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10 senators propose new bill to help victims of 'Havana Syndrome'

The bill would provide the CIA and State Department additional authority to compensate personnel who suffered brain injuries from “probable microwave attacks.”
Tourists in a vintage car pass by the U.S. Embassy in Havana
Tourists in a vintage car pass by the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Nov. 7, 2019.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters file

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill that would authorize additional compensation for the victims of the so-called Havana Syndrome, a mysterious affliction that has struck U.S. diplomats and spies in Cuba, China and other countries.

The legislation, introduced by 10 senators including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), would “provide the CIA Director and the Secretary of State additional authority to compensate their personnel who incur brain injuries in connection with war or a hostile act,” according to a press release.

The move is intended to assist the scores of American diplomats and spies who have reported mysterious neurological symptoms after spending time in Cuba, China and other countries starting in 2016.

“Public servants who work in our embassies and consulates overseas make many personal sacrifices to represent America’s interests abroad, and they deserve our strong support,” Collins said.

The bill, according to the group of senators, would address a hole in the Federal Employees Compensation Act, which currently provides compensation for federal employees who suffer “the loss or loss of use of a part of the body” but excluded parts like the brain and the heart.

The U.S. has been looking into the cause of Havana Syndrome since individuals overseas began to report instances of vomiting, headaches and loss of balance related to their time overseas. But just last Saturday, a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the symptoms experienced by many of these government officials are consistent with the effects of directed microwave energy. The study, first reported by NBC News, was kept secret by the State Department for months until a bi-partisan group of senators demanded to see it.

While the study stops short of naming exactly what or who could be behind the attacks, the report gave weight to the claims made by the more than 40 State Department and government employees who say they’ve been affected.

Responding to news of the proposed legislation, Dr. David Relman, who chaired the report by a 19-person committee of experts in science and medicine, said the aid is a step in the right direction.

“It has been discouraging to hear how difficult it has been for these public servants to receive the care they need and deserve,” he said. “But this is really just the first step of many that are needed, including the establishment of a comprehensive system to identify possible cases and refer them for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment in an efficient and effective manner, as well as a coordinated effort to understand the cause and circumstances.”

Granting his first television interview on Monday, ex-CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos told NBC News that he was having a hard time convincing medical staff of his symptoms.

“It was a silent wound. It's something that you don't necessarily -- you certainly know something's happened to you. But it's incapacitating,” said Polymeropoulos, who was awakened in the middle of the night by extreme vertigo, ringing in his ears, and nausea during a trip to Moscow in 2017.

“If you think about it, of all the things I did in my career in really dangerous places, this, to me, it's the scariest thing I ever faced.”

Still dealing with chronic headaches, Polymeropoulos is set to receive treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in January. He called on the federal government to continue digging into the source of the probable attacks.

“I'd like to see a robust investigation by our intelligence services and others to see who was culpable,” he said.

A State Department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

In response to earlier questions about the National Academies of Science report, the State Department said in a statement that “the safety and security of U.S. personnel, their families, and U.S. citizens is our top priority.”

Mark Zaid, a lawyer for nearly a dozen victims of the mysterious illnesses, said he applauds the proposed legislation but that more still needs to be done.

“This legislation will fill in some gaping holes,” he wrote in a statement to NBC News. “But it appears the bill fails to take into account the breadth of prior injuries sustained by employees such as at the Department of Defense and Commerce who worked alongside CIA and State Department officers. No Americans should be left out in the cold."

Zaid is also continuing to push for more transparency when it comes to what the government knows about these attacks.

“Sometimes even more valuable than compensation is knowledge, and hopefully Congress will pursue additional legislation and hold accountability hearings soon,” Zaid said.

The State Department didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry Tuesday about whether the administration would support the new legislation. But in response to earlier questions about the National Academies of Science report, the State Department said in a statement that “the safety and security of U.S. personnel, their families, and U.S. citizens is our top priority.”

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The gap in Workers’ Compensation, in which pay-outs can be provided for permanent impairment of the other parts of the body but not the brain, has long prompted complaints from diplomats and other U.S. government workers that they were falling through the cracks.

In 2017 and 2018, U.S. workers evacuated from Cuba and China were brought to the University of Pennsylvania for treatment and evaluation, as the U.S. and top doctors struggled to identify what had happened to the individuals.

The State Department said at the time it was covering medical bills for those medevaced from Cuba or China for up to a year, even if they were ultimately determined not to be cases. But some of the individuals treated there told NBC News that they struggled to determine who was paying medical and travel bills, and raised concerns about whether they were being given full access to their own medical records.

A report in 2018 from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that a communications breakdown within the State Department delayed the creation of a special panel to assess the response to the incidents by more than half a year.