Escuela Perelman de Medicina de la Universidad de Pennsylvania. Algunos se han movido a nuevos trabajos en Washington o en el extranjero, y otros se han mantenido ocupados en la unidad de Asuntos del Hemisferio Occidental con tareas como procesar peticiones bajo la Ley de Libertad de Información o tramitar solicitudes con el personal de recursos humanos, dijeron oficiales.

El 4 de marzo, tendrá que decidir si convertir la retirada de los diplomáticos en una reducción permanente de personal. Un documento interno del Departamento de Estado obtenido por ProPublica también indica que la ralentización de actividad consular puede hacer difícil que Estados Unidos alcance su compromiso de procesar al menos 20,000 visados de inmigración para cubanos este año, una meta anual que es extremadamente importante para los cubanoamericanos que buscan traer a sus parientes de la isla. Diplomáticos americanos — incluidos algunos que fueron forzados a irse de La Habana — dicen también que el departamento ha reducido su capacidad para ver, comprender y tal vez influenciar lo que está pasando en Cuba en un punto de transición potencialmente histórico.

“Nuestros diplomáticos quieren volver”, dijo un oficial estadounidense que ha sido informado ampliamente sobre el desarrollo de los hechos en La Habana. “¿Pero si no puedes llegar al fondo de esta situación, cómo sucede eso? Y han sido bastante abiertos al decir que no sabemos mucho más sobre esto de lo que sabíamos hace 12 meses”.

ProPublica Wins February Sidney Award for “Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection”
February 14th, 2018, 05:42 AM

The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Investigative Fund reporter Kiera Feldman’s collaboration with ProPublica, “Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection,” is the winner of the Sidney Award for February. The monthly honor recognizes “outstanding journalism that fosters social and economic justice.”

While New York City’s residential trash is hauled away by the city, trash thrown away by businesses is collected by private companies. Feldman joined private sanitation workers on their night shifts for her investigation into their perilous working conditions. Often lacking union representation, they work longer hours — regularly clocking 10- to 14-hour shifts, six days a week — and make less money.

They also have the fifth most fatal job in America: crushed by dumpsters, slashed by glass, run over after falling from trucks, and dealing with brake and steering failures on ancient vehicles. Drivers aren’t the only casualties. In New York City overall, private sanitation trucks killed seven people in 2017. By contrast, city municipal sanitation trucks haven’t caused a fatality since 2014.

“This story drew attention to spectacular abuses that are taking place in plain sight,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein, “This reporting calls attention to the need for reform in the private carting industry to protect workers and the public.”

After the story’s publication, Mayor DeBlasio pledged to come up with new safety guidelines for private sanitation workers.

Read more about the Sidney Award here.

The Sound and the Fury: Inside the Mystery of the Havana Embassy
February 14th, 2018, 05:42 AM

It was a cool night for Havana, with the temperature falling into the mid-70s, and the diplomat and his family were feeling very good about their assignment to Cuba. They were still settling into their new home, a comfortable, Spanish-style house in the lush enclave that had been called “el Country Club” before wealthy families abandoned it in the early years of the revolution. “We were just thrilled to be there,” the diplomat recalled. “The music, the rum, the cigars, the people — and a very important moment for diplomacy.”

Eight months earlier, in March 2016, President Barack Obama had swept into town to commemorate the two countries’ historic rapprochement, vowing to bury “the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.” Now, weeks after the election of Donald Trump, that entente was suddenly doubtful. Fidel Castro had just died, opening a new chapter in the Cuban saga. The diplomat could hardly have imagined a more fascinating time to arrive.

As the sun slid into the Florida Straits on that late-November evening, the diplomat folded back the living room doors that opened onto the family’s new tropical garden. The warm night air poured in, along with an almost overpowering din. “It was annoying to the point where you had to go in the house and close all the windows and doors and turn up the TV,” he recalled. “But I never particularly worried about it. I figured, ‘I’m in a strange country, and the insects here make loud noises.’”

A few nights later, the diplomat and his wife invited over the family of another American embassy official who lived next door. Around dusk, as they chatted on the patio, the same deafening sound rose from their yard again.

“I’m pretty sure those are cicadas,” the first diplomat said.

“Those are not cicadas,” his neighbor insisted. “Cicadas don’t sound like that. It's too mechanical-sounding.”

One of the U.S. diplomats affected by the health incidents reportedly lived in this home in Havana. (Courtesy of NBC News)

The colleague had been hearing the same noises at home, sometimes for an hour or more at a stretch. After he complained to the embassy housing office, a couple of Cuban maintenance workers were dispatched to look around. They checked for electrical problems and scanned the yard for strange insects, but they left without finding anything out of place. In February, the nightly racket finally began to fade. Then it went away altogether.

It was not until a Friday in late March that the diplomat realized he might be facing something more dangerous than bugs. At work that day, an embassy colleague with whom he was friendly took him aside and said he was leaving Cuba right away. A fit-looking man in his thirties, the colleague said he had just been in Miami, where medical specialists found he had a series of problems including a serious hearing loss. In late December, he said, he had been struck by a strange, disturbing phenomenon — a powerful beam of high-pitched sound that seemed to be pointed right at him. The following Monday, the diplomat’s friend played him a recording of the noise: It sounded a lot like what the diplomat had heard in his backyard.

The diplomat, who agreed to discuss his experience on the condition he not be named, said neither he nor his wife had felt any signs of illness or injury. But within days, they, too, would be on their way to Miami to be examined by medical specialists. Along with 22 other Americans and eight Canadians, they would be diagnosed with a wide array of concussion-like symptoms, ranging from headaches and nausea to hearing loss. They would also find themselves caught up in an extraordinary international dispute, one that the Trump administration would use to sharply reverse the course of U.S. relations with Cuba.

Even in a realm where secrets abound, the Havana incidents are a remarkable mystery. After nearly a year of investigation that has drawn on intelligence, defense and technology expertise from across the U.S. government, the FBI has been unable to determine who might have attacked the diplomats or how. Nor has the bureau ruled out the possibility that at least some of the Americans weren’t attacked at all. Officials who have been briefed on the inquiry described it as having made strikingly little progress in answering the basic questions of the case, with frustrated FBI agents reporting that they are running out of rocks to overturn.

Those frustrations have roiled the U.S. national-security community, putting the FBI increasingly at odds with the CIA over the case. In early January, after more than eight months of analysis, the bureau ruled out its initial hypothesis that the Americans were targeted with some type of sonic device. That left the FBI without a weapon, a perpetrator or a motive, and still struggling to understand how the diplomats could have been hurt or fallen ill. Intelligence officials, for their part, have continued to emphasize a pattern they see as anything but coincidental: The first four Americans to report being struck by the phenomenon — including the fit-looking man in his 30s — were all CIA officers working under diplomatic cover, as were two others affected later on. The CIA and other agencies involved in the investigation also have yet to concur with the FBI’s conclusion about sonic technology.

More broadly, the Cuba problem has raised questions within the national security community about how the Trump administration is using intelligence information to guide its foreign policy. At a time when the White House has vowed to act more forcefully against North Korea, Iran and other threats, some officials see the Cuba problem as yet another lesson in the dangers of using intelligence selectively to advance policy goals. “Trump came in opposing better relations with Cuba,” said one national security official who, like others, would discuss the case only on the condition he not be named. “The administration got out in front of the evidence and intelligence.”

A ProPublica investigation of the case, based on interviews with more than three dozen U.S. and foreign officials and an examination of confidential government documents, represents the first detailed public account of how the Cuba incidents unfolded. Although the State Department has generally emphasized similarities in the medical files of the 24 affected Americans, officials and documents consulted for this story indicated that the nature and seriousness of the patients‘ symptoms varied rather widely. The experiences that precipitated their illnesses were also quite different, officials said, and the experiences and symptoms of the eight Canadians differed from those of the Americans.

