The medical evacuation of at least two U.S. diplomats in Vietnam ahead of a visit by Vice President Harris has exposed the Biden administration’s struggle to answer questions surrounding so-called Havana Syndrome.
Hundreds of American officials are believed to be suffering serious health issues from unidentified health incidents (UHI) occurring at U.S. posts across the globe — occurrences many posit to be attacks on American personnel.
The U.S. staff evacuation in Vietnam, first reported by NBC news, forced the vice president to delay her arrival in the country on Tuesday, drawing attention to an issue the administration has been reticent to discuss.
“The issue in Vietnam was the highest-level reaction we have ever seen publicly,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who is representing more than two dozen people affected by UHI.
“And that now raises the questions of if it was serious enough to protect the vice president, what about everyone else who's serving in these locations?” he added.
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 took office promising to more urgently address the unanswered questions surrounding Havana Syndrome — named for the most high-profile of these incidents that emerged in 2016 among diplomats serving in Havana, Cuba.
Impacted U.S. officials have reported hearing a high-pitched sound that seemed to come from one specific direction, followed by intense pressure around the face and ears that triggered overwhelming nausea.
Documented injuries include short- and long-term symptoms of brain fog and headaches, vertigo, insomnia, and other cognitive and physical issues that have, for some, hastened retirement from government.
The administration has set up investigative task forces encompassing the CIA, National Security Council, Department of Defense and State Department but have yet to coalesce around a concrete explanation for the UHIs.
“The interagency is actively examining a range of hypotheses, but has made no determination about the cause of these incidents or whether they constitute an attack of some kind by a foreign actor,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hill.
Lawmakers and advocates are frustrated by the slow pace of searching for answers.
“Ongoing reports of these health incidents requires the full attention of the Biden administration and a coordinated interagency response,” 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.), who has introduced legislation to provide benefits for victims of the incidents, tweeted amid reports about the incident in Vietnam.
“We must determine causation, provide impacted personnel with medical care they need and issue clear workforce guidance on the threat and how to mitigate it,” she added.
Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroDemocrats call for State to lift ban on embassies discussing same-sex marriage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles Harris's delayed trip to Vietnam ratchets up Havana Syndrome fears MORE (D-Texas) wrote in an email to The Hill that the incidents in Vietnam are “concerning” especially because they have occurred so close to the vice president’s visit.
“As a member of both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence Committee, I will continue to push the State Department and intelligence community to investigate these incidents and deter them from happening in the future,” he said.
Incidents have been reported across the globe, in Cuba and China as well as in countries in South America, Central Asia and Europe. There have even been reports in the United States, including a suspected attack at the Ellipse near the White House.
Sources familiar with these unexplained health incidents say while the State Department is doing what it can to communicate with staff, at times information is blocked by reasoning of national security implications.
“We’re all aware of that [but] you have to give people information even if it’s ‘We’re working on this’ because the anxiety is so high,” one of the sources said.
“These people are on the edge, they’re fragile,” the source added.
Zaid said the lack of transparency has served as a roadblock to representing his clients — some are even unable to tell him where the incident took place.
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 sent out a departmentwide message on Aug. 5 acknowledging the administration’s lack of knowledge about the attacks and the risks they pose to diplomats and their families who could be targets.
“I wish we had more answers for you,” he wrote in the message.
One source familiar with the issue complained the State Department is not releasing information about where suspected Havana Syndrome attacks have occurred. In addition, it’s unclear if staff continue to be housed where the energy-source attacks were experienced, such as apartments.
“I would want to know, before I'm getting ready to jet off to wherever, what is the history there and if it had been attacked,” the source said.
Lawmakers recently secured $30 million in the Senate version of the defense policy bill to help improve treatment for those who have experienced UHI.
And another bill approved by the Senate in June and awaiting a vote in the House would allow financial support to injured State and CIA employees.
But Zaid said the legislation has serious gaps, excluding those who work for agencies beyond the CIA and State as well as others.
“They don't take into account past cases. They’re not taking into account family members who were impacted as much as the federal employees and were in the foreign countries because of their spouses who work for the federal government. They're not taking into account in some cases interns who worked for the federal government but weren't considered full federal employees but were there for the U.S. government. They're not taking into account retirees, including from Cuba,” he said.
The legislation also leaves it to each department to determine who should qualify for assistance, something Zaid said will lead to “completely arbitrary and capricious determinations.”
“Congress and/or the executive branch need to develop guidelines that would apply to everyone equally. There shouldn't be a difference between CIA and State Department just because the medical officials in those agencies had different views. There needs to be a governmentwide understanding and definitions of what they're looking for and how they're going to respond to these cases. Otherwise, it's going to be patently unfair,” he said.
This discrepancy is causing confusion in the State Department.
In a message sent out to members of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the labor union for the Foreign Service, the group said it was pushing for parity for staff who suffered from UHI in China. The message called for the State Department to treat equally “confirmed” and “unconfirmed” victims with compensation and medical treatment.
Still, the AFSA acknowledged close engagement from senior State Department leadership.
“AFSA has been encouraged by the recent progress made with the Department to address the challenges faced by our members,” the group said in its letter.
A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that the department does everything possible to provide immediate and appropriate attention and care when an employee reports a possible UHI.
“In coordination with our partners across the U.S. Government, we are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents wherever they are reported,” the spokesperson continued, saying it is a top priority for Blinken.
The spokesperson further said that the task force works with each U.S. mission abroad to communicate “a tailored and appropriate message ... to the workforce and the community that accurately portrays the conditions at each post.”