Secretary of State Antony Blinken is defending U.S. diplomats who came forward to report suspected incidents of “Havana Syndrome,” insisting “their pain is real” after a CIA report cast doubt on the extent of the unexplained phenomenon.
In a letter to all U.S. diplomats, sent Thursday and obtained by NBC News, Blinken said interim findings from the intelligence community had found “plausible explanations for many — but not all — reports of potential anomalous health incidents,” using the Biden administration’s preferred term for Havana Syndrome.
“These findings do not call into question the fact that our colleagues are reporting real experiences and are suffering real symptoms,” Blinken says. “I have heard those firsthand in my discussions in Washington and around the world with those afflicted.”
Blinken said it was “gut-wrenching” to hear about the impact the incidents have had on staffers "work, their families, their whole lives.”
“Those who have been affected have real stories to tell — their pain is real,” Blinken wrote. “There is no doubt in my mind about that.”
In the new CIA intelligence assessment, first reported late Wednesday by NBC News, the agency said it found no evidence of a sustained global campaign to harm or spy on hundreds of American officials. But the CIA said it can’t rule out foreign involvement in about two dozen cases, and another group of cases is considered unresolved.
Still, the CIA report appeared to mark an abrupt shift in direction for the Biden administration, which has emphasized that it’s taking the incidents more seriously than the Trump administration did and sparing no effort to solve the mystery.
Blinken has stressed that employees shouldn’t be stigmatized for reporting suspected incidents and that the government is focused on ensuring proper medical care for those suffering. Just last month, Blinken paid a visit to Johns Hopkins University Medicine in Baltimore to visit U.S. diplomats being treated there.
“We are going to continue to bring all of our resources to bear in learning more about these incidents, and there will be additional reports to follow,” Blinken wrote on Thursday.
During a news conference Thursday in Berlin, Blinken added: “We’re leaving no stone unturned.”
Multiple U.S. officials told NBC News that other departments within the U.S. government were concerned by the timing and contents of the CIA’s report, which is considered interim and not a final conclusion of the broader Biden administration or the full intelligence community.
Those concerns are also ricocheting across Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties have questioned whether the federal government is taking the incidents seriously enough and pushed for more answers from the intelligence community.
“I’m perplexed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday on MSNBC, questioning why the CIA would publicly release interim findings. “”I have some very tough and serious questions that I’m going to be demanding answers to because we owe it to our foreign service people.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who chairs the Senate’s intelligence panel, pushed back on the notion that the CIA report marked the final word on the matter, saying in a statement that the assessment, “while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force.” And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that while the report was a “first step” toward getting answers, “it is far from the last.”
“We owe those who serve our nation the highest-quality care, and the acknowledgment that they are heard and believed,” Schiff said.
The report is also likely to create significant complications for the government as it works to implement the Havana Act, legislation passed last year authorizing government payments to those with brain injuries. The Biden administration has been working ahead of an April deadline to determine how to determine eligibility, a task that becomes murkier in light of the CIA’s findings.