Many U.S. officials who have dealt closely with the problem — including several who asserted that it has been distorted for political purposes — said they remain convinced that at least some of the Americans were deliberately targeted by a sophisticated enemy. Medical specialists who reviewed the patients‘ files last summer concluded that while their symptoms could have many causes, they were “most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source,” the State Department medical director, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, said. “No cause has been ruled out,” he added. “But the findings suggest this was not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Yet it appears that secrecy, psychology and politics may all have played some part in how the phenomenon spread through the staffs of the two Havana embassies. Administration officials have been reluctant to discuss psychological factors in the case, in part because they fear offending or antagonizing the stricken diplomats (many of whom already feel badly treated by the State Department leadership). But as the mystery has deepened, U.S. investigators have begun to look more closely at the insular, high-pressure world of the Havana embassy, and they have found a picture that is far more complex than the rhetoric and headlines have suggested.

Despite the many unanswered questions, Trump administration officials have repeatedly blamed Raúl Castro‘s government for failing to protect the diplomats, if not actually attacking them. Early last fall, the State Department withdrew more than half of the diplomatic staff assigned to Havana, while ordering a proportional number of Cubans to leave Washington. The department also warned U.S. citizens they could be “at risk” of attack if they visit the island. “I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government, can bring this to an end,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month.

Such assertions have outraged the Cuban leadership. Since early last year, U.S. officials said, Castro and his senior aides have insisted they had nothing to do with the incidents and would help in any way they could to investigate and stop them. The FBI team has found no evidence of Cuban complicity in the incidents, officials said, and has privately emphasized the government‘s cooperation with its investigators. Tillerson‘s statements notwithstanding, some State Department officials have also told members of Congress privately that they have assessed the Cubans‘ denials of involvement to be credible, officials said. “They believe the Cuban government wants better relations with the United States,” one Senate aide said.

The other obvious suspect has been Russia, which intelligence analysts have seen as having both a possible motive and the possible means to carry out such attacks. The Putin government has harassed U.S. diplomats routinely in Moscow and sometimes abroad; during the Obama administration, it appeared determined to disrupt American foreign policy around the world. Russia also has a capacity to engineer sophisticated new weapons and a longstanding security alliance with Cuba. But investigators have not found even significant circumstantial evidence of a Russian hand in the incidents, officials said, and some analysts doubt Russia would imperil its relationship with Cuba by so brazenly undermining one of its key foreign policy goals.

While the mystery continues, U.S. policy toward Cuba hangs in the balance. With Castro scheduled to step down from the presidency in April, Washington is represented in Havana by only a skeleton staff at a potentially critical moment of transition. American travel to and business with the island have fallen sharply in recent months, and the processing of visas for Cubans wanting to emigrate to the United States has plunged, calling into question the fulfillment of a longstanding migration agreement between the two countries. The Trump administration may also have limited its options: On March 4, the State Department will face a deadline to either send its diplomats back to Havana or make permanent staff reductions. But the Secretary of State, who reportedly made the decision to pull out the diplomats, has shown no signs of changing his position.

“We don’t know how to protect people from this, so why would I do that?” Tillerson told the Associated Press when asked about returning diplomats to Cuba. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that until I‘m convinced that I’m not putting people in harm‘s way.”

Cuban President Raul Castro talks with Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel during the year-end parliamentary session in Havana on Dec. 21, 2017. (Jaime Blez/AFP/Getty Images)

In the crossfire of accusations, ordinary Cubans might be forgiven for wondering if they have been transported back in time. As the country prepares to be led for the first time in almost 60 years by someone not named Castro, a tectonic shift that could profoundly affect how it is governed, cold war rhetoric has again filled the air. The next-generation Communist leader who is expected to succeed Raúl Castro, Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, 56, is among those who have warned of yet another imperialist plot against Havana. They are “incredible fairy tales without any evidence,” he said of the Trump administration’s claims, “with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba‘s impeccable conduct.”

Key Locations in the Havana Attacks

The first three diplomats who reported suffering what they thought were “sonic attacks” in November and December 2016 lived in upscale neighborhoods in Havana’s western suburbs. Two other incidents later occurred the following April at the Hotel Capri, near the center of the city.

Hannah Birch/ProPublica

The first two incidents occurred around Thanksgiving weekend of 2016, which coincided with the death of Fidel Castro on Nov. 25. During the nine days of official mourning that followed, neither American official told the embassy’s leadership what they had experienced. But both men, intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, would later say they heard sharp, disorienting sounds in their homes at night. At least one of them would later tell investigators the noise had seemed oddly focused, officials said. Moving out of the way or into another room, it seemed almost to disappear.

If the stories sounded like science fiction, the CIA’s Havana station and the embassy leadership suspected something more mundane. Since the United States and Cuba restored limited diplomatic relations in 1977, reopening their embassies as “interests sections” in each other’s capitals, the Cubans kept a constant, often aggressive watch over American diplomats in Havana. Diplomats might come home to find a window opened, or a television set turned on (often to government news), or their belongings slightly but obviously rearranged. Some part of the game — including more provocative actions like smearing dog feces on the handles of diplomats’ car doors — was considered almost routine. There was also some noted reciprocity from the American agents who trailed Cuban diplomats around Washington.

During periods of particular tension with Washington, the Cubans sometimes went further. In the early and mid-1990s, American diplomats who met with Cuban dissidents or otherwise annoyed the government occasionally returned from meetings to find their car tires punctured. In the mid-2000s, as the Bush administration openly pursued efforts to subvert the Castro regime, Cuban harassment of the 51 American diplomats then stationed on the island ranged from delays in the release of food shipments to “the poisoning of family pets,” the State Department’s inspector general wrote in a 2007 report.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, delivers a speech during the U.S. Embassy building reopening ceremony in Havana on Aug. 14, 2015. (AFP Photo/Adalberto Roque)

The man who headed the American diplomatic mission in late 2016, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, knew that history of harassment well, officials said. A measured, laconic career diplomat with an air of hardened patience, DeLaurentis had taken over as the chargé d’affaires in the summer of 2014, bringing more Cuban experience than perhaps any other senior official in the U.S. government. He had done previous tours in Havana as both a consular officer and a political officer, with a stint in between managing Cuban affairs on the National Security Council staff. After Obama announced a plan to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, he nominated DeLaurentis to be Washington’s first ambassador to Havana since 1961, when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations. (Although his confirmation was blocked by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who argued that Cuba should demonstrate greater respect for human rights before the post was filled, DeLaurentis remained as the chargé d‘affaires.)

Obama’s visit in March 2016 had left Cuban leaders ambivalent about the hand of friendship he extended: Fidel Castro, ailing and almost 90, stirred from his retirement to attack the American president‘s “syrupy words,” and what he saw as an insidious plea for Cubans to forget the Americans‘ dark history with the island. At a Communist Party congress that April, Raúl Castro and others peppered their rhetoric with references to “the enemy” to the north. Diplomats also noted some palpable discomfort among senior Cuban officials with the burst of capitalist bling that marked the easing of U.S. commercial restrictions — a Chanel fashion show, a free Rolling Stones concert, the brief takeover of Havana streets to film scenes for a new “Fast and Furious” movie.

But in the last months of 2016, official Cuban hostility toward the American diplomats in Havana was hovering somewhere near a 50-year low. No serious harassment had been reported for at least a few years, officials said. Most close analysts of Cuba believed the ruling party had forged a solid consensus for ending hostilities with the U.S. Fidel Castro’s last, angry diatribe notwithstanding, U.S. officials told ProPublica that he had been consulted on the rapprochement and given his approval.

While Cuban officials were notably slow to move forward with many of the proposed American business deals that poured in, they did plod ahead with work on bilateral agreements on law-enforcement cooperation, environmental protection, direct mail service and other matters. “Of course, there is a range of preferences within the regime on the speed and depth of reform,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former senior CIA analyst who handled Cuba issues on both the National Security Council staff and the National Intelligence Council. “But the debate is about the pace; there is no alternative to the Raúl strategy.”

