Diplomats suffering from 'Havana Syndrome' are frustrated with Biden's response
WASHINGTON — A group of U.S. diplomats and other government staffers suffering from symptoms consistent with “Havana Syndrome” are voicing frustration with the Biden administration’s early response, and warning that injured workers are still being denied proper care.
In a letter to State Department leadership obtained by NBC News, the staffers say that in recent months, the government has continued to “reject scientific evidence regarding the injuries and treatment needs” and to “invalidate our injuries and experiences,” alleging that military and intelligence officials injured by the same unexplained phenomenon are being treated more seriously.
“After four years of challenges, we were hopeful that the new administration would welcome a partnership with us to ensure those affected receive the care and treatment they need and ensure appropriate care for the new cases,” the staffers wrote. “Unfortunately, our experience thus far has fallen short of our renewed expectations.”
The letter adds to growing pressure on the Biden administration from Congress to better care for affected U.S. workers and get to the bottom of how they suffered brain injuries — still largely a mystery more than four years after the government started investigating what at first it called “targeted attacks.” Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration has not found a definitive cause or culprit.
The letter was sent Tuesday to Brian McKeon, a deputy secretary of State, and was accompanied by a list of 11 recommendations for how the staffers say the administration could better ensure safety and medical care for its workers. Copies were distributed to their offices of several U.S. senators who this month signed onto a bipartisan bill to provide financial support to those suffering from the mysterious incidents.
The letter was sent on behalf of 21 U.S. government workers and their spouses who are considered potential or confirmed Havana Syndrome cases injured overseas, including in Cuba and China. In March, the group had asked Amb. Pamela Spratlen, the official overseeing the State Department’s response, to attend a formal meeting to address their concerns, but write that they’re still waiting.
“Senior Department leadership’s continued refusal to meet with and hear directly from its injured personnel is discouraging,” the staffers write.
NBC News is not publishing the names of the signatories, many of whom have not been publicly identified, but confirmed the letter’s authenticity with several of those who signed it.
“The Department leadership is aware of the letter and looks forward to discussing its contents with all relevant parties,” a State Department spokesman said by email. “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. personnel, their families, and other U.S. citizens.”
In their list of 11 requests to the administration, the staffers ask that evaluations and medical care for all newly or potentially injured workers be centralized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where some recent injuries have been treated. In the first years after the incidents arose, the government sent workers to University of Miami and then to University of Pennsylvania, creating an inconsistent hodgepodge of treatments and testing regimens, and in recent years workers have continued to say they have to fight to get treated at Walter Reed.
“It was incredibly frustrating,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a veteran former CIA officer who says he was hit in a Moscow hotel room in 2017. Polymeropoulos, who did not sign the letter, said he’d ultimately taken the extraordinary step of speaking out publicly to secure treatment at the military hospital. “It reached the point when my health deteriorated that I had no choice to go public and plead for health care at Walter Reed.”
The staffers are also urging the administration to increase diagnostic and treatment options for children affected by Havana Syndrome, ensure long-term monitoring of injured workers for 10 to 20 years, and conduct baseline testing on diplomats before they’re sent abroad — something Canada’s government is now doing in the wake of the unexplained incidents.
They also want the State Department to work more closely with the Pentagon and other agencies on developing “identification devices” for potential incidents, and to provide affected employees with some type of formal acknowledgement of their injuries, such as a letter or award from the secretary.
Although many diplomats whom the State Department confirmed were injured in Cuba received FBI victim letters or other documentation from the State Department, workers injured later in other countries have struggled to get the government to substantiate their injuries, leading to what they’ve described as exhausting struggles to obtain worker’s compensation or other benefits and care.
No longer considered limited to Cuba and China, the incidents have expanded in scope with new reports of injuries in Russia, Western Europe, and even in the United States, with recent suspected incidents occurring near the White House.
Last month, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the elite Senate Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement calling the incidents “debilitating attacks” and warning that “this pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing.”
In 2018, NBC News first reported that U.S. intelligence agencies considered Russia the main suspect, suspicion that remains strong in the U.S. government despite a lack of definitive evidence. Russia and Cuba have both adamantly denied involvement.
Last year, a State Department-commissioned study from the National Academies of Sciences found the injuries consistent with directed microwave energy, furthering the long-suspected prospect that a futuristic microwave weapon is being deployed.
A number of Canadian diplomats and their families also suffered similar brain injuries in Havana, leading Ottawa to cut back its diplomatic presence in Cuba. Earlier this month, NBC News reported that a group of Canadian diplomats had sent their government a letter accusing it of withholding information about new cases of brain injury resulting from “Havana Syndrome” that Canada’s government has not publicly disclosed.
Responding Tuesday to the new letter from staffers, the State Department said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is receiving regular updates about the situation and has “made clear that this is a priority for him.” A spokesperson said the investigation into “what happened to our staff and their families” was ongoing.
Brenda Breslauer contributed.