Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing ‘Havana syndrome’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on September 14, 2021. Blinken was questioned about the Biden administration's handling of the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan.
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Senators in both parties are calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken 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. 

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 Shaheen (D-N.H.) and supported by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (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 Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.),  Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) and Mitt Romney (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 Burns 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.

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 Biden 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.”

Tags Antony Blinken Ben Cardin Bob Menendez Brian Schatz Chris Coons Colombia Cory Booker Cuba havana syndrome Jeanne Shaheen Jim Risch Joe Biden Marco Rubio Mitt Romney Tim Kaine Vietnam William Burns
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