Barack Obama and Raul Castro attend an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estadio Latinoamericano March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Cubans’ attention became more focused after the Nov. 8 presidential vote, American officials said. Although Trump had vowed during his campaign to renegotiate Obama‘s “very weak agreement“ with Havana, the Castro government had seemed to discount the possibility that he could be elected. Once Trump was elected — and with Obama administration officials urging the Cubans to consolidate improvements in the relationship — the Cuban government hurried to conclude work on pending agreements before the Jan. 20 inauguration.

It was during that same period between the election and the inauguration that the first U.S. intelligence officers were struck by what they described as strange noises. The initial three victims lived in the upscale neighborhoods of Havana’s western suburbs. Fidel Castro kept a home in one of those neighborhoods, Cubanacán, as do Vice President Díaz-Canel and other members of the island‘s most-privileged elite. The elegant old mansions and tropical-suburban homes of the enclave are also favored by senior foreign diplomats and business executives. There is relatively little car or pedestrian traffic, and a considerable presence of private security guards as well as the Cuban police.

Although the first two officers would later report having first heard strange sounds in their homes back in late November, it was not until the end of December that the first victim sought help at the small medical clinic inside the embassy. That officer — the fit younger man in his 30s — came with a more serious complaint: He had developed headaches, hearing problems and a sharp pain in one ear, especially, following a strange experience in which something like a beam of sound seemed to have been directed at his home.

The younger man’s trauma was reported to DeLaurentis and the embassy‘s diplomatic security chief, Anthony Spotti, on Dec. 30, State Department officials said, and followed by word that the two other CIA officers had experienced something similar about a month before. But inside the modernist glass-and-concrete chancery building that rises up along Havana’s iconic seawall, the Malecón, both the intelligence officials and senior diplomats guessed that the noises were “just another form of harassment” by the Cuban government, one official said. They also seemed carefully targeted to CIA officers working under diplomatic cover. If members of Cuba’s state-security apparatus did not know the men were intelligence officers, they would probably have suspected them anyway, the Americans believed.

Fidel Castro's funeral procession in Santa Clara, Cuba, Dec. 1, 2016. Castro died during the period that the mysterious incidents affecting U.S. diplomats began. (Tomás Munita, special to ProPublica)

The incidents were discussed discreetly among members of the embassy’s “country team,” the group of roughly 15 senior diplomats that would often meet daily to discuss significant issues. But, because of counterintelligence concerns, they were kept secret from most of the other American personnel — about 32 other diplomats and eight Marine guards — a decision that was later criticized by some of those who became sick. “We have security officers at every embassy and they give us constant updates,” one diplomat said. “Somebody gets pick-pocketed, somebody got their car broken into ... And then somebody got attacked by this mystery weapon and they didn‘t tell us?”

By mid-January, after the other two intelligence officers also sought medical attention at the embassy, the matter began to take on a more ominous cast, several officials said. Around the time that the first intelligence officers were sent to the U.S. for treatment on Feb. 6, the wife of another embassy staffer, who lived near the Havana coastline in the neighborhood of Flores, reported hearing similar, disturbing sounds, two officials familiar with her account said. The woman then looked outside and saw a van speeding away. The vehicle had apparently come from the same end of the street on which there was a house that was thought by U.S. officials to be used by the Cuban Interior Ministry. The officials acknowledged that the report was vague and uncertain. Yet they said it also constituted one of the more significant pieces of circumstantial information they had about the incidents.

In Havana, officials said, senior members of the embassy staff argued to their counterparts in Washington that they should formally protest the incidents to the Cuban government. Given the uncertainties, others thought they should try to gather more information before lodging such a complaint. Although it was a matter of concern at both the State Department and the CIA, it is unclear whether it was raised to the National Security Council staff before the decision to protest was made (one former senior official said it was not). Nor, officials said, was Secretary of State Tillerson informed of the situation until days after the department‘s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Francisco Palmieri, finally called in the Cuban ambassador in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, to present a diplomatic note of protest on Feb. 17.

The Cuban government responded promptly. A few days later, officials said, DeLaurentis was called to a meeting with Josefina Vidal, the senior diplomat who had led the Cuban team that negotiated the normalization of relations with the U.S. (DeLaurentis declined to comment, referring questions about the Havana incidents to the State Department.) Vidal was joined by other officials from the Interior Ministry, which controls the country’s foreign-intelligence and internal-security apparatus. The Cuban security officials questioned DeLaurentis about the incidents, what the diplomats had experienced, what symptoms they had suffered and what other circumstances might shed light on the episode, officials said.

On Feb. 23, less than a week after the U.S. démarche to the Cuban government, DeLaurentis accompanied two visiting U.S. senators, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, to see President Raúl Castro at the Palace of the Revolution. During the conversation, officials said, Castro mentioned that he had something to discuss with the chargé, and when the meeting concluded, he asked DeLaurentis to stay behind. During what officials described as a fairly brief but substantive conversation, Castro made it clear that he was well aware of the incidents and understood that the Americans saw them as a serious problem. His response, one State Department official said, was “We should work together to try to solve it.”

The Americans’ meetings with Cuban diplomatic and security officials continued. The Cubans said they would bolster security around the homes of American diplomats, adding police patrols and installing closed-circuit television cameras in some areas. In a more unusual step, the Cubans also allowed a team of FBI investigators to come to Havana to investigate for themselves, building on improvements in the law-enforcement relationship that were formalized with a bilateral agreement in late 2016. (An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau would not comment on details of the investigation.)

From the start, U.S. officials were themselves reluctant to share information with Havana about the incidents. The Cubans asked to interview the Americans identified as victims; the State Department refused. The Cubans asked for detailed medical information about their injuries; the State Department demurred, citing privacy concerns. “You could not rule out” the Cuban government’s possible involvement in the incidents, one department official said. “When you are dealing with a possible perpetrator, one is careful.”

While the first embassy staff members were sent to be evaluated by specialists at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, officials in Washington also began to look more widely at what might be causing their symptoms. Initially, U.S. intelligence officials hypothesized that either the Cuban government or some other foreign regime — possibly with Cuban participation — had created a new kind of Long-range Acoustic Device, or L-Rad, enabling them to somehow focus and direct powerful sonic waves of the sort that are used by police agencies to disperse crowds, or by cargo ships to drive away pirates.

But the physics were puzzling to experts inside and outside of government. The incidents had mostly taken place at night, inside victims’ homes. Whatever sonic or directed-energy weapon was used seemed to have penetrated walls and windows. Yet others living in the immediate vicinity apparently heard nothing out of the ordinary. With known L-Rad technology, sound waves generally radiate out from the device. No one seemed to understand how it could be focused in an almost laser-like fashion and still penetrate hard surfaces.

After a lull of several weeks, the incidents began again — and there were more of them. One woman was struck in her apartment. Other diplomats were hit in their homes in the western suburbs. The differing circumstances only complicated the picture, but the effects of the phenomenon became clearer: The first patients examined in the U.S. were all found to have concrete medical symptoms, and in the case of the younger man, they were fairly serious.

On Friday, March 24, the diplomat who had first heard the noises in his backyard around Thanksgiving encountered the younger man at work and heard about his frightening diagnosis in Miami. Doctors said the man had serious damage to the small bones inside one of his ears, among other issues, and would need to wear a hearing aid. The next Monday, he played the diplomat a recording of the noise with which he had been targeted. The diplomat was stunned: It sounded much like the noises that he and his family had heard from their garden for several months.

A day later, the diplomat went to see DeLaurentis in the spacious, fifth floor ambassadorial suite that looks out over the Malecón, officials familiar with the episode said. The diplomat explained that he, too, had been exposed to strange sounds that seemed similar to what the younger man had experienced. DeLaurentis said he and others who knew about the incidents believed they were confined to a “small universe of people” whom the Cubans probably suspected of doing intelligence work, whether they were CIA officers or not. The diplomat wasn’t reassured, and he suggested that others would not be, either. “You need to call a meeting,” the diplomat told DeLaurentis. “The rumor mill is going mad.’”

