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Officials charged with tracking security incidents learned of attacks in Cuba from media

The U.S. Embassy in Havana aided in the process of a Cuban government extradition of a New Jersey man wanted in the United States for allegedly murdering his girlfriend.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana aided in the process of a Cuban government extradition of a New Jersey man wanted in the United States for allegedly murdering his girlfriend. AP

Internal communication breakdown at the U.S. Department of State delayed the process of evaluating the response that the agency gave to the alleged attacks in Havana against U.S. personnel for almost eight months.

Officials in charge of tracking security incidents who are convening a special panel that would make security recommendations in response to the attacks said they didn’t know of the incidents in Cuba until August 2017, almost nine months after the first incident, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) obtained by el Nuevo Herald on Tuesday.

The incidents, described by U.S. officials as targeted attacks, began in November 2016 and are still under investigation. They have caused health problems for 26 employees of the State Department and other U.S. government agencies, as well as some family members.

The victims have reported hearing loss, sensory and cognitive problems and some have been diagnosed with brain damage, according to doctors treating them at the University of Pennsylvania.

But the GAO found that the State Department does not have a policy on how to notify all incidents related to the safety of its personnel stationed abroad to the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation (M/PRI). The same entity is in charge of evaluating whether the situation calls for further action by the Accountability Review Board (ARB).

The State Department’s internal policies establish that these panels must be convened to evaluate the agency’s response and make safety recommendations whenever there are incidents in which its personnel has suffered serious injuries.

Although other offices responsible for security and medical assistance at the State Department were aware of the incidents since January 2017, it was not until the following August that the M/PRI office was contacted by a former office employee to ask whether officials there were aware of the incidents, after reading media reports.

The office was not included among the recipients of a daily digest of security incidents related to U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. According to the GAO report, that situation was corrected in October last year.

Officials from the M/PRI told GAO investigators that they usually learn of security incidents when those are discussed internally or through informal channels.

The delay in the process of activating the special panel “could result in State being less able to improve security programs and practices at other U.S. diplomatic posts,” the report concluded.

The most recent incident in Havana — where the U. S. embassy is operating with emergency-only personnel — was reported in May. Similar incidents were also reported in China the same month.

The ARB was finally convened by the Secretary of State and began work in February. The panel concluded that no State Department official had committed a serious error in the handling of the incidents in Cuba, but found similar problems of internal communication and with other federal agencies, as well as vacancies in the security personnel of the embassy in Havana.

In a statement released last week, the State Department committed to implementing the ARB recommendations and improving information-sharing in the agency and with other federal offices.

The GAO report was requested by several members of Congress, including Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. She will participate in a Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee’s hearing on Cuba policy, in which several State Department officials are expected to testify.

“The first phase of the GAO report demonstrates the lack of inter-agency communication that caused a significant delay in setting up the ARB in a timely manner as well,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement sent to el Nuevo Herald.

“Although the extent of the Cuban regime’s involvement in these attacks remains uncertain, it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens,” said the congresswoman. “In this hearing, I look forward to assessing the Administration’s response to GAO’s recommendations and to working together in order to formulate an appropriate policy toward the dangerous Cuban regime.”

Follow Nora Gamez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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