By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
A bipartisan group of senators called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to appoint a new senior official to lead the State Department’s efforts to address ongoing anomalous health incidents, also known as “Havana Syndrome,” saying the incidents reflect “a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security.”
The lawmakers — led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, ranking Republican member Jim Risch, and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — said they “are extremely alarmed that reports of these incidents continue to grow.”
“We believe this threat deserves the highest level of attention from the State Department, and remain concerned that the State Department is not treating this crisis with the requisite senior-level attention that it requires,” they wrote.
“Further, while there has been progress, we continue to hear concerns that the Department is not sufficiently communicating with or responding to diplomats who have been injured from these attacks,” they wrote. “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.”
The lawmakers called on Blinken to appoint a new senior official to lead the State Department’s efforts to respond to the incidents following the departure of Amb. Pamela Spratlen after six months on the job.
“Critically, this post must be a senior-level official that reports directly to you. It is incumbent that this individual has the experience to engage effectively with affected individuals and with the interagency,” they wrote.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday he expected the department to be able to name a new official “in the coming days,” telling reporters at a press briefing that “the Secretary appreciates the interest that Congress has demonstrated in this issue.”
“It is very consistent with the priority he himself has attached to this,” he said, adding that Blinken “has no higher priority in the health and the safety and the security of our workforce and their family members and dependents.”
He said the Department has dispatched “teams of security engineers and occupational safety experts to conduct surveys and inspections of locations where these incidents have been reported.”
“We have supplied additional and enhanced inspection equipment to overseas engineering service centers, so that in the event of a report of an AHI, we can quickly dispatch that those resources,” he said.
Price also said the department has improved its internal protocols for the Health Incident Response Task Force, and noted the State Department’s pilot program to collect baseline health information so that it can be compared if someone is affected by the incidents.
Reports of US officials suffering from the mysterious health ailments have continued to emerge. As CNN reported, more than a dozen US officials who work at the US Embassy in Colombia and their family members have reported symptoms consistent with “Havana syndrome” in recent weeks, according to a US official and a source familiar with the situation.
The letter praises the President Joe Biden for signing the HAVANA Act into law, and urged Blinken its “swift implementation” a priority.
“Many victims have waited for this legislation to pass in order to receive access to much needed financial and medical support,” they noted. “The President’s signature and the bipartisan support behind the law sends the unambiguous message that all affected individuals must have access to benefits and financial support. We ask for your expeditious implementation of these provisions to ensure victims of these attacks are receiving equitable access to care and treatment.”
“We owe it to our diplomats to exhaust every effort to try and guarantee a full recovery,” they said.
The letter was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida; Ben Cardin, D-Maryland; Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee; Tim Kaine, D-Virginia; Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Cory Booker, D-New Jersey; and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
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