The next day, March 29, DeLaurentis gathered about four dozen members of the embassy’s American staff — everyone in the building who had a security clearance. This time, after surrendering their cell phones, they crowded into a windowless conference room that had been outfitted as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF (pronounced “skiff.”) It had already been more than a month since DeLaurentis delivered his formal complaint to the Cuban government, but most of the people in the room were hearing about the incidents for the first time.

According to three officials who attended the meeting, DeLaurentis calmly laid out the basic details of what some of the diplomats had experienced. There was much they still did not understand about what had happened and who might be behind it, he said, but investigations were underway, and the Cuban authorities were taking steps they had promised to increase the diplomats’ security. He encouraged anyone who thought they might have been exposed, or who had any information that could be relevant to contact him or speak with the embassy’s security officer. Medical specialists were available to examine anyone who showed signs of a problem.

If DeLaurentis was hoping to calm his troops, he appears to have been only modestly successful. Part of the problem, diplomats said, was that he concluded the meeting by asking the assembled staff to avoid talking about the situation outside the secure confines of the embassy, even with their families. Although the matter was still classified, that request struck at least some of them as unreasonable, even outrageous. “We thought that was nuts,” said one official who attended the meeting. “There were family members who were attacked at home. How could we not tell them to watch out for this?”

Concerns among the staff and their dependents about their health exploded. Within barely a month, diplomats reported a flurry of new incidents. By the end of April, more than 80 diplomats, family members and other personnel — a very high proportion for a mission that included about 55 American staff — had asked to be checked out by the Miami medical team. That group was led by an ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, who has worked extensively with military veterans who suffered vestibular trauma from explosions and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Based on examinations in both Miami and Havana, it quickly identified almost a dozen new cases — nearly half the number that would eventually be confirmed.

The affected diplomats experienced a wide range of sensations: Some heard sharp, piercing noises or a cicada-like buzz. Others felt concentrated “beams” of sound or auditory vibrations like those from the half-open window of a fast-moving car. Still others heard no sound at all. According to a one-page summary of the cases that was jointly prepared for the Cuban government by the State Department’s bureaus of Medical Services and Western Hemisphere affairs, “Some voiced feeling shocked or shaken by the exposure, or awoken (sic) from sleep, and others described a more gradual onset of symptoms that continued for days to weeks afterwards.”

Amid the fear that gripped many, some embassy staff came forward saying they might have heard or felt similar phenomena, but were found after being interviewed not to require medical attention. Among the first 20 people examined by specialists in Havana and Miami, nine were found to have no discernable symptoms, while nine others had “moderate” effects like headaches, nausea, tinnitus and dizziness. Only two had what were termed “the most severe” effects, including the younger man who reported the first symptoms in late December.

The landmark Hotel Capri in Havana, where two visiting U.S. officials reported that sharp, piercing noises shook them in their rooms in April 2017. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

After another lull of a few weeks, a disturbing new incident occurred in late April at the Hotel Capri, a 19-story landmark that was once a favorite of various Mafia dons and the actor Errol Flynn. Now run by a Spanish firm, the hotel was one of several used by the U.S. Embassy to put up diplomats and official visitors. Around April 21, an embassy staffer who was staying there during renovations on his apartment was shaken at night by a piercing noise in his room. A day or two later, an American doctor who had just flown in with the University of Miami team experienced a similar phenomenon. Both men had rooms with relatively large windows, an official said, yet other guests apparently nearby heard nothing.

This time, the embassy responded to the Cubans more vehemently. The diplomats who had been affected earlier had been living in their homes for some time. But the two new Americans who reported being struck were in hotel rooms that were presumably known only to a small number of U.S. and Cuban officials, and the hotel staff. The doctor had just arrived on the island a day or two earlier. “Who knew that he was there?” DeLaurentis demanded of the Cuban foreign ministry, according to one official familiar with the exchange. “The U.S. government. And the Cuban government.”

Within the Trump administration, anger over the incidents grew. On May 20, Cuba’s independence day, the president issued a statement warning that “cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans.” Three days later, the State Department expelled two Cuban diplomats in Washington who had been identified by the U.S. as spies. The expulsions were not made public, and no word of the acoustic mystery in Havana leaked to the news media. Yet even as diplomats and law-enforcement officials from the two countries continued to collaborate on the investigation in a limited, low-key way, the relationship veered back toward confrontation.

The Trump administration was by then finalizing plans to undo Obama’s rapprochement. Exactly what it would roll back to was uncertain; Trump suggested that the Cubans had gotten off easy on human rights, but he offered no particular rebuttal to the argument made by State Department officials and others in the government that greater engagement with Cuba was the most effective way to promote economic and eventually political liberalization there. Some American business groups and more moderate Cuban-American political groups also pushed for continued engagement. But in a new administration that had not filled senior Latin America posts at the State Department or on the NSC staff, many officials said there was a vacuum of policy leadership on the issue.

Senator Marco Rubio speaks about the State Department’s handling of the health problems suffered by U.S. Embassy officials in Havana during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., Jan. 9, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

That vacuum was filled above all by the former campaign rival whom Trump had disparaged as “Little Marco.” Starting soon after the administration’s first closed-door intelligence briefing to Congress on the Havana incidents, Rubio pushed for a tougher response, officials said, and also advocated a series of hardline proposals to the broader Cuba policy. The White House “asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and ... we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Senator Rubio told McClatchy newspapers. “In some ways, the fact that they didn‘t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

On June 16, Trump traveled to Miami to announce he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” Although the changes fell short of that, Trump ordered government agencies to revise regulations on travel and business to prohibit any transactions with hotels, restaurants, stores and other companies tied to the large tourism and business operations of the Cuban military. Americans other than Cuban-Americans would not be allowed to travel on their own for general tourism purposes, but only with organized educational and other groups on pre-set itineraries. Any further improvements in the bilateral relationship, Trump said, would be contingent on human rights improvements in Cuba. “Now that I am president,” Trump promised, “we will expose the crimes of the Castro regime!”

In Havana, the diplomat who had first heard the noises in his garden was sent off to Miami in early April for medical testing with a cluster of other embassy personnel. He and his wife would return only to pack their things. Before leaving Cuba, though, he stopped to say goodbye at the home of one of his Canadian neighbors and tell him a bit about why they had to leave. The Canadian diplomat was worried: His family had been hearing similar sounds, he said. Could they have caused a mysterious nosebleed his son had suffered? Or headaches his wife had had?

In late April, DeLaurentis had invited over a small group of ambassadors from countries closely allied with the U.S. — Canada, Britain, France and others — to let them know what had been happening to his staff and ask if anyone else had experienced something similar. Other than one report from a French diplomat that was quickly discounted, the only significant response came from the embassy of Canada. In early May, the Canadian ambassador, Patrick Parisot, gathered the 18 diplomats on his staff to relay the Americans‘ warning and ask if anyone had heard strange noises or suffered unusual illness. Several people reported back, a Canadian official said, including one (apparently the American diplomat‘s neighbor) who said he had heard strange noises in his garden back in March.

As at the American embassy, fears about what was happening spread quickly through the Canadian staff. In all, 27 Canadian diplomats, spouses and children, representing 10 of the embassy‘s families, sought medical attention. Of those, eight people from five families — including two children — would be diagnosed with symptoms that were milder than those of almost all the American patients: nosebleeds, dizziness, headaches and insomnia. All would recover fairly quickly.

In general, a Canadian official involved with the case said, the experience that triggered the Canadian diplomats’ symptoms was quite different from those reported by the Americans. In addition to the Canadian diplomat who said he had heard noises in his garden, members of another diplomatic family reported one day in June that they had heard a sudden, twanging sound, like a piece of sheet metal being waved; one family member later became ill. But the other six Canadians who were sickened did not hear or experience anything similar.

“In most cases, there weren‘t really attacks that we could point to,” the Canadian official said. “The American experience was all about acoustic events and people feeling ill, and we had people feeling ill with limited connections to acoustic events.”

