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Lawmakers pressure secretary of state to act on "crisis" posed by "Havana syndrome" as cases mount

A bipartisan group of senators is urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take immediate action in response to proliferating reports of "Havana Syndrome," calling cases of the mysterious neurological condition that has sickened hundreds of U.S. officers "a significant, unmitigated threat to our national 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 instances, the incidents have occurred with startling proximity to senior U.S. officials traveling overseas. 

It also comes amid growing criticism by victims and other observers that the State Department's handling of the 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 U.S. diplomats and related personnel, and reflects a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security," the lawmakers wrote. "We believe this threat deserves the highest level of attention from the State Department, and remain concerned that the State Department is not treating this crisis with the requisite senior-level attention that it requires."  

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

Possible cases of "Havana Syndrome" under investigation in Vienna 06:39

There have been more than 200 reported cases of Havana Syndrome among U.S. officials since 2016, when American diplomats and intelligence officers first reported falling ill at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. Scores of cases have been reported in 2021 alone, prompting a series of 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 the incidents, and recently took steps to standardize the reporting process so that all incidents are uniformly documented and shared with investigative and medical teams, a senior administration official said.

Some U.S. officials believe the symptoms are the result of attempted intelligence collection by Russian government operatives using microwave technologies, but the U.S. intelligence community has said it has not arrived at a consensus or even determined whether a foreign government is involved.  

The stream of new reports has prompted concerns, however, that an undeterred adversary may be targeting American officers in increasingly brazen ways. Many lawmakers with access to classified intelligence are convinced they are attacks, which is the term used in Wednesday's letter.  

This week it emerged that U.S. officials at the American embassy in Bogota, Colombia reported symptoms characteristic of Havana Syndrome, which can include nausea, blurred vision, severe headaches and memory loss. 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 an expected visit to Bogota by Secretary Blinken next week. The State Department has said it is "vigorously investigating" possible cases wherever they are reported, but declined to comment on the incidents in Bogota or on Blinken's travel.  

At least two other cases were recently reported in proximity to senior administration officials' travel overseas. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris temporarily delayed a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam after an embassy official fell ill there, and in September a top aide to CIA Director William Burns sought emergency medical care after experiencing symptoms in Delhi, India.  

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday the Department had taken "a number of steps" to inform and support its workforce, including instituting training modules to help employees detect and report a potential incident.   

Still, victims' groups have complained that they have struggled to access adequate medical care and have felt dismissed or denigrated by senior State Department officials.  

In their letter, the senators expressed similar concerns that the Department was "not sufficiently communicating with or responding 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-level official to replace Pamela Spratlen, a former ambassador who had been leading the State Department's internal task force on the incidents. "Critically," the senators wrote, "this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you." 

Spratlen departed in late September, after just six months in the role, and amid complaints from victims that she was inattentive to their needs. A State Department spokesperson said at the time that Spratlen's replacement would be named "soon." 

Blinken met virtually in recent weeks with a group of Havana Syndrome victims, some of whom later described the call, which also involved Spratlen and deputy secretary of state for management and resources Brian McKeon, as "tense." While Blinken has said publicly that addressing the incidents is a "top priority," and sought a comprehensive briefing on the matter before he was confirmed, victims have noted a contrast between his involvement and that of Burns, who has met multiple times in person with injured CIA officers and visited Walter Reed National Medical Center, where many have received care.  

Burns has also increased the number of medical staff dedicated to the issue and in July tapped a senior officer to invigorate the investigation being led by the agency's task force. 

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

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

Victims have welcomed the development while registering concern that disparities in treatment persist among different agencies – something the senators also referenced in their letter to Blinken.  

"The president's signature and the bipartisan support behind the law sends the unambiguous message that all affected individuals must have access to benefits and financial support," they wrote. "We urge you to make swift implementation of the HAVANA Act a top priority."  

Read the letter here:

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