July 29, 2021

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Lawmakers unveil laws to provide ‘Havana syndrome’ victims higher medical care

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Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins and the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee introduced a bill on Thursday that would authorize the CIA and the State Department to provide injured employees with more financial support for brain injuries

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, is introducing a companion measure in the lower chamber.

While an initial wave of incidents beginning in 2016 affected US personnel abroad in Cuba, China and Russia, there have been new possible cases reported on US soil — including two potential incidents CNN first reported that occurred late last year near the White House. The Senate Intelligence Committee said last month that the number of incidents where US officials have suffered mysterious symptoms consistent with “Havana syndrome” appeared to be increasing.

Federal investigators have struggled for years to understand who or what was causing the strange array of symptoms and sensory experiences that some diplomats and intelligence officers were reporting while stationed overseas — including vertigo, headaches, nausea and sometimes a “piercing directional noise.” Some victims of these episodes have suffered lingering and serious health problems, including traumatic brain injury, and have been forced to retire from service.

Several victims and former officials have publicly accused the CIA and the State Department under Trump of failing to take their injuries seriously. One official with direct knowledge of incidents said that victims who reported were treated as if they were “crazy.”

Until recently, victims were denied medical care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, forcing them to muddle through a series of physicians in the private sector to try to find a diagnosis — and relief — for their ongoing symptoms.

“Some of the victims did not receive the financial and medical support they should have expected from their government when they first reported their injuries. This is an outrageous failure on the part of our government to care for those who serve,” Collins, a Senate Intelligence panel member, said on the Senate floor introducing the legislation.

The new Senate legislation is sponsored by Collins, Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The House’s bill has a half-dozen Democratic co-sponsors, including House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York, as well as Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican.

Lawmakers on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees have grown increasingly frustrated with the government’s handling of these cases.

Committee members and some victims say there has been a marked difference in the handling of the cases — and the investigation into their cause — since CIA Director William Burns was confirmed earlier this year. Burns committed publicly to getting to the bottom of the mystery during his confirmation hearing and is receiving daily briefings on the matter. The CIA’s chief medical officer, who faced criticism that he was too skeptical of victims’ accounts, also announced his retirement in recent weeks.

But the cause of these episodes remains a point of debate and investigation. And victims and some lawmakers are still seeking accountability for the agency’s alleged failures under then-CIA Director Gina Haspel to care for victims.

“The bill demonstrates that the US government may finally take seriously the long-term health care needs of the victims,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a longtime CIA officer who was struck by the hallmark symptoms of Havana syndrome in Moscow in 2017 and was forced to retire. “And, given the moral injury that we have all faced of initially not being believed by our own agencies, we are grateful that a bipartisan group of senators has been so resolutely supportive.”

Even now, officials responsible for tracking and investigating these cases are on the lookout for psychosomatic episodes, current and former officials say. Because the array of symptoms that victims report is so inconsistent — and because intelligence and military officials are still struggling to understand what technology is at work here — diagnosing the cases remains an inexact science.

The bill would require the CIA and the State Department to create regulations “detailing fair and equitable criteria for payment” to victims. It would also require the departments to report to Congress how they are using their new funding authorities — including telling Congress the number of employees and dependents who received payments, according to a copy of the bill reviewed by CNN.

Intriguingly, the statement from Collins and Warner announcing the legislation refers to the episodes as “probably microwave attacks,” offering a degree of certainty about the technology underpinning these episodes that the intelligence community has been reluctant to assign. Although some officials in the Defense Department are convinced that microwave energy is responsible, a number of scientists and academics have publicly criticized that explanation as unsupported by the evidence.

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.



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