The Canadian foreign ministry also managed the issue very differently from the Americans, avoiding any criticism of the Cuban government. The ministry said it had no plans to reduce diplomatic staffing levels in Havana, and it quickly replaced the three embassy families that chose to return home because of the problem. The government also said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had received all the assistance it asked of the Cuban government. “The Cubans are pretty attached to the 1.2 million Canadian tourists who come to Cuba every year, so they‘ve got a pretty strong incentive to nip this in the bud,” the official said. “They’ve been very proactive in trying to help us.”

However, the Canadian police have made virtually no real progress in their investigation, the official said, despite help from both the Cuban security forces and the FBI. After consulting with intelligence and technology experts, U.S. and Canadian security officials have recommended that diplomats and their families move away as quickly as possible from any unusual sound they might hear. The U.S. embassy also handed out high-frequency recorders so diplomats could record the noises, and relocated some of them from homes where the sounds or vibrations had been felt repeatedly.

The FBI investigative team, which has included members of a Miami-based unit that investigates crimes against U.S. citizens in Latin America, has visited Cuba four times since May. The group has interviewed diplomats and other officials of both countries, examined the homes and hotels where incidents took place, and conducted other inquiries. Their assessments have fed into elaborate matrices comparing the physical circumstances of the reported incidents with the sensations that the Americans described and the medical problems they later suffered. They also contributed to the still-secret report of the bureau’s Operational Technology Division on Jan. 4 that concluded that the Americans’ symptoms were not caused by some type of sonic device. (A State Department diplomatic security official, Todd Brown, said the investigators are still considering the possibility that sound was used to mask some other harmful agent or technology.)

A resident looks out a window of his home in Havana. (Eliana Aponte/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Havana investigation has also involved a wide range of U.S. scientific and technological agencies, including the CIA‘s Directorate of Science and Technology and the Pentagon‘s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But officials said it is not clear that any of those have made significant progress, either. In addition to ultrasonic and infrasonic technologies, they have examined other directed-energy technologies. Some inquiry has also focused on the possible use of microwaves, harking back to the Moscow Signal, an episode from the 1970s in which Soviet intelligence beamed microwave signals into the U.S. embassy in Moscow to activate a passive receiver hidden in the office of the United States ambassador, officials said. Americans in the embassy were later reported to have been sickened by the phenomenon, but their symptoms did not closely resemble those suffered by diplomats in Cuba.

In interviews, former U.S. intelligence officers said they were also skeptical of the idea that the U.S. diplomats in Cuba might have been subjected to some new surveillance effort gone awry. Because the Cubans have always kept close tabs on American diplomats in Havana, they said, the security forces generally know they have little to fear from the recruitment or intelligence-gathering efforts of American spies stationed on the island. The intelligence experts also noted that the monitoring of diplomats at home is a labor-intensive task that would likely be reserved for the most important targets.

“In my experience, those operations at residences mean you end up sifting through a lot of trash,” said Charles S. (Sam) Faddis, a former senior CIA operations officer. “The product you get is filled with extraneous noise, daily life, every marital disagreement, the sounds of the TV, the kids, the dog. It seems like a lot of effort for that kind of target.”

Among the scientists whom the FBI team has sought out was Allen Sanborn, a biologist at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, who has spent 30 years studying cicada populations in Latin America and elsewhere. Dr. Sanborn said that while cicadas do make very loud noises, “it’s doubtful they could cause injury in Cuba because of the size and species.” He estimated that the Cuban cicada could reach a deafening 95 decibels at a distance of about 20 inches, but emphasized that the sound-pressure level would drop six decibels with every doubling distance. So, at 40 inches away, the sound intensity would fall to 89 decibels, and at 80 inches it would fall to 83 decibels, and so on. “It wouldn‘t really hurt you unless it was shoved into your ear canal,” he said in an interview.

The four FBI agents who came to Dr. Sanborn’s home for the interview asked him a series of questions about insect calls in general and cicadas in particular. Then, they asked him to listen to about a dozen recordings made by American diplomats in Havana who had experienced what they thought at the time was some type of sonic attack. Some were shorter, some longer, Dr. Sanborn said, but all were about the same frequency and seemed to be the same sort of sound. He cautioned that the recordings were not of an extremely high quality, but he offered the agents his best judgement.

“The three possibilities are crickets, cicadas and katydids,” he said. “They sounded to me like cicadas.”

Dr. Sanborn said he gave the agents a couple of academic papers he has written that include analyses of the temporal patterns and spectral frequency of various cicada calls, but has not heard from them again.

Only the medical side of the investigation has produced somewhat more conclusive results. In early July, the State Department’s medical services bureau assembled a panel of neurological, otolaryngological and other experts to review the medical files of the Havana patients. The physicians allowed that at least some of what the diplomats had experienced could have come from other sources, including “viral illnesses, previous head trauma, aging, and even stress,” Dr. Rosenfarb said. But, he added, the experts’ consensus was that “the patterns of injuries that had so far been noted were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

There had been no new attacks since April, although some of those affected only reported their symptoms weeks or months later. But then, around Aug. 21, two more incidents were reported, at least one of them at the Hotel Nacional, a fortress of 1930s luxury not far from the Capri. Shortly after doctors confirmed on Sept. 1 that the two patients showed symptoms associated with the incidents, the State Department put the Havana mission on a “voluntary departure” status, allowing any of those serving there to leave with their families. The reason the department gave for the order was the impending Hurricane Irma, which raged across the north coast of the Island a few days later.

But many of those who left temporarily would not return, or would go back only to gather their belongings. In a sweeping, punitive action on Sept. 29, the State Department ordered home 24 of the 47 diplomats assigned to Havana, including all of those with families. It effectively shut down the embassy‘s consular section except for emergency services. The department then ordered 15 more Cuban diplomats to leave Washington, including some involved in visa-processing and commercial affairs.

The department still did not accuse the Cuban government of direct involvement in what it called the Havana “attacks.” But it warned Americans not to travel to the island in terms more ominous than those sometimes used for some countries wracked by political upheaval, and caveats it offered about the continuity of diplomatic relations were quickly lost in the surging rhetoric. “There is no way that someone could carry out these number of attacks, with that kind of technology, without the Cubans knowing about it,” asserted Senator Rubio, who had again been urging a more forceful response. “They either did it, or they know who did it.”

The Cubans, Trump declared, “did some very bad things.”

President Donald Trump, after signing changes in Cuba policy on June 16, 2017, in Miami, Florida. Trump restricted U.S. travel and business on the island. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It was a script that the Cuban government seemed to recognize. The foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, who had earlier called Trump’s Miami speech in June “a grotesque spectacle,” emphasized one point above others: The United States had presented no evidence whatsoever that the Cubans had done anything but try to help investigate the problem. Although the United States has suggested that Cuba have failed to live up to its responsibilities to protect foreign diplomats under the Vienna Conventions, Cuban officials have emphasized that Washington has not cited any specific actions the Cuban government has failed to take toward that end.

“Cuba has taken absolutely no measures at all against the United States,” Rodríguez said, referring to American sanctions. “It does not discriminate against its companies. It invites its citizens to visit us, promotes dialogue and bilateral cooperation.” The actions taken by the United States, he added, “can only benefit the sinister interests of a handful of people.”

Foreign-policy experts inside and outside the government generally agree that the Havana incidents seem to run counter to the interests of the Castro government. “The Cuban regime was not interested in antagonizing the Trump administration,” said Craig Deare, who was fired last February as the National Security Council’s senior Latin America specialist after he criticized Trump’s confrontational approach to Mexico. “It didn‘t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense to me now.”

The diplomats’ expulsions and the travel warning, along with the earlier tightening of the embargo and the hurricane, have already cut the flow of American tourists to the island. American business activity has dropped off further, in part due to the departure of Cuban diplomats in Washington who set up meetings and processed visas. Cuban dissidents also have complained that declining tourism has badly hurt small, independent businesses like guest houses, family restaurants and the like.

The Cuban government’s own investigation into the incidents has been another central piece of its public relations counteroffensive. According to Cuban news accounts, some 2,000 people have been involved in the inquiry, in which police detectives have questioned neighbors of the diplomats (who said they did not recall hearing anything unusual), Cuban doctors (who wondered why the Americans had never sought attention for their acute problems) and their own battery of scientists and technologists.

