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Tillerson to weigh in on acoustic events in Havana

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a White House press briefing after President Donald Trump declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The U.S. State Department said Monday it still doesn’t know “who or what is causing the medical symptoms” that damaged the health of two dozen American diplomats stationed in Havana, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will soon announce a decision on whether to launch an independent review on the handling of the case.

The Accountability Review Board Permanent Coordinating Committee, a panel that evaluates cases in which diplomatic personnel or U.S. property has suffered damages abroad, has met twice to assess information gathered during a monthslong investigation, and has made a recommendation to Tillerson.

“The secretary has made a decision on whether to convene an ARB but Congress has not yet been notified. We will announce the decision when Congress has been notified,” a State Department official said.

“This case does not involve a single, visible act that indisputably caused harm on a specific date,” the official said. “While we first became aware of some personnel’s unexplained medical symptoms in late 2016, it took us months to connect the dots and start to see a pattern in these events.”

The review comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to hold a hearing Tuesday on so-called acoustic incidents that not only harmed 24 American diplomats’ health but also damaged U.S.-Cuban relations. In response, Washington pulled out 60 percent of its personnel from its Havana Embassy and expelled 17 diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, saying Havana failed in its responsibility to protect the diplomats while on Cuban soil.

Meanwhile, publication of a report from a medical team led by a University of Miami doctor who examined the victims of the mysterious episodes is still being held up.

After the incidents, which were reported to have first occurred in November 2016 and as recently as Aug. 21, the United States sent a medical team to Cuba. About 70 diplomats were evaluated for symptoms ranging from hearing loss, tinnitus, disequilibrium, headaches, facial and abdominal pain, memory and sleep disorders, concussions and nausea. Some traveled to Miami for evaluation.

Dr. Michael Hoffer, a University of Miami specialist in diseases of the ear, nose and throat, is one of the authors of the article, originally slated to appear in The Journal of the American Medical Association and then scheduled for publication in The New England Journal of Medicine. Hoffer, a retired Marine Corps doctor, is an expert in the treatment of traumatic brain damage and has dozens of publications to his credit in a career that spans three decades.

While the University of Miami has acknowledged that its physicians were consulted by the State Department, it has provided no further information on the health care the diplomats may have received or on the pending publication of the article.

The article, written by both University of Miami and University of Pennsylvania doctors, was due to appear in November but the State Department delayed publication, citing national security concerns, two sources told el Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald. The Senate subcommittee hearing, which is being convened by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, was originally scheduled for Nov. 15 but was postponed.

A Washington lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case, said the article might be used as evidence by diplomats and their families who potentially might want to sue the State Department over its handling of the incidents. In October, South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and other representatives sent a letter to the director of the Government Accountability Office asking for a chronology of events in Havana and information about how the State Department handled them.

Ros-Lehtinen said she still hasn’t received a response.

The diplomats, who were stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, suffered the alleged attacks in their residences and also at two Havana hotels — the Capri and the Nacional — according to the U.S. government.

A handful of Canadian diplomats were similarly affected, and the Canadian government also sent a doctor to Havana in June to examine its embassy personnel, the Canadian Press reported last week. The news agency, which obtained the information under a Canadian Access to Information Act, said Canadian officials were puzzled by the incidents.

“Many of the symptoms are similar to signs of extreme stress, and there is the possibility that there could be mental health effects caused by fear of being targeted,” wrote diplomat Karen Foss in the records obtained by the Canadian Press.

“There are no answers,” Foss wrote in a May 28 email. The Canadian doctor, who arrived in Havana on June 18, found that symptoms, experience and recovery varied among those affected, said the Canadian Press.

The Canadian government says it continues to work closely with the Cuban government to try to determine the cause of the symptoms, but it has not withdrawn its embassy personnel from Havana.

Ever since the United States first disclosed that its diplomats were suffering from health problems, it has been hotly debated what caused their symptoms — purposeful attacks carried out by the Cuban government or others using some type of weapon, surveillance technology gone wrong or some other cause.

“We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks,” a State Department official said Monday. “The investigation into the attacks is ongoing. The State Department continues to be deeply concerned about the safety and security of our personnel.”

Rubio, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, will convene the hearing on Tuesday morning.

The hearing, “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight,” makes it clear where Rubio stands on the issue of attack vs. accident. He has insisted all along that the incidents couldn’t occur without the knowledge of the Cuban government and that they were attacks.

He said Sunday that the attacks were a “documented fact” after an Associated Press report that Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who advocates improving relations with Havana, said that he hadn’t seen any evidence that the American diplomats who suffered health symptoms in Havana were attacked.

Ros-Lehtinen also concurred that what happened in Havana was the result of attacks by the Cuban government. “Saying the #Cuban regime is not responsible for attacks on our diplomats is not only wrong but is also naive,” she tweeted Sunday.

“I was briefed confidentially by Dr. Hoffer and from what I know, there is enough evidence that attacks were made,” said Andy Gomez, until recently the interim director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. He met with Hoffer in December, he said.

The Cuban government, which has formed its own investigative team, has denied that injuries to the U.S. diplomats were the result of attacks. In a statement, the Cuban Society of Neurology and Neurosurgery said that Cuban scientists had concluded “that no sound source could provoke such health problems. It is likely some of the diplomats and their family members might have had the rest of the symptoms described as a result of other medical conditions, but none of the causes can explain the group of symptoms in all the reported cases.”

The Senate subcommittee hearing’s goal is to try to establish the facts in the medical mystery and to assess the State Department’s role in handling the “alleged attacks.”

Among those expected to testify are: Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs; Todd Brown, diplomatic security assistant director for international programs at the State Department; and Charles Rosenfarb, medical director of the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services.


© 2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.