Secretary of State Antony Blinken faces congressional pressure to take “seriously” a series of mysterious health crises described as “Havana syndrome” that represents an “unmitigated national security threat,” according to senior senators in both parties. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, September 28, 2021. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times)NYTCREDIT: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times Sarahbeth Maney/AP
Senate Democrats say Blinken not taking ‘significant, unmitigated threat’ of Havana syndrome seriously
Joel Gehrke October 14, 06:14 PM October 14, 06:14 PM
Secretary of State Antony Blinken faces congressional pressure to take “seriously” a series of mysterious health crises described as “Havana syndrome” that represents an “unmitigated national security threat,” according to senior senators in both parties.
“We are extremely alarmed that reports of these incidents continue to grow,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and several other committee members wrote in a new letter to Blinken. “It is clear that this threat continues to target U.S. diplomats and related personnel, and reflects a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security.”
American diplomats and officials around the world have suffered brain injuries with no obvious cause, a mystery named after Havana, the city where it was first detected, that was most recently reported in Colombia. The affliction has worldwide reach, however, as CIA Director Bill Burns’ team reportedly endured an attack during a recent trip to India — a range of operation stoking suspicions that Russia or China is targeting Americans.
“It is pretty clear that this is either a device or a weapon that uses pulsed radio frequencies or directed microwave energy,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “And it is very real. But, unfortunately, we still do not know who the adversary who is wielding this device or weapon is.”
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Foreign Relations Committee Democrat who helped spearhead the letter to Blinken, acknowledged that Russia has the technological ability to carry out such attacks.
“We know there are several states that have this kind of technology. And each of us, I would guess, have our own suspicions about who’s responsible,” she said in a joint appearance with Collins. “Russia certainly is one of the countries that . . .[has] had the technology, probably longer than anybody, maybe even longer than the United States. And so figuring out who else has it and whether they have the global reach to be able to do these kinds of attacks is another piece of what we have got to look into.”
That assessment has not easily taken root in government circles, as officials who reported the unexplained injuries have struggled to persuade their colleagues that an injury had occurred at all. The reported targeting of the CIA director’s team drove the crisis home for one of President Joe Biden’s top spy chiefs, but the lawmakers suggested that Blinken has devoted less attention to the problem.
“We continue to hear concerns that the department is not sufficiently communicating with or responding to diplomats who have been injured from these attacks,” Menendez, Shaheen, and nine other senators wrote Wednesday to Blinken. “We are also concerned that the Department is insufficiently engaged in interagency efforts to find the cause of these attacks, identify those responsible, and develop a plan to hold them accountable.”
Idaho Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and three other Republicans also signed the letter.
State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged that the department “had not always done a sufficient job in addressing these anomalous health incidents” but cited Blinken’s meeting with victims and administrative moves to remedy the management of the reported attacks and expedite care for the officials involved.
“We take every single report of an anomalous health incident extraordinarily seriously,” Price told reporters Thursday. “So we have made improvements in terms of our communication. We have made improvements in terms of our inspections and our defensive measures. We have made improvements in terms of our training so that, again, our employees know how to respond should they become subject to one of these, that their family members also have the information they need.”
Shaheen and the other 10 senators urged Blinken to prove it by appointing a new task force leader who would report “directly” to him.
“We ask that you take this step now to demonstrate that the State Department does take this matter seriously, and is coordinating an appropriate agency-level response,” they urged. “We wish to support the State Department and U.S. personnel through every means possible, and to support the Department in effectively addressing this national security threat. We look forward to receiving your response, and to your heightened engagement on this issue.”
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