Cuban engineers also analyzed recordings that officials said were made by the American diplomats. The engineers also concluded that the noises were at decibel levels too low to cause hearing loss — but that the primary sounds on the recordings were made by cicadas. Other Cuban scientists have suggested that the Americans’ illnesses were psychosomatic.

Despite months of scrutiny by American intelligence assets, officials said U.S. intelligence agencies have gathered virtually no secondary evidence that Cuba might have assisted directly or indirectly in attacks on the Americans. Nor is there any indication that the Cuban government has identified some rogue faction of security forces that might have wanted to undermine the rapprochement with Washington, officials said.

The idea of such a rogue element working to subvert a major government initiative has been bandied about frequently in Washington in recent months. Although the inner workings of the Castro regime have always been somewhat opaque to outsiders, many longtime analysts of the Cuban politics are skeptical. “It’s hugely ironic that the rogue faction theory is coming from exactly the same people who say the Cuban government knows absolutely everything that’s going on in the country,” Armstrong, the former senior CIA analyst, said. “But there has never been any evidence of rogue factions working outside the system.” He recalled that in the one case that perhaps came closest — the show-trial conviction of several influential military and intelligence officers for drug trafficking and other crimes in 1989 — there was even some circumstantial evidence that the illicit activities had been tolerated by superiors.

Other than a few wildly far-fetched possibilities — North Korean agents running around Havana, or perhaps a secret team of Venezuelan spies subverting their own government’s closest ally — that would seem to leave only Russia. For Moscow, helping to derail the hard-won entente between Washington and Havana might constitute a geopolitical masterstroke, some U.S. officials said. It would fit into the Kremlin‘s aggressive campaign to undermine its western adversaries, using everything from espionage operations to election cyberattacks. Russia also has a long history of harassing American diplomats, a pattern that has intensified in Moscow since 2014, said Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, a London think tank.

The U.S. embassy in Havana on Oct. 3, 2017. With only a skeleton staff remaining, Cuba experts say diplomats will have trouble monitoring a period of crucial political transition. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

After some years of Cuban hostility following the Soviet Union’s collapse and Russia’s withdrawal of the vast subsidies it had provided for decades, the Kremlin has made new efforts to solidify the two countries’ strategic bond. Russia has helped to offset the loss of Venezuelan oil imports with 1.9 million barrels of fuel (estimated to be worth $105 million at discounted rates), and Russian exports to Cuba nearly doubled last year. In December, Raúl Castro received the head of the Russian state energy giant Rosneft, stirring speculation that a major oil-exploration or supply deal might be in the works. The two countries’ security relationship has also grown. In December of 2016, just as the incidents affecting U.S. personnel began, Russia and Cuba signed a new agreement on defense and technology cooperation.

Along with a possible motive, the Russians might have the technological means — or at least the capacity to have plausibly developed a directed-energy weapon that U.S. scientists could not identify. Yet by now, officials said, intelligence analysts would also have expected to have culled from electronic intercepts of overseas conversations at least some secondary evidence that the Russians might be involved — suspicious telephone or email conversations, suggestive messages, movements of Russian agents — something. But officials said they have found virtually nothing that would constitute real evidence. They also wonder whether Russia would risk its growing relationship with Cuba by carrying out an operation that could undermine the island’s most important diplomatic initiative in decades.

Even if Russia had developed some new and compact directed-energy weapon that could have been used to attack the American diplomats, there would still have been extremely complex logistical challenges to its deployment. Russian agents would presumably have had to locate at least two dozen American diplomats in Havana, reach them covertly and repeatedly, and in some of the most heavily policed areas of what many consider a police state. Nor have intelligence agencies documented tests of a similar weapon on some other target, or signs that Russia might have moved agents into Cuba to carry out such an operation.

In the continuing absence of any real evidence of how the Americans were stricken, the Trump administration appears to have no easy path forward. About 10 of the diplomats and spouses continue to undergo vestibular and neurological rehabilitation, both in Washington and at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Some have moved on to new jobs in Washington or overseas, or have been kept busy in the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau with such tasks as processing Freedom of Information Act requests or handling employment applications with the human resources staff, officials said.

By March 4, the State Department will have to decide whether to make the withdrawal of the diplomats a permanent reduction in staff. An internal department document obtained by ProPublica also suggests that the slowdown of consular activity may make it difficult for the United States to meet its commitment to processing at least 20,000 immigrant visas for Cubans this year, an annual target that is important to Cuban-Americans seeking to bring relatives from the island. American diplomats — including some of those forced to leave Havana — also say that the department has also reduced its ability to see, understand and perhaps influence what is happening in Cuba at a potentially historic transition point.

“Our diplomats want to go back,” one American official who has been extensively briefed on the developments in Havana said. “But if you can‘t get to the bottom of this situation, how does that happen?”

‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast: Money Laundering and the Trump Taj Mahal
February 14th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Just months before Donald Trump announced his bid for president in 2015, federal regulators announced they were slapping one of his longtime Atlantic City casinos with a record-setting $10 million fine for lack of controls around money laundering.

The problems went back years. The penalty was actually the second record-setting fine for the Trump Taj Mahal involving money-laundering oversight.

What exactly did the Taj fail to do? Casino officials admitted to “willful and repeated” violations of the Bank Secrecy Act: As federal authorities put it in a settlement:

Trump Taj Mahal admitted that it failed to implement and maintain an effective AML [anti-money laundering] program; failed to report suspicious transactions; failed to properly file required currency transaction reports; and failed to keep appropriate records as required.

In this episode of “Trump, Inc.,” our podcast with WNYC, we dig into the now-bankrupt and shuttered Trump Taj Mahal, once one of the biggest and glitziest casinos in the world. It’s a story of chaotic operations, massive debt, and a tendency to treat rules as more like suggestions. Ring a bell?

Listen to the Podcast

Subscribe here to “Trump, Inc.” or wherever you get your podcasts.

And remember, we want to hear from you: We’re always eager for tips. We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you?

You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.

You can always email us at

And finally, you can use the postal service:

Trump Inc at ProPublica
155 Ave of the Americas, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10013

ProPublica Wins 35 Society for News Design Awards of Excellence
February 13th, 2018, 05:42 AM

The Society for News Design honored ProPublica with 35 Awards of Excellence in this year’s Best of Digital Design competition. The annual competition honors journalistic, visual and technical excellence from publications around the world.

Contest judges recognized ProPublica for its site redesign, as well as its design in breaking news, features and social media graphics, among other categories. Here are the rest of ProPublica's winning projects:

Independent Monitors Found Benzene Levels After Harvey — Breaking/Daily News: Single-subject project

How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico — Features: Single-subject project

What Hospitals Waste — Features: Single-subject project

Bombs in Your Backyard —Features: Single-subject project, Features: Coverage, Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Represent — Features: Single-subject project

Vital Signs — Features: Single-subject project

Nothin’ but Debt — Features: Single-subject project

Buyouts Won’t Be the Answer for Many Frequent Flooding Victims — Features: Single-subject project

Documenting Hate — Features: Coverage, Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Facebook Portfolio — Features: Coverage

Trump Portfolio — Features: Coverage

Coverage of Hurricane Harvey — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Bombs in Our Backyard Series — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Chicago Area Disparities in Car Insurance Premiums — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

How Harvey Hurt Houston, in 10 Maps — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

This Is Where Hate Crimes Don’t Get Reported — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

The Immigration Effect: There’s a Way for President Trump to Boost the Economy by Four Percent, But He Probably Won’t Like It — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Where Alternative School Enrollment May Signal Problems — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

Buyouts Won’t Be the Answer for Many Frequent Flooding Victims — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

One Year, One Facility, 1.7 Million Pounds of Hazardous Waste Burned in Open Air — Graphics: Features and planned coverage

911 Calls Document Disturbing Encounter with Off-Duty Chicago Police Officer — Graphics: Motion graphics

How This Military Explosive is Poisoning American Soil — Graphics: Motion graphics

Fact Checking the Supreme Court — Graphics: Motion graphics

Bombs In Our Backyard — Graphics: Social media graphics

Brain Drain at the EPA — Graphics: Social media graphics

ProPublica/Texas Tribune: Harvey Portfolio —Special event: Natural Disaster Coverage

David Sleight Portfolio — Portfolio: Individual

Rob Weychert Portfolio — Portfolio: Individual

Lucas Waldron Portfolio — Portfolio: Individual

Design Team Portfolio — Portfolio: Organization

News Apps Portfolio — Portfolio: Organization

See a list of all the 2017 Best of Digital Design winners here.

