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|
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.
[...]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.
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.
|Senator Marco Rubio (R) FL|
|Senator Robert Menendez (D) NJ|
|Senator Jeanne Shaheen [D] of NH|
|Senator Tom Udall [D] of NM|
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.