Lawmakers say Antony Blinken not doing enough on ‘Havana syndrome’

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Lawmakers say Antony Blinken not doing enough on 'Havana syndrome'

Bipartisan lawmakers are encouraging further action from the State Department on a series of mysterious health threats called “Havana syndrome,” accusing Secretary of State Antony Blinken of “insufficiently” handling the crisis. 

In a letter sent to Blinken Wednesday, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and several other Senate Foreign Relations Committee members wrote, “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.”

The senators accused the State Department of “not treating this crisis with the requisite senior-level attention that it requires.”

“We continue to hear concerns that the Department is not sufficiently communicating with or responding to diplomats who have been injured from these attacks. We are also concerned that the Department is insufficiently engaged in interagency efforts to find the cause of these attacks, identify those responsible, and develop a plan to hold them accountable.”

U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany
German police were investigating several cases of “Havana syndrome” at the US Embassy in Berlin on Oct. 8, 2021.
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

Havana syndrome, which is referred to by the US government as an “anomalous health incident,” is a mysterious illness linked to suspected radiation attacks that have stricken hundreds of American spies and diplomats around the world. The phenomenon is named after the city where it was first discovered, in 2016 and 2017. Most recently, five American families linked to the US Embassy in Colombia were struck with the illness.

The bipartisan senators urged the State Department to announce a successor to Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, who left her position leading the task force investigating the threat three weeks ago. 

“Critically, this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you,” the senators wrote to Blinken, adding that they must have the experience to engage directly with the individuals affected by Havana syndrome. 

“We ask that you take this step now to demonstrate that the State Department does take this matter seriously, and is coordinating an appropriate agency-level response.” 

Pamela Spratlen
Pamela Spratlen left her position leading the task force investigating the threat three weeks ago.

In a joint appearance with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Shaheen floated the idea that Russia could be one of the countries with the technology to make such attacks.

“We know there are several states that have this kind of technology. And each of us, I would guess, have our own suspicions about who’s responsible,” she said per the Washington Examiner.

“Russia certainly is one of the countries that … [has] had the technology, probably longer than anybody, maybe even longer than the United States. And so figuring out who else has it and whether they have the global reach to be able to do these kinds of attacks is another piece of what we have got to look into.”

The State Department has defended its response to the mysterious health threat, with spokesman Ned Price telling reporters that improvements in defense measures have been made. 

“We take every single report of an anomalous health incident extraordinarily seriously,” he said Thursday.

“So we have made improvements in terms of our communication. We have made improvements in terms of our inspections and our defensive measures. We have made improvements in terms of our training so that, again, our employees know how to respond should they become subject to one of these, that their family members also have the information they need.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price
State Department spokesman Ned Price said improvements in defense measures have been made at US embassies.
Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

The department has not revealed how many cases have been linked to the most recent outbreak, citing privacy reasons. 

“We wish to support the State Department and U.S. personnel through every means possible, and to support the Department in effectively addressing this national security threat,” the senators concluded.

“We look forward to receiving your response, and to your heightened engagement on this issue.”

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