‘Trump, Inc.’ Podcast Extra: Trump’s Company Is Getting $175 Million Annually in Previously Undisclosed Rent
February 13th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Forbes reporters figured out that the president’s company pulls in an estimated $175 million in commercial rent annually. One of Trump’s major tenants: a state-owned Chinese bank.

In this bonus episode of our “Trump, Inc.” podcast, Forbes’ Dan Alexander talks to WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein about how he dug through financial documents and even measured square footage to detail the little-known, big payments to the president's company.

Subscribe here to “Trump, Inc.” or wherever you get your podcasts.

Listen to the Podcast

And remember, we want to hear from you: We’re always eager for tips. We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you?

You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.

You can always email us at

And finally, you can use the postal service:

“Trump, Inc.” at ProPublica

155 Ave of the Americas, 13th Floor

New York, NY 10013

I Approved This Facebook Message — But You Don’t Know That
February 13th, 2018, 05:42 AM

Hundreds of federal political ads — including those from major players such as the Democratic National Committee and the Donald Trump 2020 campaign — are running on Facebook without adequate disclaimer language, likely violating Federal Election Commission rules, a review by ProPublica has found.

An FEC opinion in December clarified that the requirement for political ads to say who paid for and approved them, which has long applied to print and broadcast outlets, extends to ads on Facebook. So we checked more than 300 ads that had run on the world’s largest social network since the opinion, and that election-law experts told us met the criteria for a disclaimer. Fewer than 40 had disclosures that appeared to satisfy FEC rules.

“I’m totally shocked,” said David Keating, president of the nonprofit Institute for Free Speech in Alexandria, Virginia, which usually opposes restrictions on political advertising. “There’s no excuse,” he said, looking through our database of ads.

The FEC can investigate possible violations of the law and fine people up to thousands of dollars for breaking it — fines double if the violation was “knowing and willful,” according to the regulations. Under the law, it’s up to advertisers, not Facebook, to ensure they have the right disclaimers. The FEC has not imposed penalties on any Facebook advertiser for failing to disclose.

An FEC spokeswoman declined to say whether the commission has any recent complaints about lack of disclosure on Facebook ads. Enforcement matters are confidential until they are resolved, she said.

None of the individuals or groups we contacted whose ads appeared to have inadequate disclaimers, including the Democratic National Committee and the Trump campaign, responded to requests for comment. Facebook declined to comment on ProPublica’s findings or the December opinion. In public documents, the company has urged the FEC to be “flexible” in what it allows online, and to develop a policy for all digital advertising rather than focusing on Facebook.

Insufficient disclaimers can be minor technicalities, not necessarily evidence of intent to deceive. But the pervasiveness of the lapses ProPublica found suggests a larger problem that may raise concerns about the upcoming midterm elections — that political advertising on the world’s largest social network isn’t playing by rules intended to protect the public.

Unease about political ads on Facebook and other social networking sites has intensified since internet companies acknowledged that organizations associated with the Russian government bought ads to influence U.S. voters during the 2016 election. Foreign contributions to campaigns for U.S. federal office are illegal. Online, advertisers can target ads to relatively small groups of people. Once the marketing campaign is over, the ads disappear. This makes it difficult for the public to scrutinize them.

The FEC opinion is part of a push toward more transparency in online political advertising that has come in response to these concerns. In addition to handing down the opinion in a specific case, the FEC is preparing new rules to address ads on social media more broadly. Three senators are sponsoring a bill called the Honest Ads Act, which would require internet companies to provide more information on who is buying political ads. And earlier this month, the election authority in Seattle said Facebook was violating a city law on election-ad disclosures, marking a milestone in municipal attempts to enforce such transparency.

Facebook itself has promised more transparency about political ads in the coming months, including “paid for by” disclosures. Since late October it has been conducting tests in Canada that publish ads on an advertiser’s Facebook page, where people can see them even without being part of the advertiser’s target audience. Those ads are only up while the ad campaign is running, but Facebook says it will create a searchable archive for federal election advertising in the U.S. starting this summer.

ProPublica found the ads using a tool called the Political Ad Collector, which allows Facebook users to automatically send us the political ads that were displayed on their news feeds. Because they reflect what users of the tool are seeing, the ads in our database aren’t a representative sample.

The disclaimers required by the FEC are familiar to anyone who has seen a print or television political ad — think of a candidate saying, “I’m ____, and I approved this message,” at the end of a TV commercial, or a “paid for by” box at the bottom of a newspaper advertisement. They’re intended to make sure the public knows who is paying to support a candidate, and to prevent people from falsely claiming to speak on a candidate’s behalf.

The system does have limitations, reflecting concerns that overuse of disclaimers could inhibit free speech. For starters, the rules apply only to certain types of political ads. Political committees and candidates have to include disclaimers, as do people seeking donations or conducting “express advocacy.” To count as express advocacy, an ad typically must mention a candidate and use certain words clearly campaigning for or against a candidate — such as “vote for,” “reject” or “re-elect.” And the regulations only apply to federal elections, not state and local ones.

The rules also don’t address so-called “issue” ads that advocate a policy stance. These ads may include a candidate’s name without a disclaimer, as long as they aren’t funded by a political committee or candidate and don’t use express-advocacy language. Many of the political ads purchased by Russian groups in 2016 attempted to influence public opinion without mentioning candidates at all — and would not require disclosure even today.

Enforcement of the law often relies on political opponents or a member of the public complaining to the FEC. If only supporters see an ad, as might be the case online, a complaint may never come.

The disclaimer law was last amended in 2002, but online advertising has changed so rapidly that several experts said the FEC has had trouble keeping up. In 2002, the commission found that paid text message ads were exempt from disclosure under the “small-items exception” originally intended for buttons, pins and the like. What counts as small depends on the situation and is up to the FEC.

In 2010, the FEC considered ads on Google that had no graphics or photos and were limited to 95 characters of text. Google proposed that disclaimers not be part of the ads themselves but be included on the web pages that users would go to after clicking on the ads; the FEC agreed.

In 2011, Facebook asked the FEC to allow political ads on the social network to run without disclosures. At the time, Facebook limited all ads on its platform to small, “thumbnail” photos and brief text of only 100 or 160 characters, depending on the type of ad. In that case, the six-person FEC couldn’t muster the four votes needed to issue an opinion, with three commissioners saying only limited disclosure was required and three saying the ads needed no disclosure at all, because it would be “impracticable” for political ads on Facebook to contain more text than other ads. The result was that political ads on Facebook ran without the disclaimers seen on other types of election advertising.

Since then, though, ads on Facebook have expanded. They can now include much more text, as well as graphics or photos that take up a large part of the news feed’s width. Video ads can run for many minutes, giving advertisers plenty of time to show the disclaimer as text or play it in a voiceover.

Last October, a group called Take Back Action Fund decided to test whether these Facebook ads should still be exempt from the rules.

“For years now, people have said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the rules, because the FEC doesn’t enforce anything on Facebook,’” said John Pudner, president of Take Back Action Fund, which advocates for campaign finance reform. Many political consultants “didn’t think you ever needed a disclaimer on a Facebook ad,” said Pudner, a longtime campaign consultant to conservative candidates.

Take Back Action Fund came up with a plan: Ask the FEC whether it should include disclosures on ads that the group thought clearly needed them.

