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U.S. diplomat overseeing "Havana Syndrome" response leaving after 6 months

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

Washington — Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, the senior official leading the State Department's response to cases of "Havana Syndrome" reported by U.S. diplomats, is leaving her post after six months in the role, the department confirmed Wednesday.

"Ambassador Spratlen earlier this year agreed to return to the Department to take on the role, created by Secretary Blinken, of Senior Advisor of the Health Incidents Response Task Force," a State Department spokesperson said. Spratlen had "reached the threshold of hours of labor" permitted under her status as a retired ambassador, the official said, adding her replacement would be named "soon." 

"We thank her for her service and invaluable contributions to the efforts of the Task Force," the spokesperson said. Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon will continue to oversee the task force's efforts.  

Spratlen's departure comes amid simmering frustration among diplomats who have been affected by "Havana Syndrome," the mysterious neurological illness with symptoms that can include vertigo, nausea and intense headaches. Victims have complained of inattention by the department to their cases and lingering skepticism among its medical staff.  

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with affected employees, who have also complained they continue to face hurdles in accessing medical care and benefits. Diplomats who took part in the call described the conversation — in which Spratlen and McKeon also participated — as "tense," and one called parts of it "offensive," criticizing what the person said seemed to be an entrenched disbelief among officials of victims' symptoms.

Blinken "emphasized the priority he attaches to this issue as part of his focus on ensuring the safety and security of the workforce and their families," the State Department spokesperson said of the call. "As he expressed to the full workforce, the Secretary stressed that we will continue to focus on keeping the workforce informed, seeking answers, and providing support to those affected."

The State Department's task force is one of several government entities investigating the cases, which the Biden administration refers to "anomalous health incidents." The National Security Council has been conducting an intelligence review, coordinating efforts across the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community, and convening panels of scientists and medical experts to determine a potential cause.  

The House unanimously passed a bill on Tuesday authorizing the State Department and CIA to provide financial assistance to personnel who suffered brain injuries related to Havana Syndrome while on the job. The bill will go next to the White House for President Biden's approval. 

On Wednesday, a bipartisan pair of senators — Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Susan Collins of Maine — wrote to Blinken asking that State Department victims be allowed to access Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for evaluation and treatment. The letter noted some employees had been denied access to the hospital, which is a leading treatment center for brain injuries.

"Every U.S. government employee, regardless of their home agency, must be given the same equitable access to care," the lawmakers wrote. "We welcome efforts to broaden treatment options to care for this vulnerable population, but ask that the right to receive care from the center of excellence be a decision based on medical need and the wishes of the victim."

"We see no reason why the State Department and DoD cannot allow for equity for all government employees in access to care at Walter Reed," the letter said, referring to the Defense Department.

"Havana Syndrome" gets its name from the first known instances of the illness, which in 2016 and 2017 sickened more than a dozen U.S. embassy and intelligence officials in Cuba. More than 200 American diplomats, military and intelligence officers have reported suspected cases to date, with dozens of new cases arising in the past several months. Cases have been reported from every populated continent and some may have happened on U.S. soil. 

The U.S. government has not reached a conclusion about their origin, though current and former officials suspect symptoms may be the result of attempted surveillance by foreign intelligence services using microwave technologies to collect information. 

Earlier this month an intelligence officer traveling with CIA Director William Burns in India reported symptoms consistent with the syndrome and sought immediate medical care. It was the second case known to have occurred during a senior U.S. official's travel overseas, stoking concern among U.S. officials of a marked escalation in the incidents. 

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