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State Dept. names new chief of task force overseeing 'Havana Syndrome' response

The Biden administration says it is taking the unexplained health incidents seriously and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery illness.
Image: U.S. embassy in Havana
The U.S. embassy in Havana on Dec. 17, 2015.Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images file

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday named a new diplomat to lead a task force overseeing the response to the “Havana Syndrome” after the previous chief came under sharp criticism and resigned.

In making the announcement, Blinken vowed to help those affected by the mystery illness, expressed empathy for the “trauma” they had experienced and promised that they would face no stigma for reporting symptoms.

Blinken said “all of us in the U.S. government, and especially with the State Department, are intently focused on getting to the bottom of what and who is causing these incidents, caring for those who’ve been affected and protecting our people.”

Jonathan Moore.State Department

Jonathan Moore, a career diplomat who served in Namibia, Belarus, and Bosnia, will serve as the head of the Health Incident Response Task Force, Blinken said. He will be joined by another senior foreign service officer, Margaret Uyehara, who will coordinate medical care for employees affected by the mystery illness, according to Blinken.

The previous task force chief, Pamela Spratlen, stepped down in September amid questions from foreign service staff about how the department was handling care and benefits for the employees affected with the syndrome. Spratlen was brought out of retirement in March to head up the task force. The State Department praised Spratlen’s service when it announced she was departing the post.

The Biden administration has come under criticism from lawmakers over its response to the health incidents and is anxious to convey it is tackling the problem. More than 200 diplomats, intelligence officers and other government personnel around the world have been affected by the mystery illness. Diplomats reporting symptoms have complained that the State Department’s bureaucracy has been slow in providing care, evaluation and benefits, and that some senior officials have sometimes shown skepticism about the syndrome. 

Lawmakers from both parties have urged the State Department to devote more high-level attention to the issue and had questioned why a new task force chief was not named earlier.

Blinken, who repeatedly pledged to take care of the department’s staff, said diplomats had asked for more information about the health incidents and he said the department has now “stepped up communications,” with town halls and other efforts. The department was also preparing training sessions on the illness that would be standard for employees heading overseas, he said.

Those affected by the illness have complained about hearing strange sounds or feeling bizarre sensations before they developed symptoms, including headaches, cognitive and balance problems, hearing loss and nausea. Initial reports of symptoms came from diplomats who had served in Cuba.

“This is an urgent priority for President Biden, for me, for our entire government. And we will do absolutely everything we can, leaving no stone unturned to stop these occurrences as swiftly as possible,” Blinken said.

At the end of his remarks, Blinken responded to a shouted question from a reporter on what he learned from speaking to victims, saying that he could not help but be personally affected by hearing how the illness has affected people’s lives.

The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Eric Rubin, welcomed the appointments, saying Blinken “has chosen two experienced, distinguished career Foreign Service officers to respond to the urgent needs of our colleagues.”

Rubin added, “We also welcome his recognition that many of our colleagues and their family members have not received the support, concern and medical care they need and deserve since this set of problems was first reported.”