The group told the FEC it planned to buy “express advocacy” ads on Facebook that included large images or videos on the news feed. In its filing, Take Back Action Fund provided some sample text it said it was thinking of using: “While [Candidate Name] accuses the Russians of helping President Trump get elected, [s/he] refuses to call out [his/her] own Democrat Party for paying to create fake documents that slandered Trump during his presidential campaign. [Name] is unfit to serve.”

In a comment filed with the FEC in the matter, the Internet Association trade group, of which Facebook is a member, asked the commission to follow the precedent of the 2010 Google case and allow a “one-click” disclosure that didn’t need to be on the ad itself but could be on the web page the ad led to.

The FEC didn’t follow that recommendation. It said unanimously that the ads needed full disclaimers.

The opinion, handed down Dec. 15, was narrow, saying that if any of the “facts or assumptions” presented in another case were different in a “material” way, the opinion could not be relied upon. But several legal experts who spoke with ProPublica said the opinion means anyone who would have to include disclaimers in traditional advertising should now do so on large Facebook image ads or video ads — including candidates, political committees and anyone using express advocacy.

“The functionality and capabilities of today’s Facebook Video and Image ads can accommodate the information without the same constrictions imposed by the character-limited ads that Facebook presented to the Commission in 2011,” three commissioners wrote in a concurring statement. A fourth commissioner went further, saying the commission’s earlier decision in the text messaging case should now be completely superseded. The remaining two commissioners didn’t comment beyond the published opinion.

“We are overjoyed at the decision and hope it will have the effect of stopping anonymous attacks,” said Pudner, of Take Back Action Fund. “We think that this is a matter of the voter’s right to know.” He added that the group doesn’t intend to purchase the ads.

This year, the FEC plans to tackle concerns about digital political advertising more generally. Facebook favors such an industry-wide approach, partly for competitive reasons, according to a comment it submitted to the commission.

“Facebook strongly supports the Commission providing further guidance to committees and other advertisers regarding their disclaimer obligations when running election-related Internet communications on any digital platform,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch wrote to the FEC.

Facebook was concerned that its own transparency efforts “will apply only to advertising on Facebook’s platform, which could have the unintended consequence of pushing purchasers who wish to avoid disclosure to use other, less transparent platforms,” Stretch wrote.

He urged the FEC to adopt a “flexible” approach, on the grounds that there are many different types of online ads. “For example, allowing ads to include an icon or other obvious indicator that more information about an ad is available via quick navigation (like a single click) would give clear guidance.”

To test whether political advertisers were following the FEC guidelines, we searched for large U.S. political ads that our tool gathered between Dec. 20 — five days after the opinion — and Feb. 1. We excluded the small ads that run on the right column of Facebook’s website. To find ads that were most likely to fall under the purview of the FEC regulations, we searched for terms like “committee,” “donate” and “chip in.” We also searched for ads that used express advocacy language such as, “for Congress,” “vote against,” “elect” or “defeat.” We left out ads with state and local terms such as “governor” or “mayor,” as well as ads from groups such as the White House Historical Association or National Audubon Society that were obviously not election-oriented. Then we examined the ads, including the text and photos or graphics.

Of nearly 70 entities that ran ads with a large photo or graphic in addition to text, only two used all of the required disclaimer language. About 20 correctly indicated in some fashion the name of the committee associated with the ad but omitted other language, such as whether the ad was endorsed by a candidate. The rest had more significant shortcomings. Many of those that didn’t include disclosures were for relatively inexperienced candidates for Congress, but plenty of seasoned lawmakers and major groups failed to use the proper language as well.

A reproduction of a Facebook ad funded by the Democratic National Committee, via ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector

For example, one ad said, “It’s time for Donald Trump, his family, his campaign, and all of his cronies to come clean about their collusion with Russia.” A photo of Donald Trump appeared over a black and red map of Russia, overlaid by the text, “Stop the Lies.” The ad urged people to “Demand Answers Today” and “Sign Up.”

At the top, the ad identified the Democratic Party as the sponsor, and linked to the party’s Facebook page. But, under FEC rules, it should have named the funder, the Democratic National Committee, and given the committee’s address or website. It should also have said whether the ad was endorsed by any candidate. It didn’t. The only nod to the national committee was a link to, which is paid for by the DNC, at the bottom of the ad. As on all Facebook ads, the word “Sponsored” was included at the top.

Advertisers seemed more likely to put the proper disclaimers on video ads, especially when those ads appeared to have been created for television, where disclaimers have been mandatory for years. Videos that didn’t look made for TV were less likely to include a disclaimer.

One ad that said it was from Donald J. Trump consisted of 20 seconds of video with an American flag background and stirring music. The words “Donate Now! And Enter for a Chance To Win Dinner With Trump!” materialized on the screen with dramatic thuds and crashes. The ad linked to Trump’s Facebook page, and a “Donate” button at the bottom of the ad linked to a website that identified the president’s re-election committee, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., as its funder. It wasn’t clear on the ad whether Trump himself or his committee paid for it, which should have been specified under FEC rules.

The large majority of advertisements we collected — both those that used disclosures and those that didn’t — were for liberal groups and politicians, possibly reflecting the allegiances of the ProPublica readers who installed our ad-collection tool. There were only four Republican advertisers among the ads we analyzed.

It’s not clear why advertisers aren’t following the FEC regulations. Keating, of the Institute for Free Speech, suggested that advertisers might think the word “Sponsored” and a link to their Facebook page are enough and that reasonable people would know they had paid for the ad.

Others said social media marketers may simply be slow in adjusting to the FEC opinion.

“It’s entirely possible that because disclaimers haven’t been included for years now, candidates and committees just aren’t used to putting them on there,” said Brendan Fischer, director of the Federal and FEC Reform Program at the Campaign Legal Center, the group that provided legal services to Take Back Action Fund. “But they should be on notice,” he added.

There were only two advertisers we saw that included the full, clear disclosures required by the FEC on their large image ads. One was Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator from Minnesota who is a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act. The other was John Moser, an IT security professional and Democratic primary candidate in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District who received $190 in contributions last year, according to his FEC filings.

Reached by Facebook Messenger, Moser said he is running because he has a plan for ending poverty in the U.S. by restructuring Social Security into a “universal dividend” that gives everyone over age 18 a portion of the country’s per capita income. He complained that Facebook doesn’t make it easy for political advertisers to include the required disclosures. “You have to wedge it in there somewhere,” said Moser, who faces an uphill battle against longtime U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. “They need to add specific support for that, honestly.”

Asked why he went to the trouble to put the words on his ad, Moser’s answer was simple: “I included a disclosure because you're supposed to.”

ProPublica Hires Reporter Caroline Chen to Cover Health Care
February 12th, 2018, 05:42 AM

ProPublica announced today that it has hired Caroline Chen as a reporter covering health care.

Chen comes to ProPublica from Bloomberg News, where her reporting has focused on the drug industry and the intersection of health care and technology. Her work there included investigations into Valeant Pharmaceuticals’ use of a mail-order pharmacy to pump up reimbursements for its drugs — a revelation that sparked investor outcry and contributed to a plummet in the company’s shares — and the plight of children with medical needs who end up spending months in hospitals because there aren’t enough home-care nurses to allow them to leave.

Chen co-authored a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story exposing a drugmaker’s use of scare tactics to get patients with rare diseases to stay on its therapies, and another showing how the U.S. government’s bureaucracy impeded efforts to develop an Ebola treatment. She also wrote a story revealing that the diagnostic business of Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong — the new owner of the Los Angeles Times — was attempting to sell an $11,000 cancer test with little success.

Before Bloomberg, Chen received her master's degree from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. She also freelanced, publishing stories in the New York Times, the New York Daily News and other outlets.

“Caroline is a meticulous reporter and storyteller whose work adds new understanding to how the health care industry works,” said Robin Fields, ProPublica managing editor. “We are thrilled to bring her many talents to our newsroom.”

“I’m excited and honored to be joining to ProPublica team, whose dedication to public service and accountability journalism I’ve long admired,” said Chen. “I’m looking forward to digging into the health care beat.”