Tuesday, January 9, 2018

State Department knew of diplomats suffering brain trauma in Havana in February 2017; evacuated 40 over the next two months

Some inconvenient facts for the Castro lobby.

Three State Department officials testified this morning before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the subject of the 2016-2017 attacks on U.S. diplomats and dependents stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba that seriously impacted 24 of them. The three officials who testified are: Senior Bureau Official Francisco L. Palmieri Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Assistant Director Todd J. Brown of the International Programs Directorate, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director for the Bureau of Medical Services. The objective of the hearing announced at the outset by Senator Marco Rubio was to "establish the facts of what has occurred and conduct oversight on the conduct and activities of the United States Department of State."  Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Palmieri provided a general timeline:
In late 2016 , some members of our diplomatic community serving at U.S. Embassy Havana complained about hearing strange noises and a variety of unexplained physical symptoms . As the Department investigated, we began to see signs suggesting that these events – initially in diplomatic residences , and later, at hotels – may have begun as early as November 2016.

As soon as we identified a pattern connecting these unusual events with certain health symptoms, U.S. officials approached the Cuban government in mid-February to demand it meet its obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect our personnel. The Cubans denied involvement , offered their cooperation , and opened their own investigation. Since then we have engaged the Cubans more than 20 times, from the working level to the highest level of the Cuban government, both here in Washington and in Havana.

In addition to our diplomatic efforts, we prioritized the medical care of our personnel. State Department and private medical experts examined more than 80 post employees and their families, both in the United States and in Havana. Dr. Rosenfarb will provide you with additional details.
The attacks initially appeared to occur in clusters, but starting in late March , sporadic attacks continued until late April and then seemed to stop . Beginning i n mid - April , we allowed anyone serving at Embassy Havana who did not feel safe at post to return to the United States. W e also expelled two Cuban diplomats in May in order to underscore the Cuban government’s responsibility to protect our personnel .

After a period without any attacks, there were two additional attacks reported in close proximity in late August , which were medically confirmed in September . Based on the resumption of these attacks, Secretary Tillerson ordered the departure of non - emergency personnel from post on September 29. The Secretary assessed this was the only way to significantly reduce the risk to our diplomats and their families.

As a follow-on to the Ordered Departure decision, we expelled 15 more Cuban diplomats in October to ensure equity in the impact on our respective operations and to underscore to Cuba its obligation to stop the attacks . These decisions – both to draw down our personnel at Embassy Havana and to expel Cuban diplomats – did not signal a change in policy.
Hearing on attacks of U.S. diplomats in Cuba on January 9, 2017
Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director for the Bureau of Medical Services provided an overview of the seriousness of the injuries.
Individuals first visited our medical unit in Embassy Havana in late December 2016 and January 2017 reporting various symptoms including headache, ear pain, dizziness, and hearing problems . They associated the onset of these symptoms to their exposures with unusual sounds or auditory sensations . Various descriptions were given: “ a high pitched beam of sound”; an “incapacitating sound”; a “baffling sensation” akin to driving with the windows partially open in a car; or just an intense pressure in one ear. Since the symptoms first reported primarily affected auditory functions, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, highly experienced in evaluating acoustic injuries in military personnel, was identified to perform additional assessments.

Between February and April of last year, this specialist evaluated eighty members of the Embassy community . Of the individuals evaluated in this initial tranche, sixteen were identified to have symptoms and medically verifiable clinical findings of some combination similar to what might be seen in patients following mild traumatic brain injury or concussion.

In light of the emerging clinical parallels to mild traumatic brain injury, the nationally - recognized brain injury center at the University of Pennsylvania was identified to provide detailed reevaluations of employees with prior exposures and to evaluate Embassy community members who reported new exposures. As a result of further evaluations begun in late August, additional individuals with exposures that occurred prior to April 24 were added to the list of confirmed cases. Two other individuals who reported exposures that occurred in mid-August 2017 were also medically confirmed as cases, bringing the total number of cases to 24.
Disturbing new information that emerged out of the hearing. Senator Rubio [R] of Florida asked Senior Bureau Official Francisco L. Palmieri why the Accountability Review Board (ARB) had not been set up within 60 -120 days of May 1, [2017 ]with the report that U.S. officials were suffering serious injuries in Havana, as required by law.  Back in October of 2017 five House members asked for a timeline of the attacks and asked if the State Department had convened an ARB in response. Today the answer was given and it was a "no." Palmieri responded that the Secretary of State had decided to convene the Accountability Review Board (ARB) and would shortly notify Congress. Rubio pressed further and asked why the law had not been followed. Palmieri said that the Secretary had not convened it before because they did not know who the perpetrator was. Senator Rubio pointed out that the law did not require identifying the perpetrator and that the ARB would seek to identify the parties responsible. Early on the opinion of security professionals, according to Assistant Director Todd J. Brown, was that this was harassment carried out by the Cuban government.

Senator Marco Rubio (R) FL
Ranking member, Senator Robert Menendez [D] of New Jersey asked when the Chargé d'affaires was informed of the attacks and Senior Bureau Official Francisco L. Palmieri responded that he had been informed of the attacks in late December of 2016. According to Todd J. Brown it was December 30, 2016 when it was brought to the attention of the regional security officer and noted in a report to Washington.This also raises the question, made by Senator Rubio, when was Secretary of State John Kerry informed? Was President Obama informed?  Senator Menendez asked when they became aware that brain trauma was involved and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb responded that the first patient was medically evacuated on February 6, 2017 and over the next two months evacuated 40 people.

Senator Robert Menendez (D) NJ
Meanwhile Senator Jeff Flake [R] of Arizona, who was present at the hearing today, has pushed a narrative that there were no attacks, trying to spin an FBI report leaked to the Associated Press.  However the AP article does not say that there were no attacks but that the FBI "has uncovered no evidence that sound waves could have damaged the Americans’ health" and that the report "doesn’t address other theories and says the FBI will keep investigating until it can show there’s been no intentional harm."

Senator Jeanne Shaheen [D] of NH
During the hearing today, Senator Jeanne Shaheen [D] of New Hampshire  raised the questions of the FBI report and the change during the Obama Administration to resume diplomatic relations and other commercial ties asked if it would be in Cuba's interests to carry out targeted attacks at such a time?  This line of questioning was also continued by Senator Tom Udall [D] of New Mexico who also asked what would be their motive if the Cuban government were looking to increase ties with the U.S.  Palmieri responded in both cases that he would not speculate on the Cuban government motives, but that considering the nature of the regime that exercises total security control it is inconceivable that they do not know what is going on and could not stop them from being repeated.

Senator Tom Udall [D] of NM
However to those making this argument there is a simple response. On January 2, 2017 Cuban troops in Havana marched in a parade over which Raul Castro presided chanting that they would repeatedly shoot President Obama in the head so many times that they would make a “hat of lead to the head.” This would indicate that the Castro regime had other priories beyond normalized relations and trade with American companies. This was something that I raised in December of 2014 when debating Senator Udall on Channel 4.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an interview with the AP on January 5, 2018 rejected the idea of sending diplomats back to Havana.“I’d be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them?” Tillerson told the AP on Jan. 5. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that. I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end,” Tillerson added.

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