UNITED STATES: As reports of U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials getting sick by the mysterious Havana Syndrome continue, frustration inside the State Department is rising among rank-and-file staffers and diplomats over what multiple officials say has been an unconcerned response by the department.
Havana syndrome is a set of medical symptoms like concussion or migraine reported by the United States and Canadian embassy staff in Cuba dating back to late 2016 as well as subsequently in some other countries including Austria.
Tepid response by the State Department
Victims have expressed frustration with how the State Department has treated them throughout the process.
One victim from a series of incidents that took place in 2018 in Guangzhou, China, claimed that the State Department retaliated against him for speaking up about his persistent symptoms. Mark Lenzi, a member of the diplomatic security services, has filed two whistleblower complaints, as well as some formal discrimination complaints.
State Department officials told CNN they are aware of the frustration and fear among staffers and that they are currently considering ways to share more information with its workforce. In their defence, officials said they wanted to strike the right balance: they intend to share more details so that diplomats can make informed decisions particularly related to their security, but they also do not want to over-hype the threat or create panic.
No access to clear information
The lack of basic information regarding the status of the syndrome for the U.S. diplomats to take precautions has led to a whisper campaign that’s spread among foreign service officers to figure out if a job is vacant because the person who previously had it rotated out, or because the person had to leave for medical reasons.
“For the most part we don’t know anything other than what is in the press,” said one U.S. diplomat. “It is difficult for people to make informed decisions about where to serve.”
“When you are going to a high threat post you know that diplomatic security will keep you informed as to what the threats are and that they will take every possible step to mitigate those threats. In this situation, the threat is not clear and mitigation isn’t either,” said a second diplomat.
Diplomats and intelligence sources who spoke to CNN said they want basic information such as the number of people affected and locations of the incidents — data that the State Department used to release publicly in press briefings about the incidents in Cuba and China. The diplomats are also unaware of what the department is doing to ensure that they and their families are not sent back into buildings or apartments where health incidents have been reported previously.
Of particular concern is also a hands-off approach from Secretary of State Tony Blinken who has yet to meet with any of the State Department victims despite saying he would probe into the incidents. The department has received backlash ever since the Havana syndrome outbreak in 2016, for the way it has been handling this situation.
Sources say fear of the mysterious illness is impacting diplomats’ decisions, with some foreign service officers deciding against jobs that could make them possible targets of the unexplained phenomenon that has sickened hundreds of U.S. officials over the past few years.