At tense Blinken meeting, ‘Havana syndrome’ diplomats complain of skepticism

WASHINGTON – US diplomats suffering from unexplained ‘Havana Syndrome’ used a tense meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month to express growing dismay at the lingering stigma and disbelief within the US government about their injuries, more than four years after the incidents began.

When first meeting with the cohort of affected State Department employees in Cuba and China, Blinken spent over an hour reassuring and answering questions, with most of the affected employees joining remotely by telephone. His message: We must believe in those who are suffering, and that the administration is doing everything possible to investigate and provide care.

Yet the assurance of America’s top diplomat contrasted starkly with the profound challenges affected diplomats say they still face to get proper medical care, assessment and benefits – and skepticism about their injuries, they say. , is omnipresent even among certain high places. senior government officials.

“It’s just incredibly sad. It’s the worst part of the bureaucracy, “said one of the diplomats, describing the call as” the same as so many other phone calls “where they are made aware of the protocols in place to ensure proper treatment.” C is so infuriating because these protocols are not in place – not the way they think they are. “

NBC News spoke to more than half a dozen people who participated in the September 10 appeal. They described a yawning gulf between the government’s official, public message and the real situation, and said the administration’s refusal to label the incidents as “attacks” fuels the continued skepticism of their colleagues.

In 2017, when the incidents in Cuba first came to light, the Trump administration described them as “targeted attacks.” But in recent years, the government has stopped calling them attacks, with the Biden administration preferring the term “unexplained health incidents” or UHI.

Several people with Havana Syndrome in Cuba or China said the State Department’s Office of Medical Services initially told them their symptoms were due to stress, or attributed their cognitive symptoms to just getting older.

“It is these kinds of sickening statements that perpetuate this disbelief,” said one of the diplomats, adding that staff members fully understood that the government could not share with them all the details of the investigation. “We understand, this is classified information. But if you see things, don’t act like it’s nothing happened. Don’t call them creepy UHIs. Don’t talk about our stress levels.

Others described facing an endless chain of bureaucratic hurdles that they said prevented them from obtaining benefits permitted by recent legislation to combat Havana Syndrome, such as lost wages for workers whose brain injuries forced them to retire early or prevented them from advancing professionally.

A senior State Department official, answering questions about Blinken’s call with diplomats, admitted there was “frustration” within the group over perceived stigma or lack of empathy from their colleagues, but said this does not extend to those at the top.

“This is certainly not the case with the secretary and senior management,” the official said in an interview. “Everyone takes it seriously as a real problem that affects people with real symptoms. “

In an effort to defuse skepticism, several US agencies, including the State Department and the Pentagon, have encouraged their employees to report any worrying incidents or symptoms to be assessed. Last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a rare public statement describing the intensification of the investigation as a “top priority” and pledging to support those affected “to make sure they are believed, heard. and respected ”.

Since 2017, at least 200 diplomats, spies and other U.S. government employees have come forward to report potential symptoms of what officials believe are the most likely directed energy attacks, possibly using microwave technology. The first incidents discovered took place in Havana, but subsequent incidents occurred on all continents except Antarctica, including cases in the United States.

At the end of last month, suspected incidents in Vietnam just before Vice President Kamala Harris’ planned visit caused her to delay her trip by several hours. On Monday, NBC News reported that a CIA official traveling with CIA Director William Burns to India this month reported symptoms and was undergoing treatment.

Some of the workers reported hearing strange sounds, high or low, or feeling strange sensations before developing symptoms, including cognitive and memory problems, problems with balance, and hearing and visual changes. Doctors hired by the US government to treat them have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

Yet more than four years after the U.S. government began investigating, the intelligence community still has not formally identified a cause or culprit.

The Biden administration, which inherited the unresolved investigation in January, has appointed a senior White House National Security Council official to oversee the response, which now includes new task forces involving scientific and medical experts who have access to classified information.

“It’s confusing and confusing to anyone working on this that we haven’t been able to determine the cause or attribution,” the senior State Department official said. “The ‘attacks’ imply that we know what happened and what caused it and imply that there is a state actor. Obviously, this is the theory that people have not been excluded or excluded. “

Some of the first diplomats affected in Cuba received official letters from the FBI saying they had been the victims of a crime, awards from the Secretary of State for being injured in the line of duty, or both.

But the FBI, which traveled to Havana several times to investigate, later released a report that found no evidence of an attack and determined that the staff were most likely suffering from a psychogenic illness. mass or mass hysteria. Diplomats bristled that the FBI did not directly interview the diplomats concerned.

During the September 10 appeal, when Blinken asked how the department could reduce skepticism, at least one diplomat encouraged the State Department to publicly refute the report.

Diplomats told NBC News they were dismayed Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, asked by the Biden administration to oversee the State Department’s response, refused to conclusively rule out the hysteria theory of mass.

“The FBI study is the one I actually read,” she told diplomats, according to the appeal’s notes. “We know not many people refer to it now, but we have heard what you have said about it and we have your point of view, and we will certainly take that into account when we think about the next steps to address this issue.”

A diplomat on the call described this response as “invalid and reckless”. Another said that Spratlen “was saying very clearly that she did not rule out that we are crazy”.

“In the end, we interrupted Spratlen to try to get people in” to speak, a third diplomat said on the call. “It was ugly.”

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