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Lawmakers Press Secretary of State to Act on ‘Havana Syndrome’ ‘Crisis’ As Cases Stack

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A bipartisan group of senators urges Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take immediate action in response to the proliferation of reports of “Havana syndrome”, calling cases the mysterious neurological disease that has sickened hundreds of people. US officers “a significant and unmitigated threat to our security,” in a letter sent Wednesday.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by CBS News, follows dozens of recent new reports of suspected cases in Colombia, Austria, Germany, Vietnam and other countries. In several cases, the incidents occurred with surprising closeness to senior US officials traveling abroad.

It also comes amid mounting criticism from victims and other observers that the State Department’s handling of incidents has lacked focus and urgency.

“We are extremely alarmed that reports of these incidents continue to grow. It is clear that this threat continues to target US diplomats and related personnel, and reflects a significant and unmitigated threat to our national security,” said writes lawmakers. “We believe this threat deserves the highest level of State Department attention, and remain concerned that the State Department is not treating this crisis with the high-level attention it requires. it requires. ”

The letter was sent jointly by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, Republican of Idaho Jim Risch and Democrat of New Jersey Robert Menendez. It was signed by eight other lawmakers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose staff recently meet with the victims.


More cases of “Havana syndrome” investigated

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More than 200 cases of Havana Syndrome have been reported among U.S. officials since 2016, when U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers first reported falling ill at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, in Cuba. Notes cases were reported in 2021 alone, causing a series investigative actions by the Biden administration to identify their cause, which remains undetermined.

The National Security Council has launched a government-wide effort to better understand incidents and recently took steps to standardize the reporting process so that all incidents are uniformly documented and shared with investigative and medical teams. said a senior administration official.

Some US officials believe the symptoms were the result of an attempt to gather intelligence by Russian government agents using microwave technology, but the US intelligence community said it was not. reached consensus or even determined whether a foreign government was involved.

The flood of new reports, however, raised fears that an undeterred adversary could target American officers in increasingly brazen ways. Many lawmakers with access to classified information believe they are attacks, a term used in Wednesday’s letter.

This week, it emerged that US officials at the US Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, reported symptoms characteristic of Havana Syndrome, which can include nausea, blurred vision, severe headache, and discharge. from memory. The Wall Street Journal first reported the incidents, which were confirmed to CBS News by two sources familiar with them.

The cases were disclosed ahead of a scheduled visit to Bogota by Secretary Blinken next week. The State Department said it is “vigorously investigating” possible cases wherever they are reported, but declined to comment on the incidents in Bogota or Blinken’s trip.

At least two other cases have recently been reported in the vicinity of trips by senior officials abroad. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris temporarily deferred a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam, after an embassy official fell ill there, and in September, a senior collaborator of CIA director William Burns research emergency medical care after experiencing symptoms in Delhi, India.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday that the department had taken “a number of steps” to educate and support its workforce, including instituting training modules to help employees detect and report a potential incident.

Yet victims’ groups have complained that they struggled to access adequate medical care and felt rejected or disparaged by senior State Department officials.

In their letter, the senators expressed similar concerns that the ministry was “not communicating or responding sufficiently to” injured diplomats and was “insufficiently engaged” in the government’s broader efforts to determine the cause of the incidents.

They called on Blinken to “immediately” appoint a senior official to replace Pamela Spratlen, a former ambassador who had led the State Department’s internal task force on the incidents. “Critically,” Senators wrote, “this post must be a high-level official who reports directly to you”.

Spratlen deceased at the end of September, after only six months in this role, and amid complaints from victims that she was not attentive to their needs. A State Department spokesperson said at the time that Spratlen’s replacement would be appointed “soon.”

Blinken has met virtually in recent weeks with a group of Havana Syndrome victims, some of whom later described the call, which also involved Spratlen and Assistant Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon, as “strained. “. While Blinken has publicly stated that dealing with the incidents is a “top priority” and requested a full briefing on the matter before it is confirmed, victims noted a contrast between his involvement and that of Burns, who encountered several times in person with injured CIA officers and visited the Walter Reed National Medical Center, where many received treatment.

Burns also increased the number of medical staff dedicated to the issue and in July brought in a senior officer to boost the agency’s task force investigation.

Last week, President Biden sign enacted a bill passed unanimously by both houses of Congress that strengthens financial support for victims who suffered brain injuries while working for the State Department or the CIA. The bill requires both, within 180 days, to internally establish “fair and equitable” criteria for issuing payments and to report to Congress how the funds are being used.

In another sign of progress, and following calls from lawmakers, including Shaheen and Republican Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, victims will be able to seek medical diagnosis and treatment at specialist facilities at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in addition to Walter Reed .

Victims welcomed this development while worrying that disparities in treatment persist between different agencies – something the senators also mentioned in their letter to Blinken.

“The president’s signature and the bipartisan support behind the law send the unambiguous message that all concerned must have access to benefits and financial support,” they wrote. “We urge you to make the swift implementation of the HAVANA Law a top priority.”

Read the letter here:

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