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Havana Syndrome is a mystery illness with 200-plus documented cases. Lawmakers are demanding action.

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Havana Syndrome is a mystery illness with 200-plus documented cases. Lawmakers are demanding action.

2021-10-19 01:51:23

By K. Shalini  Image Source: Screen Shot

U.S. lawmakers and diplomats are increasingly frustrated with the State Department's response to "Havana Syndrome," as the number of American diplomats affected by the mysterious health attacks continues to climb.

There are now more than 200 estimated cases of the illness, with new incidents emerging in just the last few weeks among Americans stationed in Colombia, Germany and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the State Department does not have a coordinator leading its response to the attacks. The Biden administration's initial pick, Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, left the post in September after just six months.

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"The State Department is not treating this crisis with the requisite senior-level attention that it deserves," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has played a leading role in addressing the problem. She said it's unclear what prompted Spratlen's departure.

Jeanne Shaheen looking towards the camera: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on March 25.© Pool, Getty Images Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on March 25.

Shaheen and 10 other senators on the committee, including the panel's top Democrat and Republican, sent a stinging letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week calling on him to replace Spartlen "immediately" with a high-level official.

"We are extremely alarmed that reports of these incidents continue to grow. It is clear that this threat continues to target U.S. diplomats and related personnel, and reflects a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security," Shaheen and the other lawmakers wrote.

Marc Polymeropoulos in Afghanistan in 2011. The retired CIA officer said he first began experiencing symptoms of Havana Syndrome in a Moscow hotel room in 2017.© Courtesy of Marc Polymeropoulos Marc Polymeropoulos in Afghanistan in 2011. The retired CIA officer said he first began experiencing symptoms of Havana Syndrome in a Moscow hotel room in 2017.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that he expects the agency to name a new coordinator in "the coming days," and he defended Blinken's handling of the issue.

"The secretary has no higher priority than the health and the safety and the security of our work force and their family members and dependents," Price said.

But some rank-and-file foreign service officers are uneasy.

“There doesn't seem a plan of how to address this,” said a former senior State Department official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the issue. This person said there is widespread concern inside the State Department that the agency’s leaders are not taking the attacks seriously enough.

“There are a lot of people who aren't satisfied, a lot of people aren't happy ... a lot of people who say they've been ignored,” the former official added. “It's really becoming a department-wide morale issue.”

Havana Syndrome symptoms can be completely debilitating

The CIA and the Pentagon have been more aggressive in tackling the issue, and it's not clear why the State Department has lagged behind, said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior intelligence officer who began experiencing Havana Syndrome symptoms in 2017 while in Russia.

For Polymeropoulos, it started in his Moscow hotel room with a severe case of vertigo, a ringing in his ear and a crippling headache.

"I've been in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. I've been shot at plenty of times, but this was pretty scary," he said in an interview earlier this year. He was eventually diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

American diplomats stationed in Cuba were the first to report signs of an attack in 2016, thus the label "Havana Syndrome." Many of those afflicted with the condition say their symptoms began with a piercing noise, a sensation of intense pressure or vibration in the head, and pain in the ear or the head, according to a report by the National Academies of Sciences.

'This thing is obviously escalating'

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that at least five American families connected to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia were experiencing symptoms of the illness and at least one family had been flown out of the country for treatment.

Colombian President Ivan Duque told other news outlets that American officials had informed his government of the cases and both the U.S. and Colombian officials were investigating.

The Colombian cases come on the heels of reports that U.S. Embassy staff in Berlin had been the target of an "alleged sonic attack." And Vice President Kamala Harris delayed a trip to Vietnam last month after reports of an attack on U.S. diplomats in that country's capital.

“This thing is obviously escalating,” said the former senior State Department official.

He noted the cases in Colombia emerged a week before Blinken’s planned travel to that country and expressed fear that a muted U.S. response could embolden the foreign actors behind the attacks.

“It's not a coincidence,” he said of the cases that occurred just before Harris' and Blinken's trips. “This is obviously well thought out," he said, and a "malicious state actor that's doing this.”

US still doesn't know who's behind Havana Syndrome

Shaheen said it's no wonder victims of the attack are fed up. Four years after the first cases emerged, the U.S. government still doesn't have the answers to key questions.

"We need to figure out what's causing it, how it's being done, we need to figure out who's behind it, and then we need to come up with the appropriate response," she said.

"I wish we had answers to all of these questions," Shaheen said. "It's very frustrating ... for those people who have been attacked and their families, as well as our personnel who are looking at overseas assignments where this is a threat."

Some lawmakers and diplomats believe Russia is behind the attacks, but Shaheen said she has not seen any conclusive intelligence assessments about who is to blame.

"Now if you ask me, do I think Russia has the technology and the global reach to do these kinds of attacks, I would say yes," she said. "Unfortunately, they're not the only ones."

Many lawmakers and scientists believe the illness is caused by "directed energy attacks." In a 2020 report, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said the reported symptoms were “consistent with the effects of directed pulsed radio frequency energy."

Report: Pulsed radio frequency 'most plausible' cause of illness that hit US diplomats in Cuba, China

"It's a pretty insidious weapon," Polymeropoulos said, "because it's obviously proven very difficult" to determine who is to blame for the attacks. He said directed energy weapons are not new, but their use against humans is.

"It's more unusual that an adversary would actually utilize something like this because it's so immoral," he said. The attacks have forced a slew of diplomats and intelligence officers into early retirement, he said, and dissuaded countless others from accepting overseas assignments.

Three years after he was targeted, Polymeropoulos still suffers from debilitating headaches and brain fog, among other problems, and he had to retire early from the CIA because he couldn't focus.

"This is almost an act of war," and the Biden administration needs to respond forcefully, he said. 

Shaheen and the other senators said the State Department is "insufficiently engaged" in the U.S. government's efforts to determine the cause of the attacks, identify those responsible and develop a plan to hold them accountable.

She said the "mixed response" dates back to the Trump administration, when some officials downplayed or dismissed victims of the attacks. But the lackluster approach as continued to a problem under Blinken's stewardship, she said.

She noted that Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin issued guidance to Department of Defense personnel to raise awareness and increase preparedness for possible attacks. And CIA Director William Burns has taken the attacks "very seriously," she said.

"I hope that we're going to see a real, better, whole-of-government, coordinated approach," Shaheen said.

Price said State Department leaders have taken a number of important steps to tackle the issue. Among them: working to ensure those who report symptoms get medical care and launching a pilot program to to collect "pre-incident" baseline health information. The latter step will give medical officials comparison data if those individuals are later subject to an "anomalous health incident," he said. 

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