WASHINGTON — A long-delayed bill to provide financial support to U.S. government personnel believed to be suffering from Havana Syndrome is headed to President Joe Biden’s desk after the House passed it Tuesday.
The Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act, or HAVANA Act, is one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed to date to address the mysterious health incidents that have affected U.S. diplomats, spies and other workers since at least 2016, which remain unsolved. It would allow the federal government to pay those with brain injuries.
The Senate passed the bill June 7, and it faced multiple delays in the House. Although the White House has not said explicitly whether Biden will sign it, he has supported additional efforts to investigate Havana Syndrome’s cause and origins and to provide more support to Americans dealing with it.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who helped craft the bipartisan bill, said she had spoken with some of the victims of what she said were “heinous attacks.”
“Far too many Havana Syndrome victims have had to battle the bureaucracy to receive care for their debilitating injuries,” said Collins, who wrote the bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.
In a statement provided to NBC News, a group of U.S. government employees who have reported Havana Syndrome incidents said they were grateful to Congress for its unanimous support and urged Biden to sign it swiftly.
"We encourage our respective agencies to allow impacted officers to be part of the solution to the bureaucratic roadblocks that have plagued the last 5 years," the employees said. "The passage of the HAVANA Act is an important step, but it is only a step, and we will work with Congress and the Administration to build out and sustain the effort begun here."
NBC News reported that diplomats affected by Havana Syndrome voiced frustration over continuing challenges in getting medical care and benefits in a tense hourlong conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month. It was the first time Blinken had met with the cohort of affected diplomats from Cuba and China.
At least 200 Americans have come forward to describe possible cases of Havana Syndrome, NBC News reported last week, as part of a wave of new reports that Western officials say include newly identified incidents around the world. Nearly half of the potential cases involve CIA officers or their relatives, about 60 involve military employees or relatives, and about 50 were tied to the State Department, two officials said.
They include at least one diplomat in Vietnam last month just ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit and a CIA official who was traveling in India this month with CIA Director William Burns.
The first incidents of the syndrome “medically confirmed” by the U.S. government were in Havana in 2016 and 2017. The U.S. later evacuated diplomats from China and confirmed that at least one American serving there was affected. In recent years, reports of cases have proliferated, with potential incidents cropping up on every continent except Antarctica, including in the U.S.
More recently, U.S. officials have noticed an alarming increase in cases in Western Europe, some of them in NATO allies Austria and Germany, officials have said. The increase in cases in developed, democratic counties with close security relationships with the U.S. has raised further concerns about the ability of a perpetrator to carry out the attacks potentially anywhere in the world with impunity.
Many U.S. workers thought to be suffering from Havana Syndrome reported hearing a loud sound and feeling pressure in their heads. In some cases, they experienced dizziness, unsteady gait and visual disturbances. Many suffered long-term debilitating effects.
Under the HAVANA Act, the CIA director and the secretary of state would be authorized to pay employees with brain injuries and required to craft rules to ensure “fair and equitable” treatment.
For years, those who have come forward reporting potential Havana Syndrome have complained about immense bureaucratic hurdles to getting proper medical care. They have also faulted a workers' compensation system that they say failed them because it was not designed to address invisible brain attacks or to account for the types of amorphous cognitive, neurological and physical symptoms experienced by those with Havana Syndrome.
Four years after the incidents first became public and U.S. diplomats serving in Cuba were deemed to have suffered “targeted attacks,” the federal government says it still has not determined a definitive source or cause. The government’s leading theory is that the Americans were hit by directed microwave energy, which a National Academies of Science report said last year was consistent with observed brain injuries.
The U.S. intelligence community has long viewed Russia as a likely culprit; Russia’s government has steadfastly denied involvement.
Rubio, an outspoken critic of Cuba who has argued that the incidents could not have occurred on the island without the government’s knowledge, urged Biden on Tuesday to sign the bill immediately. He said there was “no doubt that the victims who have suffered brain injuries must be provided with adequate care and compensation.”
“It is critical that our government continues the investigation to hold accountable those behind these attacks and that we immediately respond,” Rubio said.