Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome'

Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome'
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Senators in both parties are calling on Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Nearly 200 Americans want to leave Afghanistan, State Department tells Congress Syria's challenge to Tony Blinken's conscience MORE to immediately appoint a high-level official to oversee the department’s response to "Havana syndrome," the mysterious symptoms a number of U.S. officials have suffered from in Cuba and elsewhere abroad.

The request follows the departure last month of the State Department’s point person, Pamela Spratlen, on what the agency calls “Anomalous Health Incidents” (AHIs), described as an acute onset of intense, debilitating physical sensations and that are believed to have led to long-term health issues for those affected and forced some into early retirement. 

“We urge you to immediately announce a successor to Ambassador Spratlen to lead the Department’s Health Incident Response Task Force. Critically, this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you,” the lawmakers wrote. 

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Spratlen had reported to the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, not directly to the secretary.

The letter was led by by Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenProgressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-N.H.) and supported by Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates MORE (D-N.J.) and Jim RischJim Elroy RischOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Top GOP senators want joint review of Afghan visa process Biden pick for China envoy raises concern over nuclear buildup MORE (R-Idaho), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Members of the committee who signed on to the letter include Sens. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Charity game lets users bet on elections Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE (D-Md.), Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsManchin threatens 'zero' spending in blowup with Sanders: reports Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-Del.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBiden injects new momentum into filibuster fight Democratic frustration with Sinema rises Harris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia MORE (D-Va.), Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzClimate advocates turn sights on Wall Street To sustain humanity COP26 must lead on both climate and biodiversity Democrats struggle to sell Biden plan amid feuding MORE (D-Hawaii), Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing MORE (D-N.J.),  Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE (R-Fl.) and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyIn Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line Trump-backed bills on election audits, illegal voting penalties expected to die in Texas legislature The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government MORE (R-Utah). 

Spratlen, a 30-year veteran of the State Department and two-time ambassador, had come out of retirement in March to take on the position of senior adviser to the Department Health Incident Response Task Force.

NBC News reported last month that Spratlen left the department.

A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that Spratlen's departure occurred because she had "reached the threshold of hours of labor permitted" as a reemployed retiree.

"We thank her for her service and invaluable contributions to the efforts of the Task Force. We expect to name her replacement soon," the spokesperson said.

More than 200 U.S. officials in American postings around the world, as well as in the U.S., are believed to have been effected by AHIs. The first cases were detected in 2016 among American officials serving in Havana.

Most recently, AHIs were reported among U.S. diplomatic staff and their families in Colombia. 

Another incident in September was reported among an intelligence official traveling to India with CIA Director William BurnsWilliam BurnsThe CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE and, in August, a trip by Vice President Harris to Vietnam was delayed because at least two staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi had reported suffering from AHIs.

Other incidents have been reported in China and countries in South America, Central Asia and Europe, as well as at the Ellipse near the White House.

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The lawmakers, in their letter, describe the AHIs as attacks, despite refrains from the State Department to categorize AHIs as such. 

“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. Further, while there has been progress, we continue to hear concerns that the Department is not sufficiently communicating with or responding to diplomats who have been injured from these attacks.” 

President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE has elevated attention on finding the source of these incidents, assigning an interagency task force that includes the CIA and the State Department. The president last week signed into law the Havana Act to increase medical care for those affected by AHIs, as well as increase resources to investigate its origins. 

But more than four years since the first cases were identified and 10 months into the administration, lawmakers, advocates and victims remain frustrated over the lack of answers. 

The lawmakers, in their letter, urged Blinken to swiftly implement the Havana Act.

“Many victims have waited for this legislation to pass in order to receive access to much needed financial and medical support,” they wrote. “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.”