New report finds problems in how State Department handled alleged health attacks in Cuba

An independent panel has concluded that no State Department officials mishandled the response to the alleged health attacks on U.S. diplomats and relatives in Havana, but made several recommendations for improving security and information exchange.

The panel interviewed 116 people and concluded that “the Department’s security systems and procedures were overall adequate and properly implemented.”

But it added that the lack of a high level Department official responsible for handling the alleged attacks “resulted in insufficient communications with employees and impeded coordination within the Department and with other agencies,” the State Department said in a statement.

The panel, known as an Accountability Review Board (ARB), was created in January by then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to review the department’s response to a string of presumed attacks in the homes of diplomats and hotels. Twenty-six U.S. embassy staffers in Havana and relatives were affected. The cause of the incidents has not been clarified and remains under investigation by several U.S. agencies.

“The Board came up with common-sense reforms that should have been done a long time ago and I am going to make sure they happen,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who pushed for the independent review at a hearing in January. “But ultimately it’s the Cuban regime that needs to be held accountable. Because either they carried out these attacks or they know who did and aren’t telling us.”

The Miami Herald was not given access to the panel’s full report, which was finished in June and sent to Congress on Thursday. A State Department spokesperson said there were no plans to make it public at the moment.

The U.S. government’s bureaucracy and procedures to compartmentalize information appear to have played a negative role in the initial response to the incidents, which started in late November 2016.

The investigation found “significant vacancies” in the security personnel at the embassy in Havana and “some challenges with information sharing and communication.”

“The ARB found individual offices within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) responded to the Cuba incidents reports based on their respective areas of expertise, but that the overall response would have benefitted from the formulation and resourcing of a formal DS multi-disciplinary working group,” the statement said.

Security officials at the embassy in Havana were notified of the first incidents at the end of December, but other embassy staffers were not informed until March, when more people had been affected, according to a ProPublica report.

In an email sent to el Nuevo Herald in January, a spokesperson for the State Department wrote that “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 ARB made 30 recommendations, which were accepted by the State Department, including raising the responsibility for handling the incidents in Cuba to the level of the deputy secretary of state and “strengthening guidance for Chiefs of Mission (including Chargés), emphasizing their responsibility for the safety and security of personnel abroad.”

The department will also create a job position exclusively responsible for long-term assistance to the people affected by the incidents.

The panel concluded that although the department’s Bureau of Medical Services provided “competent and professional response to an unprecedented situation … they had insufficient resources to support the long-term care and follow-up needed for these types of incidents.”

Several victims of the incidents have sought legal assistance because of doubts about their medical treatment and other compensation. Mark Zaid, attorney for eight of the victims, has said that the federal bureaucracy forced some of his clients to pay their own travel expenses to the University of Pennsylvania, which has been studying the health impact of the incidents and providing medical care.

In a letter to Zaid, the State Department announced in late June that it was taking new steps to make sure that those affected by the incidents who have to miss work because of medical issues will be paid, and their travel for medical appointments will be covered through worker’s compensation.

The ARB also recommended that the State Department implement mandatory medical exams for employees assigned to the embassy in Havana. The department said it already has put in place more than half of the panel’s recommendations, but some cannot be implemented until the cause of the incidents has been established.

Orna Blum, a spokesperson for the State Department, told el Nuevo Herald that the agency was taking measures to increase security at the embassy in Havana, including consolidating U.S. personnel into fewer residences. Earlier this month, the State Department softened the travel advisory on Cuba and resumed routine services for American citizens at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Following the ARB’s recommendations, an inter-agency Health Incidents Response Task Force was launched in late May to coordinate the response to the incidents in Cuba, and more recently in China. Accepting another panel recommendation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has joined the investigation of the incidents.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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