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Senate passes bill to compensate ‘Havana Syndrome’ victims who suffered brain injuries

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS)

The U.S. Senate this week unanimously passed a bill to provide additional compensation to some victims of the mysterious “Havana Syndrome” attacks around the world that were first reported at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016.

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine first introduced the bill, titled the Havana Act, in December 2020, a step that marked the first formal acknowledgment from Congress of the mysterious attacks. But the legislation didn’t pass in the final weeks of the previous Congress and was reintroduced by Collins last month. The Havana Act was passed on the Senate floor Tuesday without a formal vote, a measure used for legislation with widespread support from both parties.

The bill gives State Department and CIA  employees who experienced symptoms including dizziness, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo and cognitive difficulties the ability to receive additional money from the federal government for health coverage. The various agency heads, the secretary of state and CIA director, are able to authorize payments at their discretion, though the funds will come from Congress.

“I am pleased to see the Senate pass this important bipartisan legislation, which will provide the CIA director and the U.S. Secretary of State with the authorities needed to properly assist U.S. personnel who have endured attacks while serving our nation,” Rubio said in a statement. “There is no doubt that the victims who have suffered brain injuries must be provided with adequate care and compensation. Further, it is critical that our government determine who is behind these attacks and that we respond.”

The Havana Act now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The bill’s passage comes after some victims complained that they had to fight for compensation for medical expenses related to the attacks. In April, Rubio and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement pledging to “get to the bottom of this” as additional media reports emerged of Havana-style attacks on U.S. soil.

“We have already held fact-finding hearings on these debilitating attacks, many of which result in medically confirmed cases of traumatic brain injury, and will do more,” Rubio and Warner said.

On Wednesday, Rubio’s office said there is a long way to go with regards to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the attacks but the senator was “encouraged by recent actions.”

The senator’s office Wednesday said in a statement that “more than 40” U.S. Embassy staff members in Havana suffered from illnesses related to the attacks since 2016 and that “at least a dozen” U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, suffered similar symptoms in recent years.

“According to the press, there have been more than 130 total cases among American personnel, including instances on U.S. soil,” Rubio’s office said in a statement. “Ailments have included dizziness, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo, and cognitive difficulties, and many affected personnel continue to suffer from health problems years later.”

A senior administration official said Wednesday the White House under President Joe Biden has “coordinated a government-wide effort to identify the cause of these incidents, determine attribution, and ensure that affected personnel receive the highest quality medical evaluations and care.”

“We are bringing the U.S. government’s resources to bear to get to the bottom of this,” the official said.

In December, attorney Mark Zaid, who was hired by some of the victims to advocate on their behalf, said the Havana Act will “fill in some gaping holes and is a positive first step” but that federal employees beyond the CIA and State Department were also victims and deserve compensation.

“It appears the bill fails to take into account the breadth of prior injuries sustained by other federal employees such as at the Departments of Defense and Commerce who worked alongside CIA and State Department officers,” Zaid said.

The U.S. government has not formally assigned blame for the attacks, but multiple media reports citing classified intelligence point to Russia as the most likely culprit.

“I am pleased that there has been widespread, bipartisan support for my bill, which will provide additional support to these government employees who were harmed while representing our interests,” Collins said in a statement. “We also need a whole-of-government approach to determine what this weapon is and who is wielding it in order to prevent future attacks and protect Americans.”


© 2021 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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