WASHINGTON (AP) – On Friday, the State Department appointed a new coordinator for its investigation of so-called Havana Syndrome cases in response to increased pressure from lawmakers to investigate and respond to hundreds of head injuries reported by diplomats and intelligence officers.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has appointed a senior deputy, Jonathan Moore, to coordinate the department’s working group on these cases. He replaces Pamela Spratlen, a retired diplomat temporarily called up by Blinken before leaving in September. Some victims criticized her.
Blinken also appointed retired former ambassador Margaret Uyehara to lead efforts to directly support the care of State Department staff.
Investigators are looking into the growing number of cases reported by US employees around the world and are investigating whether they are caused by exposure to microwaves or other forms of directed energy. The affected people reported headaches, dizziness, nausea, and other symptoms associated with traumatic brain injury.
Opportunities being considered include the use of a surveillance tool or device designed to inflict harm. These cases are known as Havana Syndrome and are associated with a series of traumatic brain injuries reported in 2016 at the US Embassy in Cuba.
After years of investigation, the US government has yet to publicly identify what or who may be behind the incidents and whether they are in fact attacks. But heads of the State Department, Defense Department, and CIA pressured employees to report possible head injuries and, in some cases, fired leaders who did not sympathize with the incidents.
“It’s about the health and safety of our people, and we’re not taking anything more seriously,” Blinken said Friday.
Several hundred cases are under investigation. In recent weeks, there have been many reports of potential incidents involving visits by senior US officials, including the trip of CIA Director William Burns to India and incidents at the US Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, prior to Blinken’s visit.
The State Department said on Friday that Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon met with diplomats in Vienna to discuss possible cases reported this year in Austria. The department said it has taken “a number of important steps, none of which we can detail publicly, to protect our personnel.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have pressured President Joe Biden’s administration to determine who and what may be responsible for these cases and to improve the treatment of victims, many of whom have long argued that government officials did not take their cases seriously. Earlier this month, Biden signed into law a bill aimed at improving medical care for victims.
Senator Jeanne Shahin, DN.H., said at a recent hearing that after speaking with victims, there is still “a clear disparity in what happens at the highest levels of the State Department and how victims are treated in some cases. … “
Shaheen introduced new legislation to correct what she called differences in how different agencies investigate and handle cases.
“There is still not enough information to be shared, not enough coordination,” she said in an interview. “There is no consensus on how to deal with this.”
CIA Director Burns, who pushed for Havana Syndrome cases in a separate hearing last week, noted that the agency’s investigation is being led by a key executive in charge of the operation to find Osama bin Laden. He did not call these incidents “attacks” after Rep. Eric Swalwell of California asked if he would use the word.
“We’ve worked very hard to improve the quality of care that our officers and sometimes their families deserve,” Burns said. “And we have made extraordinarily vigorous efforts to sort out the questions of who and what might be causing this.”
Dr. James Giordano, a scientist working to investigate the cases, said the incidents were viewed as “deliberate intervention” by an adversary or US proxies, although he declined to identify suspected countries.
“Talking about attribution right now is a very delicate issue due to the ramifications of intelligence, military and political in nature,” said Giordano, executive director of the Institute for Biosecurity Research in Washington.
In an article for Cipher Brief, an intelligence publication, a group of former CIA officers said they have “little doubt” that Russia is responsible and expect the US to ultimately blame Moscow. Officers called on the United States to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe, limit Russian business and leisure travel, and seek collective protection through NATO.
“For at least ten years Russia has been in a state of conflict with the West in general and the United States in particular,” the group said.